The state of your unions

Salon readers write about love and marriage, heartache and divorce -- fighting over spatulas, compromising on a cat, and surviving adultery.

By Salon Staff
Published December 10, 2003 10:53PM (EST)

Long division

Within the first 24 hours after he received the divorce papers, my husband had sorted through the refrigerator magnets. All the ones he personally purchased had been moved to one side, and the ones I bought him on all my business trips were squarely on the opposite side.

So began our dividing.

Over the next few weeks the pattern was this: When I was home, I would retreat to the upstairs. Downstairs, he would sort and pack and when he left on an errand, I'd come out to survey the results. I did better than I expected on the CDs, a bit worse on the household knickknacks.

One night, he suggested I come to the workshop in the basement so he could explain how he separated the random bolts and screws and nuts and nails and washers and pieces of wire we had accumulated over the years. "I gave you all the shiny ones," he told me, as I tried to fill my heart with gratitude for this blessing. On another night, however, I could not muster the same feeling and so resolved to take for myself all the fresh light bulbs since he claimed ownership of each extension cord and power strip in the house.

Once, with a stricken sound in his voice, he announced, "I think all the spatulas are mine. What will you do?" I panicked, is what I did. I could not bear to lose the flexible Rubbermaid spatula with the pale blue handle or the hard stiff cheap knockoff with the flaming red handle.

But no, my panic was misplaced; he meant the burger flippers, and with a serenity that can only have been divine, I informed him that I had a fully functioning kitchen before we met and surely at least one of the flippers was mine. We spent the evening splitting the kitchen gadgets, and to my everlasting joy, he did not remove anything from the baking gadget drawer except for a single measuring cup.

At one point, he had a brainstorm: raise money for the security deposit for his new apartment by selling his items at a garage sale -- with me as the sole customer. I succumbed and bought a few pieces of sweet bric-a-brac that I truly loved.

Later, when he determined the storage unit he rented was filling at an alarming rate, he tried the tactic again, even sweetening the deal with the offer of a free box fan and a free tabletop model. I didn't bite. Now on the rare occasion I find myself envisioning his apartment, I imagine it to be a tangled jungle of vine-like extension cords where his four box fans and six tabletop fans whip up a tremendous wind.

Now I sit in a house that echoes eerily from the lack of clutter, and I sort the thousands of photos we both took over the course of 14 years; he decided that the task of sorting out our shared memories should fall to me. His only instruction was this: "I have no interest in any of the pictures you ever took. I only want what's mine."

Recently he requested the return of his ice scraper, the sort that can be purchased for less than a dollar anywhere at any time from fall through spring. "Sentimental reasons," he said, and proceeded to describe it exactly and pinpoint its location precisely in the garage.

I returned it to him, with my prayers.

-- Lisa Fenger

Princess for a day

The paradoxical thing is, he grew up strictly Catholic -- Jesuit high school, weekly mass, devout parents, the works. I was raised by iconoclastic libertarian atheists. So how is it that he's the one who convinced me that marriage was pointless?

I met him and things worked instantly. The details wouldn't matter to anyone but us, but three years later, we're planning to move in together.

Part of my attraction to marriage, I admit, was the wedding. It's a powerful image and a seductive promise: have one day that's all about you. The little-girl fantasy of being a princess is realized as the traditional doorway to adulthood.

He came to me a cynic. He had always measured relationships in months, not years. He told me right away that he didn't want marriage, a mortgage, children or even a cat. Back then, it was too early for me to care that we might want different things. And then the strangest thing happened; the longer I was with him, the less I cared about that wedding. After a few months with me, he let himself be talked into a cat. We're still working out a compromise on that mortgage.

One final note: We plan on a 10-year anniversary bash that will put any wedding reception to shame. No white dress, but at least I'll get to have my cake, and eat it too.

-- Genevieve Haas

Family album

I am a wedding photographer. Every Saturday I watch couples join themselves for life, or so they believe, with the cake and the lace and the same words about the significance of the circle and the ring.

For the last year, I went to work and tried to not become cynical about my job as my own marriage was falling apart.

I met my husband for the first time when I was 10 years old. His mother was one of my fifth grade teachers -- the mean one who intercepted notes in class, glared at whisperers, graded with particular intensity. I hated her, and didn't exactly take a shine to her son who would come by the class from time to time, visiting from the big middle school next door.

Many years later, M. and I crossed paths again, attending the same high school, acting in the same plays, sometimes ending up in the same classes. I didn't particularly like him then, either. M. was brilliant, a star student, the lead in lots of plays, the boy that all the artsy girls wanted.

Secretly, I envied him. His mom was a teacher; mine was just a secretary. His dad was the vice principal of our high school; mine just programmed computers. He was popular; I was struggling with awkwardness. Everything seemed to shine for M. Teachers liked him best. Girls blushed when he talked to them -- the smart girls, the girls who knew quality. He floated about in a cloud of intelligence and success, and when he went off to his Ivy League college, I was secretly glad to have him gone. The world was a bit more accessible with him not in it.

Seven years later I left my college in north Georgia to intern at a Broadway theater in New York. My mother, who still worked in the school system with M.'s teacher mom, passed on M.'s phone number to me -- in case I wanted to know someone from the South in the terrifying big city. I called him a few times, he called back awkwardly, and finally I accompanied him and his friends to a movie.

We met at the Starbucks on 72nd. When he entered the shop it felt like something had sucked all of the air out of my body. Time had changed him, gently. His cheekbones were higher, his eyes darker, his smile liquid and warm. Two weeks later when I lost my apartment and moved in with him, the warmth grew and spread until the next thing I knew we were dating.

Three months after my college graduation, I sat down in the Roosevelt Island park, called my parents, and told them I was pregnant. Two months later we were married. Two months after that we were living in Florida. In April of 2001 our astounding daughter was born.

We bought a house. I tried to start my own business. The baby took all of our attention, and we looked at life separately more than we did together. M. got distant and busy with work. I felt drawn and tired, unattractive, pigeonholed, suburban. I tried to talk to him. We grew apart. I found someone else.

I can't even write about the past year because I don't want to remember it. How I moved out, then back into the house when he moved out. The nights that I called him 20, 30 times, begging to come home, telling him that it was all a mistake. The utter darkness as I walked automatically through weddings and receptions, taking photographs. The horrible, horrible black night that our daughter had hives and I couldn't get him on the phone because he was in bed with another woman.

That blackness is six months past, and we live together again as a very careful, fledgling family. We sleep in the same bed, my husband and I. We see a therapist. We hope it will work out.

I never knew my capacity for pain until I thought I had lost my marriage. Watching wedding after wedding, white dress after long lace train, tear-drenched first dance after choked-up first toast -- taking my breaks in the bathroom to cry into my camera bag when I couldn't handle their happiness and ignorance.

I love my husband. I cannot explain what I did. How can I be the person who went outside the marriage and the person who wants to save it at the same time? It was a fairly textbook affair -- I did it to feel pretty, to get M.'s attention, because I was lonely -- and yet, even at the time I walked into it, I knew I was doing something wrong, something I'd hate myself for later.

And I do.

Now we dance around each other in this house. We are careful and too polite, but we wake up every morning holding each other. Sometimes our eyes meet and I feel that Starbucks warmth, and I hope we will be OK.

When I go to weddings now, I don't cry in the bathroom. I watch the bride and groom dance and my throat closes up with hope, for their fresh new marriage, and mine as well, and I do not look away.

-- Anonymous

One kick-ass marriage

The only class Jeremy ever skipped was a freshman math recitation in October 1992 -- because I had asked him out for our first date.

Four years later, we were driving home on the 210 freeway with a brand new mountain bike he bought for me. I jokingly asked if it was an engagement mountain bike since I had always declared that I never wanted a diamond ring. He said, "Sure."

Just to be fair, I bought him a kick-ass engagement expedition backpack.

On a cold, wet March evening in 1997, we were married in my graduate advisor's living room, by his wife, a judge, in Ithaca, N.Y. Immediate family, three close friends, and the resident dog, Sam, surrounded us. We had bought corsages for the moms and purchased a generic cake that morning from the local bakery. The week before, we bought my wedding gown off the rack for $35 -- a dark purple dress with blue stars and moons. Dinner was at a restaurant that is now closed. Two of our friends stayed in our apartment with us on our wedding night.

Instead of a honeymoon, we took midterm exams.

I don't get mad if Jeremy forgets our anniversary because I forget it too. We don't have wedding pictures. I donated my dress a few years ago. We don't know where our wedding bands are.

Is there romance in our relationship? Of course, just not the kind that is packaged and shoved down your throat in the standard magazine ad reeking of perfume.

I love the way his face lights up when I give him a chocolate chip cookie that I baked. I love how we stomp around the living room singing made-up songs to get the dog excited enough to shove her toys against our legs.

I love his curiosity and desire to learn. I love his sensitivity and compassion. I love his goofy humor. I love his sparkly smile. I love that he chases me when I run laughing into the bedroom.

I love him. I love the life I live with him. I love this union we have built together.

-- Jennifer Yu

Celebrating 65 years of marital grumpiness

What do you say about a grumpy and tense marriage -- that managed to last for 65 happy years?

If my grandfather went into the kitchen without asking my grandmother if she'd like something to drink, too, she'd make a loud comment to no one in particular about how some people were quite rude.

In turn, my grandfather would suddenly become sarcastically solicitous, asking "the queen" how she'd like her pillows fluffed.

Eye-rolling was common, as were sudden bursts of lip-farting and heavy sighing when one or the other spoke.

Did I mention they were married for 65 -- apparently happy -- years?

The pictures from all those years together show them smiling and laughing, his arm protectively around her waist; home movies give the same evidence. I know these can be faked, a happy surface slapped on a deep well of anger and resentment, but that's not the case here.

It's difficult to explain, but you could see a level of respect, togetherness and genuine emotional connection between them -- even while they bickered. It was simply how they got along. As much as we hated it, they were comfortable with their little dance. I think it actually made them happy, somehow.

About 10 years ago, their dynamic changed. Nobody knew it at the time, but Alzheimer's had begun to take over my grandmother, leading her to forget names, lose her way in familiar shopping centers -- and get angrier and crabbier than ever before. When the disease got worse, she graduated to throwing things, hitting and yelling -- with her husband as the No. 1 target.

But unlike the first 60 years of their marriage, now my grandfather did not reciprocate her anger with his own. The last time I saw them together, about six months before he died, he started to tell a story about some objet d'art they owned. She loudly interrupted, her voice rising with contempt. "I didn't buy that! Tommy did! You always get things wrong!" she said, her face twisting in disgust. He started to argue back, caught himself. "OK, honey," he said. "You're right."

I think it was one of the saddest moments I've ever witnessed. Their marriage wasn't their marriage anymore.

My grandmother died a few months ago, less than a year after her husband and sparring partner of 65 years. I like to imagine them in heaven, where they're back in fine form -- lip-farts, eye-rolls, sighs and all.

-- Anonymous

- - - - - - - - - - - -

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

Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------