The state of your unions

Salon readers share stories of their marriages -- first times, second tries and never agains.


Salon Staff
December 3, 2003 9:44PM (UTC)

Off the hook

It's funny -- I'm not sure how long it's been since he walked out the door with his clothes in grocery bags. Was it July, or August? I'm really not sure.

I could look at my checkbook and tell instantly, I guess. See where his writing stops and mine begins. See the last entry for gas bought with the ATM card at that station near his office. Time passes differently for me now, and I feel differently about its passage.

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Days and nights stretch out in front of me, as full or as empty of chores and errands as I wish them to be. If I do not wish them to be full, very little happens. The dogs need food, that needs to be done, and I must go to work every day, but very little else seems to depend on whether or not my old schedule is followed. And so at times I test this premise, wrap myself up in a blanket and sit out in the backyard in the lounge chair, staring straight ahead. I can sit like this for hours while dishes lie dirty and dry cleaning remains unclaimed and balls of dog fur and dust roll across the floor like tumbleweed.

As I sit in my chair, I ask myself the same question that I imagine so many others in my situation ask: How Did I Not See It Coming?

A year ago, we were happy and normal, I thought. After 10 years, we still had great times together. I could still absolutely break him up, put him on the floor, laughing, wiping his eyes. And he could still make my stomach feel funny and my hands tremble if he put his arms around me in that way he did sometimes. Sure, we struggled over the years, with our sex life, with the boredom and the complacency, but we always managed to find a way back to each other, to connect again.

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People tell me that we were absolutely the very last couple on earth that they thought would break up, get divorced. I thought so too. I would imagine sometimes, which medical infirmities would eventually plague us in our old age and how we would cope with them. Would he need a colostomy bag someday, like that old guy next door? Or what if I needed one? Would he still want to have sex with me if I did? Should I be buying him vitamins or an herbal supplement? Stuff like that. The kind of stuff you think about when you expect to spend the rest of your life with someone.

Seven years my junior, he moved in with me almost immediately after we started dating, and a couple of years later, he proposed. Having suffered a brief and painful marriage in my 20s, I was content to remain unwed, but when he proposed, I realized I wanted it, too. It felt good to say yes to this idea of permanence. He was 25 when we met, 29 when we married, and 35 when he left.

One night, about a year ago, he announced that he was unhappy and that he knew I was, too. Why not just end it, he said.

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I was shocked. My jaw actually dropped open. I remember thinking as I watched his lips move, as he went on about our unhappiness, that I must be misunderstanding something. It felt unreal. Time slowed. My brain raced. I felt walls tumbling down all around me. I was out of my mind, out of my body, cut loose from everything. That moment just went on and on and on.

It came down to this: He couldn't believe I wasn't unhappy, and I couldn't believe he thought I was.

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The truth: He wanted out. He just did. He wanted off the hook. He just did. I don't know why. He just did. Whatever it was he got from me, it meant less than his freedom, less than the weight of permanence being lifted from his shoulders, less than being able to walk out the door with those grocery bags full of clothes.

-- Victoria Herd

Marriage, or something like it

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The strangest thing has happened to me. My man and I have seriously discussed getting married.

We are both in our early 40s and previously had sworn off marriage. I remember in college expressing my fear of becoming a housewife. I am a polyamorist -- one who does not subscribe to monogamy. I am an artist, I like to live alone, I need my own space. These are some of the reasons why I knew I couldn't get married to my partner. Then I suddenly realized that I didn't have to live like A Couple.

We are fine on our own; we simply like being together. We don't need to be married to cinch each other into a do-or-die bond. We can recognize and avoid the insidious Wife-thinking and Husband-thinking that we both abhor, the feeling that a Couple Should Be Like This. We can, in other words, be truly an equal pair, mature enough to build our own path. So why get married at all?

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Right now, the only answer I can give is because we, personally, want to -- a desire that stems from something deep, that has nothing to do with social approval. Maybe it's called love.

-- Kim Tilbury

Coming clean

"I guess I'm over him." My words pierced the air, caused a moment of silence that pulled, surprisingly, at my heart.

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I saw the counselor flinch, the way her eyes darted to my husband and then back to me. She felt sorry for him, for my husband who had phoned her. "It's usually the wife who calls," my husband told me she said when he made the appointment a week earlier.

"Of course it is," I had replied. Hadn't I asked for counseling years ago? He hadn't been interested then.

He'd forgotten that. Forgotten all the times I begged him for a friendship, a relationship that was more than just two people living in the same house, one going to work and coming home to sleep, the other taking care of everything else that went on within those walls.

And now it was over.

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"I appreciate your honesty," the counselor said. "Then, can you tell me why you're here?"

"I came as a favor to my husband," I said. The cruel ax of my statement hung there in the room, a jagged wedge that created even more distance between us. How could I be so cold? "He wasn't interested in counseling when I requested it years ago. Now, when I've quit everything, he's finally ready to talk." There was little feeling attached to the words. No breathy anger behind them. I'd moved past all of that. "Now, I just want to see the children through this. Counseling, even if just to help us come through a divorce, can't hurt."

The counselor, an attractive, wholesome-looking blonde, asked my husband, "Why is it that you're here, then?"

"I love her."

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The silence again, tugging at my heart so that, this time, it was me who flinched.

"What changed?" The counselor confronted him. "Why wouldn't you go to counseling years ago when Sheri wanted to?"

He shrugged, but the movement was stiff. His voice shook when she didn't press, and he must have felt compelled to continue. "I didn't know she was serious. I didn't think anything was wrong." He looked over at me, his eyes pleading. "I didn't mean to ignore you. I was just working."

I looked way. He'd always been working. So much so that it was me who went to children's ball games and teacher's conferences, open houses and ... well.

"So, what is it that has changed?" she pressed. "What made you think it was serious enough to go to a counselor now?"

"Basically, because she cut me off." He rubbed his chin, a familiar nervous gesture.

"Cut you off?"

"You know, the sex," he explained.

So, I'd hit him below the proverbial belt. Well, if that's all it took -- I could have done that, years ago. I nearly laughed out loud at the realization.

I listened as the exchange continued between the counselor and my husband. Seems he loved me. He figured we'd always be together. He was just working all these years. He didn't realize how I felt.

I rolled my eyes. "Didn't listen is more like it, didn't care."

"And what if he listened now?" she asked. "What if he cared, now?"

I didn't speak for a moment, holding my tongue from its desire to lash out against him. Was I supposed to care now that he suddenly did? Was I supposed to let him get away with ignoring me, with treating me like some sort of property, the little wife who would always be home, always calling him to dinner, calling him to bed, calling and calling and calling? But there was something in his eyes, something that tugged at my heart. I still loved him. This realization didn't make me want to laugh. Instead, I gritted my teeth, held my breath against a sob. The silence hung there in the room, and there was no one to fill it. Finally, I shrugged. "I don't know."

The counselor turned back to my husband. "Are you willing to listen now? Make some changes? Because obviously, Sheri's been feeling like you didn't hear a thing she said for years."

She'd hit the nail.

"I love her," he said. "She's everything to me. I'll do whatever it takes."

I looked away, crossed my arms over my chest, over my heart. But I couldn't block my ears. He spilled out words about how much he loved me. Words that eventually boiled back to the same old argument. Only now, I wondered if I'd ever really heard him. Had I been so hung up on getting my own point across, in wanting him to hold me and tell me he was sorry, that I'd failed to see his point of view at all?

"I didn't mean to take her for granted," he said. "I've worked to build up my business, to give my family everything money can buy." He paused then, his mouth open in a tense frown. "Isn't that what a man's supposed to do?"

"I hear that often," the counselor agreed. "And it's important." She laughed softly. "Too bad it's not the only thing a woman wants."

What did I want? That was the counselor's next question, and one she told me to think about. The ball was in my court, after all. We could come back and work on the marriage, or I could end it all like I'd been planning.

"Give me a call and let me know." The counselor led us to the outer door. "Both of you, please take care."

"Thank you," we said in near unison.

In the car, silence hung like impending doom.

"So, you're doing me a favor?" my husband asked.

I didn't answer. What was there left to say? So what if he'd gone to a counselor? So what if he said things would change? There was more wrong with our relationship than his going to work. What about not knocking me for starting a business of my own, for becoming someone with an identity other than wife and mother? Not that he'd tried to stop me exactly. He couldn't have even if he had tried. But he'd been insecure, as if my becoming me again -- after raising kids for 10 years -- was some sort of threat to him.

My mind spun on the thoughts, forgiveness aching there, love struggling to get out. But there was hurt there, too. He'd done things over the years, things he'd never really apologized for, things for which I'd been holding anger. Holding a grudge, I realized now. Here was my husband, thinking that no matter what happened, we'd always be together. And here I was, wanting something he might not really know how to give.

"OK," I said, not quite planning the words. "We'll go back to the counselor." Suddenly uncertain again, I added, "But I'm not making any promises." I turned to look out the window and ignored him for the rest of the ride home.

Two days later, the counselor was ushering us inside her office again. She directed her first question at me. "What changed? Why did you decide to give this a try?"

"I don't know," I said, glancing over at my husband. "Something about sitting here beside him while he told you how much he loved me made me realize that maybe he does."

I could have said more. I could have told her that I still loved him. But for now, I didn't want to spill my guts. I'd been handing my husband my innermost feelings, giving and giving and giving of myself for so many years.

During that hour, I came to realize that my husband had been giving and giving and giving, too. He'd been giving the only way he knew how. Not connecting with me on the level I craved, but giving still, providing for his family the way he'd been taught to provide. For some reason, he thought that's all it took.

"I have more time now," I heard him say. "And just when I've got my business to the point where I don't have to be there every day, Sheri's ready to leave."

"Well, she's giving you a chance," the counselor said. "She needs to hear how much you care about her, though. And not just that. It seems to me like Sheri does all of the talking, and you don't say much of anything. No more keeping your thoughts to yourself."

She made a plan for us to go on weekly dates together and come back each Thursday to talk to her. On the way out of her office, my husband held the door for me. "After you," he said, his eyes full of affection.

My heart skipped a beat, and I remembered the first time I'd met him. I remembered looking way, way up at this tall man with the gentle green eyes, and thinking he was the sweetest man on earth. A week later, he asked me a question that changed my life.

"Do you want to see my impression of a Kabuki dancer?"

He'd been sitting shirtless in the sun, and when I nodded, he rose from the chair -- with the cushion stuck to his back! They say the brain's wired to experience amusement and orgasm in much the same way. Here was a man who could give me both. I was head over heels in love.

Now, in the parking lot outside the counselor's office, we talked. No surface stuff about his business, my business, what our kids were doing or which bill was due next. We'd done enough of that sort of talk during the last decade. Instead, we talked about us, about everything we'd been through, pinpointing when we'd first begun to unravel as a couple and why. He apologized for things he'd done that he never really understood hurt me before. And, in a surprisingly simple act, I forgave him.

"You're still not off the hook," I said, worried now as he started the car to go home. "It took us a lot of years to get this far off track. Don't expect it all to be better overnight."

But the next morning, after our children were at school, my husband called me on his cellphone. "We could do something together," he said.

"What did you have in mind?" I asked.

"I don't know," he stalled.

"I was planning on taking a bath," I said softly, not quite trusting my feelings.

"Oh." He sounded uncertain, too.

"Just come home and we'll go from there," I said.

I hung up the phone and headed for the master bath. I started the water, swished in the fragrant bubble solution, lit candles, and got undressed. I slid into the hot, sudsy water and waited. I heard his truck pull in the drive, slipped a little farther down into the water so the bubbles covered everything but my kneecaps and my face.

I heard his keys in the door, heard his footsteps coming near, and finally his knock. "Can I come in?"

"I was hoping you'd say that." I smiled shyly when he swung the door wide.

He stood there a moment, obviously not sure what I'd meant.

"Want to get in with me?"

I didn't have to ask twice.

He undressed, and I scooted forward so he could slide in behind me, his body warm and strong, his arms wrapping round me like a comfortable, familiar chair.

We soaked and scrubbed and soaked some more, the water growing tepid and cool as our touches grew warm. When we finally emerged from that tub, with our fingers crinkly and sore from such a tight squeeze, it was as if we'd been cleansed of all that had gone wrong between us, and reminded of all that had been right.

It's going on two years now since we took that bath together. We still have those weekly dates, and sometimes I'm amazed that he's the first person I call when I have good news to share -- or bad. Not that every step has been easy, but one thing's for sure -- since remodeling our bathroom, complete with a two-person Jacuzzi tub, we're very, very clean.

-- S. McGregor

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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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