The state of your unions

Salon readers share wrenching tales of divorce, infidelity -- and second chances.

Published October 30, 2003 11:19AM (EST)

I signed the divorce papers yesterday -- calmly, over coffee at my house, with my attorney, who's also a friend, asking in a somber yet hopeful tone, "And you're certain there's no possibility of reconciliation?" Taken aback by the question, I laughed nervously and stammered an astonished no; he replied that he truly regretted hearing that.

Not nearly as much I as regretted saying it. It has surprised me, the reactions of those who know us, some of whom seem to confuse our determination to do what's necessary with a suspicion -- even an expectation -- that we desire to inflict pain on the other. No one makes the decision to end a 15-year relationship easily. The day of legal emancipation, so close and so necessary, will, I suspect, be one of the saddest of many sad days, days that come with less frequency than before but have not left entirely.

About two-and-a-half years ago I began seriously wrestling with the idea of ending my marriage, although my husband's outward and often inflammatory expressions of unhappiness had gone back far earlier than that. For a very long time, I equated divorce with personal failure, and my husband's own anger and ambivalence toward me as something I had somehow caused and could fix. And if I had to do it on my own -- he refused counseling -- well, so be it.

It took me such a long time to realize that what we were going through was not the "normal ups and downs" of married life. Periods of relative quiet and contentment would suddenly be interrupted by impossible-to-ignore breaches of trust -- both physical and emotional -- that accrued to the point that I had to face a shameful fact: I didn't think I loved him anymore. And once that genie escaped the bottle, he wasn't going back. For me, it wasn't a question of expecting, or deserving, more. I didn't think that once I'd gotten out of the relationship I'd get to do all the carefree things I'd missed in the years since my 21st birthday, when I met my future husband and never looked back. No, it was starker than that. I'd once known the peace that comes with knowing you're part of a larger whole. That peace was gone. In its place was a life devoid of hope.

The table was set early, as it so often is: College sweethearts, he a bit older, unconventional and creative; me an overachiever who couldn't get out of school fast enough so I could slide into a semi-conventional adulthood that would, I hoped, wed the excitement of his approach to life with my own need for stability and desire for a family life. We were besotted with each other. We were each other's lover, best friend, refuge. Over time, as I laid some personal demons (social anxiety, issues of control) to rest, his demons, long dormant, began to surface: career difficulties, body-image issues, fears that responsibility would smother his need for freedom and self-expression.

None of this, by the way, was ever articulated by one of us to the other, right up to the day he moved out. It's a history I've created, in extensive conversations with myself, in journal entry after journal entry. On our own, we'd never developed a language with which we could negotiate the terrain of our life together. In retrospect, it's a wonder that we lasted as long as we did. Up until our first serious fracture, we'd never really faced anything trying; and once reality pierced our cocoon, it become clear that one of us wanted to try to repair the damage, while the other wanted to leave it asunder.

It's been a year and a half since we established separate residences, and when I'm feeling down I question whether I stayed in the marriage too long. I hope to one day be part of a strong marriage; I hope to have the children I have long wanted; I hope to be part of a larger whole again. But I no longer believe that any words I said or didn't say could have ultimately changed the arc of events that led to my signing on as "Plaintiff" over a morning cup of coffee.

-- Anonymous

My first marriage was a starter marriage. I married because I was about to turn 25. I married because he asked. It ended after three years.

My second, current marriage was for love. Pure and simple. I married him because of the way he looked at me. I married him because he worshipped the ground I walked on. I married him because his eyes were beautiful and I liked the feel of his rough, callused hands in my soft, pencil-pushing ones. I married him because he didn't wile away his time sitting behind a desk wishing he was doing something more creative with those hands. I married him because he was youthful and full of life and song, even though he was 14 years my senior. I married him because he was good to my mama and daddy and sister and he was nice to animals and small children. I married him because he made me laugh.

I married him even though my head told me better.

Never mind that he was horrible with money, didn't pay taxes in 10 years, worked freelance and hadn't held down a full-time job in almost 10 years. I loved him and believed love would conquer all. But he didn't submit to the all-conquering power of love. He continued right on being the person I fell in love with rather than the person I wanted him to "become."

So I had an affair.

Then he had an affair.

And now we are heartbroken and separated from each other and split from the "others."

I've spent a lot of time rearranging furniture, growing plants, navel-gazing. I've called all my friends and acquaintances. I've called my mom and dad, who've been married for 37 years. I've called and called 'til finally one wise person said, "Honey, you don't need permission to follow your heart."

So, then I called him.

We talked and talked and cried and talked, even laughed. Maybe we'll go to counseling. Maybe we'll hire a CPA. Maybe I can learn to lose some of my control issues. Maybe it's OK if the dishes pile up in the sink. Maybe we'll make up a schedule for chores.

He's coming over for dinner tomorrow night. And I can't wait to see him do the silly dance he does that makes me laugh my ass off when I'm feeling blue. And he says he can't wait to hear me describe my day in metaphors and similes.

And I'm thinking that maybe a troubled young marriage is like the fledgling magnolia tree we planted in our front yard the year we married. Our tree has some dead leaves and fungus growing on the trunk. But when we look carefully and scrape at the bark, we see the brilliant green inside that indicates life is still struggling to burst through. Is it worth it to try to save this tree or should we just dig it up and call it a lesson learned?

I don't know. But tomorrow night I'm making his favorite spaghetti dinner, and I'm playing some soft music, and I'm turning the lights down low. We'll see what blossoms.

-- M.Y. Taylor

"Now take a picture with Fred and Barbara," my mother ordered on my wedding day as she maneuvered me, a bulky white mass of tulle, into another forced photo op. And there it remains in my wedding album: Me, my new husband, my mother, the man my mother's been having an affair with for three decades, and his apparently clueless wife.

What better way to enter into the sanctity of marriage than with a snapshot souvenir of my family's strange affinity for infidelity?

It's not just my mother. All the women on my mother's side seem to have a rocky relationship with relationships. For three generations, they've regarded marriage licenses, their own as well as others, as thin and inconsequential as tissue paper. It's not that they are serial philanderers. In fact, longevity in illicit love affairs appears to be a family trait.

My grandmother carried on an almost 40-year "flirtation" with a man she met when she worked as a 14-year-old waitress. My childhood was filled with tales of this unrequited romance with a dashing young charmer, who, she'd wistfully explain, had got away.

As it turned out, he hadn't really. Although she married another and had two children, she maintained a decades-long discreet affair with this man, who eventually became a local judge. At the age of 54, she promptly shocked friends and family and left my grandfather to live out her golden years shacked up with this single great love of her life. He too had finally left his wife.

He died a mere two years after their love affair finally became legit. Her memories of him are reflected in a photo collage that sits near her bedside. Many of the photos are oddly cropped, scissoring out his former wife. "That's Bob at his swearing-in for the bench," she'll say when anyone asks about them, or "That's Bob in Hawaii." Never mind that he was married to someone else on those occasions.

Perhaps it's not surprising given her history.

When I was little, this grandmother would lull me to sleep with other tales -- of her impoverished childhood in Guadalajara, Mexico. Her only bright spot: the occasional favors she received from the wealthy landowner, on whose property her family lived and worked. It sounded like a fairy tale. When I was about 10, she confided in me the truth -- that she was the illegitimate child of this married man, the result of her mother's love affair.

A cousin's photo album contains the only remnant (other than my grandmother herself) of that affair -- a sepia-toned picture of the stern-looking landowner, my sad-faced great-grandmother, and her 7-year-old bastard daughter.

I used to love that picture and its glimpse of the past. The sordid history seemed vaguely romantic when I was younger and certainly too distant to bother me. Now I wonder what it portends for my own matrimonial success. Is there a gene for fidelity that the women in my family lack?

I was 7 when my divorced mother began her affair, which continues to this day. What does it say that the only successful relationship I grew up around was based on secrets and lies?

At 35 years and counting, their affair has outlasted many marriages. But, of course, not his own. Somehow, I believe he truly loves my mother and she truly loves him. On her dresser stands a picture of him as a handsome young sailor in the Navy. He's around 20. It was taken years before they met, but right around the time he met his wife. I wonder if that thought haunts my mother the way it haunts me.

As I look at my own marriage, now in its 12th year, infidelity seems incomprehensible. Yet I worry that the sins of my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother will come home to roost in my own house. How can I prevent my own husband from straying? Or worse yet, what if it's me?

-- M.J.

They say the first year of marriage is the hardest. In the first week of my marriage we bought a small, three-bedroom house and moved. We both bought new cars and I changed jobs. Getting married, changing jobs and buying a house are said to be among the most stressful things a person can do, so everyone was quite amused that we did it all in a short time period. We had three dogs (more stress!), so we built a fence.

Then, four months and 20 days after our wedding, my husband's 19-year-old stepson committed suicide. His surviving children came to live with us four months after that when their mother had a grief-triggered mental breakdown. In the middle of her breakdown, 9/11 happened and the course of our entire future changed. Soon after that, my husband spent weeks away on military assignments while I stayed up late at night dealing with tantrums, clogged toilets, broken hearts and nightmares. I cried a lot that first year, but not because of our marriage. In my dreams I was always driving through a flood, scared I would get washed away.

When you are a stepmother, your marriage is never fully yours. When you are a military wife, your husband is never fully yours. If you are both, and you want to survive, you carve out your own space in the cliff face of your shared life and you cling to it. For me, that space is the front porch, the garden, our bedroom and bathroom, and the precious few hours or minutes before the kids get up in the morning.

For the second year I visualized myself as a pit bull, holding on with strong jaws. I will get through this, I would tell myself -- and I will drag my husband, the kids and the dogs and everyone else (lawyers, therapists, teachers, counselors, extended family on all sides) with me, back onto the path to wholeness and healing.

I hang on. I try to remember to laugh, because there are days when that is all we have and I am blessed with a stunningly goofy husband and very funny step-kids. We establish a routine. We rely on the dogs for wordless comfort and play. We cherish each other; we fight to live without fear and anger; and we take what we have learned from the past and apply it to the present. We wait in unspoken anticipation for the phone to ring when my husband is gone. For us, living means knowing that dreams and relationships (and even buildings and mental states) that you think will last forever can fall apart without warning. In the meantime, we recognize the greater part of marriage is sacrifice for something more than ourselves -- our country, our children, our spouse.

Actually, I have learned most of that through association. All I had was a dream of what marriage would be -- wholly unlike the marriage that I have -- and the belief that I could right whatever needed righting in our little corner of the world. I imagine that in a perfect world, or maybe in someone else's marriage, my dream is actually possible. Conceptually it amounted to two people who come together as fresh, new souls and, in total commitment and equality, build their lives together. Maybe that's not possible for anyone, really. The best we can do is wake up every day and try to make it a good day, and a healthy day, for the people in our lives.

We all have forces that pull at the fabric of the marriage, in the form of history, work obligations, parents, children, addictions, friends, hobbies and everything else that might, for however long a time, command a greater share of our attention. The real test is learning to support each other through all of that, with love and a sense of humor. In the end, if we do this right, I believe we will be warmer, wiser, more committed people than we were when we began.

-- Madeline Roberts

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We want to make you a part of this series. What is the state of your union? Did you find the one and never look back, or has finding lasting love been a marathon of trial and error? Did you have a fairy-tale wedding only to watch things crumble once the reception was over, or have you glided along in marital bliss since Day One? We want to hear your stories of joy, romance, heartbreak and pain. After all, partnership, as we all know, is a complex concoction of all of those things. (Please remember: Any writing submitted becomes the property of Salon if we publish it. We reserve the right to edit submissions, and cannot reply to every writer. Interested contributors should send their stories to

By Salon Staff

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