The state of your unions

Salon readers share secrets for marital longevity. Hint: Staying faithful, and having nothing in common, help a lot.


Salon Staff
November 6, 2003 12:44AM (UTC)

When friends ask how my husband and I started dating, I always tell them we didn't exactly date; it was a little messier than that. One night while he was sleeping, I crawled through his window and climbed into his bed.

It was Fayetteville, Ark., 1995, and I'd met him four days before at an orientation course for new English instructors at the university. We met in the hallway during a break. He was standing alone, talking to no one. He had amazing hair, thick and black, with this Elvis curl in the center of his forehead, and he was wearing a great pair of Giraudon boots. He looked out of place, like he didn't belong in Arkansas. I walked over and introduced myself. His name was Kevin, he had just moved from San Francisco, and he was a translator of Albanian fiction; as it turned out, I was familiar with his work. Our apartments were both on Garland Avenue, just a stone's throw apart.

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The following Saturday, I went out with a group of graduate students and had a bit too much to drink. At two o'clock in the morning, when a friend dropped me off at my apartment, I didn't go in. Instead, I walked the two blocks to Kevin's single-story building. The crickets were making their nocturnal racket, and the summer air smelled like pine trees. Because Fayetteville seemed unreal, like a town outside of time, I wasn't surprised to find the gate to Kevin's little fenced-in patio unlocked, his window open. It was a big window, low to the ground, with no screen. I didn't even deliberate; climbing in seemed like the natural thing to do.

Once inside, I realized I was in the bedroom. Kevin was asleep, covered up to the waist with a white sheet. He looked really good, better than any man had a right to look. I unhooked my bra, slid out of my jeans, and crawled into his bed in my T-shirt and underwear. He woke up. For a moment, he seemed startled, but it was only a moment, and then he smiled at me.

"Hi," I said.

"Hey. What time is it?"

"Two o'clock."

"How'd you get in?"

"The window."

His hair was sticking up all over the place, his sheets smelled like Surf laundry detergent, and I knew it would be very easy to fall for him.

"Mind if I sleep here?" I said.

"No, but I should warn you that I snore."

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For some reason, I suddenly felt the need to set boundaries. "We can make out, but I'm not taking my shirt off," I said. I didn't want him to think I was the kind of girl who'd do it on the first sleepover.

"OK."

It was all very innocent, really. We kissed for about 15 minutes, then went to sleep. The next morning, when I opened my eyes, he was already awake and staring at the ceiling.

"Oops," I said.

"Oops is right."

"I forgot to ask if you have a girlfriend."

He laughed, not a ha-ha kind of laugh but a what-have-I-done sort of laugh.

"I do."

"Good. I have a boyfriend."

He didn't say anything, but I could tell he was relieved.

"In the future, you should lock your window," I said.

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We both agreed that we wouldn't repeat that little incident. Two nights later, however, I crawled through his window again, and this time we did more than kiss.

That was eight years ago. Now, we're approaching our third wedding anniversary. In retrospect, I'm convinced that one of the reasons Kevin fell for me all those years ago was that I was the kind of girl who would see someone she wanted and pursue him relentlessly. And part of the reason I fell for Kevin was that he was able to accept this uninvited stranger in his bed in the middle of the night, despite the fact that he had a girlfriend across the country. We both responded to some element of danger in the other person's character, a danger that made the sex phenomenal and the courtship wildly satisfying. Neither of us was capable of saying no to the raw chemistry that we always felt in each other's presence.

Here, then, is the dilemma: What makes someone an attractive sexual partner often becomes a less-than-desirable character trait when the sexual partner is transformed into a spouse.

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When Kevin and I found ourselves in an exclusive relationship, headed toward marriage, we knew a little too much about each other for it to be a comfortable transition. I knew, for example, that he had a hard time being friends with women without crossing the line into emotional involvement. And he knew that my sex drive could get out of control, especially when liquor was involved. Perhaps most difficult was our joint knowledge that we had proved ourselves capable of cheating on our significant others.

There was a while there, when we had left Arkansas and were living together in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City, when it looked as though we wouldn't make it. We both had old relationships that reared up in unexpected moments, messy entanglements that lingered. The danger that had been sexually thrilling in the beginning had suddenly become a source of arguments and distrust.

Years later, both of us have changed. Those former relationships are so old now, they seem almost laughable, as if they occurred in a different universe. Our marriage is a kind of daily comfort that serves as a buffer from whatever troubles we may be experiencing on the job or in the world outside our home. And fortunately, the sex is frequent and still very satisfying. The fact is, we've done it together so many times now that we know all the right buttons, we know exactly what works. The odd erogenous zones, the perfect rhythm, the exact balance of rough and gentle.

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But I would be lying if I were to pretend that harmony doesn't come at a price. What we have lost over time is the danger, the sense of the unexpected. I know that I can trust my husband, and vice versa, and this is a great source of happiness. But when you make a commitment that requires you to ignore your animal instincts, a commitment that requires you to relinquish the possibility of sexual connection outside of the marriage, something in your nature does change. There is something very erotic about the risk one takes by making a sexual advance toward someone who may or may not accept; this risk is one of the thrills of courtship. With marriage, that sense of risk has been eliminated. The very fact that neither one of us will ever turn the other down for sex means there is far less at stake each time we make love.

I hear a lot of talk about how you have to work to make a marriage last. But it seems to me that the most daunting work of marriage is maintaining something of your essential character, the person you were before you decided to forgo all other romances for the Big Love with a capital L, to eschew all temporary partnerships in favor of the lifetime plan.

I would like to think I am not too unlike the girl who crawled through the window in the middle of the night and climbed into the bed of a man she hardly knew. I would like to think that, when my husband looks at me, he still sees something of the old mischief. And I would like to think that, when we make love, he still feels something of the old danger zapping at the edges like a live electrical wire.

But here is the truth: I will never crawl through a man's window again. I'm no longer that kind of woman. And though my husband knows I changed for him, there's no avoiding the fact that I've changed; this is matrimony's unavoidable double-edged sword.

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-- Michelle Richmond

My wedding day was filled with flowers, beautiful clothes, friends, family, happy times, well wishes, excellent food, great music, expensive wine and the blessings of the Catholic Church. Not a bad way to start out a life together.

June 12, 1999, was our wedding day. But June 13 is the day our marriage really began. And as anybody who has been married knows, a wedding and a marriage have about as much in common as a hot dog and a warm puppy. The path to Divorceville is littered with friends of ours who just wanted to throw a really great party and were amazed the day after the honeymoon that they were stuck with some quirky weirdo who expected you to pick up where his mommy left off for all eternity. Unlike a lot of my friends, I don't believe in The One, or soul mates, or any of that other overly romantic crap. I think you should look for a spouse like you look for a house -- beware of fixer-uppers. Love won't fix 'em -- and they usually cost twice as much to renovate as what you first estimate. Half the time it's cheaper to tear them down and start all over again.

My husband's and my differences completely outweigh our similarities, and there has been more than one occasion when I have seen the fleeting "What the f---" look on a person's face when he or she realizes that my husband and I are, in fact, bound together for eternity. Yes, I chose him. And he chose me. Forever and ever. Amen.

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Here's what we have in common: We are both Catholic. Neither of us uses drugs or smokes. We both love our families. We both have a madcap sense of humor. That's about it.

Here's what we don't have in common. I am Irish-American, born and raised in the United States; he is a native of Panama and a U.S. immigrant. My first language was English; his first language was Spanish. I have a law degree; he only graduated from high school. My parents were married 18 years, until my father passed away. If my dad were alive today, they would still be married. My husband's father, on the other hand, decided two weeks after my husband was born that marriage and fatherhood were way more than he had bargained for and split, for good. I was raised in the relative comfort of the American suburban middle class. My husband, literally, will be able to tell our son stories of how he worked the fields in Panama with his mother when he was 8 years old for 25 cents a day. Me: aggressive, outgoing, forceful personality. Him: laid-back, relaxed, quiet.

I can't explain why we work as a couple. The only thing I can tell from my own experience as a spouse and as a divorce lawyer is this: Nobody ever knows what's really going on in anybody's marriage unless you're a member of the marriage. I've seen too many "perfect couples on paper" walk into my office after many years of marriage with only bitterness, resentment and a withering contempt left for each other to believe in any kind of storybook fairy tale.

The truth is this: Marriage is hard, but if it's too hard maybe you are in the wrong relationship. My husband and I have been married for four years but have been together for nearly 10. The utter feelings of longing (you know, the "Oh God I want to barf every time he walks in the room" feeling) I had for him when we first started dating were long gone by the time we walked down the aisle. I knew then, as I know now, that those wonderful days that mark the beginnings of love or lust were over. To this day, some of my overly romantic girlfriends insist that they still feel butterflies when their husbands walk into the room. I don't believe them.

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Romantic love ebbs and wanes throughout a marriage. These are the things that no one tells you the day you are in the ridiculously expensive dress and he is in the rented tuxedo with your whole lives in front of you, saying vows to each other with words like "eternity" and "forever." Vows whose weight you will only really be able to comprehend with the benefit of years of hindsight and experience. The "butterflies" may have been what attracted us to each other at first, but it's the vows that get us from crest to crest when the romantic love has hidden itself away from the chaos of everyday life and the incessant demands of children.

I don't know what keeps my marriage together. What I do know is this: At the end of the day, in my heart, and perhaps more importantly in my head, there is no better match for me. He softens my rough edges. He gets my sense of humor. I knew I would marry him when I realized that no matter what he did, I couldn't stay mad at him. He always makes me laugh. And that ability has gotten us through some bad times, including the aftermath of our idiotic decision to have that ridiculously expensive wedding instead of putting a nice down payment on a house.

-- Kara Plunkett Yanguez

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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 marriage@salon.com.)


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