Divorce was something that happened when you rushed into things — and so I thought I was safe. My wife and I met when we were nineteen, at a school affectionately known as the Quaker matchbox. Marriages pepper the class notes like Ph.Ds. Caroline and I had been
After we got married, we stopped having sex. Reminders of how long it had been were labeled extortion.
together for eight years when we finally married. We grew up together. We painted her parents' beach house and moved to New York together in a U-Haul, worked lowly assistant jobs and then quit with no future prospects. We kept lists of things we wanted to do by thirty.
We always assumed we would get married, but one thing pushed us over the edge. We were in New York City on 9/11. Without saying so, we decided we would live each day as if it were our last. Two months later, we were engaged.
Our wedding wasn't just an idle get-together. It was a coronation. People began arriving on Thursday and some didn't leave until Tuesday. Friends sat in circles like it was a reunion. My ninety-five-year-old grandfather came and my grandmother left her husband's deathbed to be there, too. It was inspiring. Seeing people from every corner of my life in one place made me realize how big we had become. I was overwhelmed. It made me feel like if things turned sour, there would be a safety net.
The fact that I look back on my wedding with such unequivocal happiness makes me distrust memory. Surely there should have been a sign that day — a mammoth panic attack, a glance across the room loaded with fear — but no, and I'm really trying here, there was nothing ominous. And nothing leading up to the wedding either. It was as if all the task-mastering of getting those letter press invitations and parsing DJs and ordering flowers made us closer — and that made me believe in marriage even more.
I have to go back to before the wedding, to ancient history it seems, to find the fissures and cracks which would later stretch into canyons. True, after the first few years, our sex was never great. Married people always complain about sex — at least most of the ones I knew did — so I decided to embrace the cliché. Married people also rolled their eyes about each other's jobs. We were normal and that was reassuring.
But that didn't mean I stopped trying. After we got married, Caroline and I stopped having sex all together. Months would go by — I tried being forceful, I tried being sweet. Candles, massages,
A friend of mine and I occasionally joke about setting up our exes and letting them have at each other.
nothing worked. Reminders of how long it had been were labeled extortion, shameful exercises in shaming. Around then I realized that Caroline had stopped listening to me talk about my work. She worked her way out of a winter depression, got a life coach, then a personal trainer. In three months she'd reinvented her body and had a new wardrobe to match. She looked great, and I felt like somehow she was finally emerging from the cocoon of a body that never quite felt like her own. Instead, our relationship was the cocoon.
In retrospect, I see how much I compartmentalized. Our relationship began to resemble Sarah Winchester's mansion, with me furiously building one new room after the next for each part of myself that Caroline couldn't — or wouldn't — deal with. Marriage, I thought, was a pact that meant we'd stay within the same house. And that eventually, when she was ready, Caroline would come into these other rooms and I'd show her around, point out what I'd done with the place. Instead, she allowed me to build further and further away from her.
The strange thing about the end of a relationship is that it forces you to go back to memory — which is a palimpsest really — so you can square it with the present. Of all the things Caroline told me during our breakup, none of them rang quite true. This is not my life, I kept thinking. I never thought marriage was a barrier to change; I never thought we had been struggling. It actually never even felt like work to me, which should even be more frightening.
Eight months out, I look back and see a very different me. I no longer have a divide between what goes on in my head and what comes out of my mouth. I can use the word fuck when talking about sex without wincing in embarrassment. I never have to apologize for staying up until four to read a book, and most happily, I never, ever, have to talk about the South Beach Diet again.
But there are things I miss and miss terribly — some of them too intimate to name here. One thing I can talk about, though, is the idea I used to have of marriage. I am happy to give up the notion that divorce only happens to other people, even happier to know, now, rather than later, that marriage requires a level of honesty that often hurts. What scares me, though, is how little marriage actually ensures. I always thought that if you worked on it, a relationship would — or could — survive. It never occurred to me that a marriage would fail because one of the two partners simply didn't want it to work.
I have a friend who is recently divorced, and it's curious how different our perspectives are these days, given how similar our breakups were. We occasionally joke about setting up our exes and letting them have
I crave the romance and stability of marriage's implicit — if imperfect — promise.
at each other. But that's where the similarities end. She doesn't want to date, let alone think about marriage. Shortly after my wife and I split up, however, I met someone. Wary as I was of a rebound, I was astonished by how willing I was to love again.
And after all this I still would get married again, too — but I would do it differently. First off, there would be no crashing waves and color-coordinated wedding party or first dance to a Sinatra song. I think that's when weddings become a production, and every actor knows that you'll believe your lines to the death on stage if the stakes are high enough.
If I got married again, it'd be quiet and small, maybe even secretive. I would spare my friends and family the second plane ticket, yet another piece of all-clad kitchen wear (the wife got those anyway). By the end of those big affairs you're so busy responding to gifts and talking to friends that you forget what a big commitment you just made. Once you come down from it all, here it comes boomeranging back at you. Sometimes I think that's why I am where I am today.
I guess this makes me a reformed traditionalist. I don't want the pomp and circumstance of a social wedding, but I do crave the romance and stability of marriage's implicit — if imperfect — promise. I couldn't marry again without being aware of how fragile and breakable is that agreement, though. I used to believe that marriage was like a sine curve. Sometimes you were far apart, some times close, but it all averaged out in the end. If I married again I would never let my wife get that far away from me again.
I think about marriage now and realize how much it has changed. In my grandmother's generation, it seemed people got married out of necessity — and out of love — and they stayed together because that's what one did. In my parents' generation, it was nostalgia (for their parents' values) — and love — that explained marriage.
In my generation, however, marriage is supposed to be even trickier. I could say that women are under more pressure to have a career and to live dramatic, enthusiastic lives outside of raising children and being a wife. But that alone doesn't feel right to me, at least in my case. It feels like explaining my relationship from the outside. It's easy to place the blame on society. What's harder to do is to explain it from the inside. And that's when I realize I must accept that what's wrong with marriage has been there from the beginning. That just because two people love each other, it doesn't mean they always will. It seems an essential, obvious truth. But if I could do it over, it's something I wish I'd never had to learn.
©2004 John Freeman and Nerve.com