The state of your unions

Salon's female readers tell tales of extramarital temptation, emotional and physical abuse, and cowboy dreams that went awry.


Salon Staff
January 14, 2004 10:18PM (UTC)

Straying and the perfect husband

My husband is just about perfect. He cleans and cooks and supports me emotionally and financially. He's fun and sexy in a nerd chic kind of way. He's a successful young academic who, as I write, is off interviewing for an assistant professor job at Harvard. We have incredible amounts of fun together -- traveling, thrift-store shopping, just hanging out. My single friends all tell me they wish they could find someone like him.

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But a few months ago, I started dreaming of someone else. It all started with a letter I received, around the time of our one-year wedding anniversary. It was an e-mail from a boy -- a man now -- whom I hadn't heard from in 10 years. He was someone I had loved, who hadn't loved me back, when I was 20 years old. The attraction between us was intense, but he always had a reason for why we couldn't be together.

Now, after 10 years of no communication, he had gotten my e-mail from a mutual friend and written to me, opening up about his mother's nervous breakdown, her suicide attempts and subsequent hospitalization, about his fears of ending up alone and middle-aged in his tiny East Village studio. He had just turned 30.

We e-mailed back and forth several times. I told my husband about the letters. I teased him about someone else wanting me. My former crush flirted with me, and he was so much more forthcoming with his feelings for me than he'd ever been back in college when I was actually available.

I started dreaming about him at night. I remembered why this was the one person I had never quite gotten over.

He was skinny and blond and disheveled-looking with paint-splattered workman pants and boots and a button-down shirt so worn it looked almost silky. If he wasn't especially handsome to the outside world, if he was too skinny and a bit pimply and red-faced and pale and not exactly a man's man -- to me he was beautiful. Even though we were never actually lovers, I was wrapped up in the details of his body for years: the worn cotton of his T-shirt melting on his spindly ivory arms, the red Marlboro baseball cap he wore and the almost greasy, dirty blond hair sticking out from underneath. His gray Wrangler corduroys hanging off his hips and the ratty tennis shoes.

It wasn't that I didn't love -- and want -- my husband. I did, and do. Yet that commitment didn't magically erase my fantasy life.

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The guy from college wrote me again, this time suggesting that he swing by Los Angeles, where I live, on an upcoming visit out to California. I had the nerve to ask my husband if I could invite this man to stay with us.

My husband, thankfully, said no and told me that it really wasn't funny anymore.

I wasn't willing to risk my marriage to pursue this flirtation, but I wasn't willing to give up my crush either. So I stopped e-mailing and started writing. Around the time of these e-mails I had begun work on a second book, a novel.

And guess what? My main character is married to a sweet academic whose only fault is working a bit too hard and long. She's having the affair with the boy from college that I didn't dare. I still dream about my old unrequited love, but now when I wake up I meet him on the page.

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-- Jessica Berger Gross

Baptism by fire

My live-in boyfriend had cheated on me. It was a public embarrassment -- everyone knew. During the struggle that culminated in infidelity, he hit me for the first time and said horrible things to me. He came and went as he pleased. He was cold. Hostile. Brutal. Defiant. I was pleading, resentful, enraged and exposed. My response to this emotional sinkhole? Let's get married. And we did.

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My marriage was to be a baptism. A sacred ceremony to save me from my sinking shame.

For me and my husband marriage became proof to the world that we were indeed lovable and able to love. Normal. Acceptable. The actual ceremony took place -- after just two days of planning -- on Halloween. Appropriate.

Our tentative partnership was born from mutual need. Aren't most? But our individual needs were more desperate and choking than most. Union didn't ease the terror, but twisted it. We didn't fill each other up. We went about bashing the vessels.

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Not too long after the wedding, we were back where we began. You cannot (I hope) imagine the verbal bludgeons that one person can use on another. Fat. Disgusting. Loser. My mother is critically ill and he hopes she dies. My brother is in jail and he hopes he gets raped. My sister committed suicide and he's glad. Physical violence ranges from kicks and punches to litter boxes dumped on my head and his ass wiped on my face. I am not joking.

This is my husband. He's supposed to protect me. I am full of screams that don't come. Sorrow and loss and rage and recrimination. I allow it. I'm still here. The shame from which this unholy union was born is the shame that keeps me here.

Here's the kicker. No one suspects it. I'm a rising star in my industry. Strong-willed and outspoken. I'm an independent feminist. I kept my name. He is amiable and considerate. The picture of the liberal 30-something man. We appear united to all, while our home is a burning bunker.

To be fair, there have been splashes of sweetness. He is childlike sometimes, and I want to protect him. His vulnerability and need seem accessible then. I feel like I glimpse his humanity. I feel like I can reach him. But they're only splashes.

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Now I crave kindness. I long for loyalty. I dream of a steadfast man who will love me completely. Someone I can love without fear. That's still what marriage means to me. But marriage won't wash you clean, and it won't save you. If you're looking for salvation, look somewhere else.

-- Anonymous

Welcome to Marlboro Country

I should have listened to my inner goddess. Surely she would have known that the skunk under the floorboards of our honeymoon cabin was an omen. Ah, but that was the honeymoon, and it was already too late.

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There were, of course, other vague hints. He was 6-foot-7; I was 5 feet tall. He was a Republican; I was a Democrat. He was a cattle rancher. I was a vegetarian. His psychotic ex-wife had trapped me in a hall at a local church and threatened to beat me up. My future father-in-law, upon the announcement of our engagement, took me aside and whispered cryptically, "Appearances can be deceiving."

When the inevitable crash came my therapist asked, "What were you thinking?"

I wasn't thinking at all. Like many Americans, I was in love with the idea of love. I was in love with the thought of slipping into a family that had lived on the same ranch for five generations. I was in love with the dream of a cowboy. I was in love with the fact that my fiancé could take dirt, seed, sunlight and water and create food, food to feed people.

Ours was not a marriage that developed fine cracks slowly. The fissures were immediate and unbridgeable. Our first fight was at the grocery, where, finding a picket line, I refused to go in, and he refused to leave to go to the other store. We stood in the parking lot in a silent impasse. Fifteen minutes later we got in the truck and went home, ungroceried.

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Soon after, I was out riding my horse on a fine Saturday morning when I met my husband on the lane. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"I am out riding my horse," I responded. "Why?"

"Er, um, it's just that my mother never would have been out playing when she had as much laundry as you do."

In my own subtle way, I screamed, "Well, I guess you should have married your mother," turned around and galloped away.

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Did I mention that he lived at home until the age of 37?

To his credit, he tried to be a man of the '90s. He recycled. He tried every new farming technique that was environmentally friendly and still allowed him to make a living. He sent me mushy cards, and every Monday morning he gave me a rose to grace my desk.

But still, one of my clearest memories of our relationship is him standing in his boots refusing to help me hang a mountain of clothes because it was "women's work."

Betrayals in a marriage come in small, medium and large. I still joke about how he lied to me about liking tomatoes, which I consider the food of the gods. After trying to get pregnant for two years, and undergoing fertility testing, he finally acknowledged that he was sterile and had been for years.

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I'm sure he wonders about the night I came home missing one earring, my makeup smeared to all creation. Or why he could never reach me in my hotel rooms when I traveled on business.

I was so embarrassed at the shortness of the marriage that we filed for divorce in another county, since they publish all the divorces in our local paper. I wondered whether I had to return gifts.

Still in all (as we say out here in the country), I learned a few things. I learned that the biggest impediment to a successful marriage is a lack of self-knowledge. I learned that I have a tongue that can be as harsh as a lash or a fist, and maybe more damaging. I learned that cowboys really do know lots of secrets about the earth. And, maybe most important, I learned that I consider any exclusive relationship an unendurable impingement on my freedom.

-- Peggy Carey

Life saver

I remained pretty indifferent to my marriage for the first two and a half years. My husband and I don't share last names, bank accounts, credit cards and, many times, vacations. I got married for him, because he wanted it, even gave me an ultimatum -- either get married or break up. I looked upon my marriage as a sort of gift I gave my husband, like a brand-new DVD player he could enjoy and that I could certainly benefit from, but not take as much obvious pleasure in.

I still thought about what I heard on a regular basis from my mother as I grew up: "Never get married. No woman in her right mind should ever get married. No good ever comes of it."

My mother was a divorcee by the time I was 3, and threw herself into every new-age, subculture and religious movement of 1970s California. An avid devotee of the Maharaja Rajnish and Transcendental Meditation, my Catholic-reared mother spent her first liberated decade taking belly dancing, macramé, tarot card, and San Diego Hustle lessons. She spat on the traditions of her strict upbringing and as a result made it one of her missions in life to let me know just how awful and antiquated the institution of marriage was. I worshipped my iconoclastic mother, and she knew I was listening.

I never daydreamed about my perfect, fairy-tale wedding as a child as all women supposedly do. Instead, I proudly wore my "Every Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle" pin to school every day of third grade. At age 13, I heroically proclaimed at the Thanksgiving table that I would not marry until I was 30. By 16, I made it known I would never marry at all. My mother, it seemed, had accomplished her mission.

When it finally happened, no one knew. My husband and I each took half a day off and marched to City Hall at lunchtime to be married by the chief magistrate. The ceremony lasted 10 minutes and consisted mostly of the magistrate lecturing me about how hard and sometimes miserable, painful and joyless marriage could be. I laughed nervously, and thought of my mother the entire time. No rings or kisses were exchanged.

I was 30 years old. My inner 13-year-old was so proud.

I told no one about my marriage for a year. Thinking of the 50-50 chance for divorce and the disapproving face of my mother, I made a deal with my husband not to tell a soul about our official union for 12 months. I figured if after a year I was unhappy, I could get a quiet divorce and no one would be the wiser for my folly into the dark side.

After our successful first year, I invited my mother over for dinner and prepared her favorite meal of pork chops, stuffing and asparagus. After drinking four glasses of wine, I finally told her over dessert that our first wedding anniversary would be the next day. She rose from her chair, embraced my husband warmly, and officially welcomed him into the family. I don't remember much after that since I immediately fainted, face first, into my Costco cheesecake.

But recently, over the past six months, my own attitude toward marriage has changed. I have been struggling with hypochondria and depression. I felt as if I were drowning and had no idea what to do. I treated my husband with indifference and lack of respect; I was certain our marriage was over. But he did something miraculous -- he stood by me.

He researched all he could about anxiety and depression and encouraged me to seek therapy, even offering to attend with me. His support, caring and unconditional love for me have played a major role in my continuing successful treatment. When I asked why he didn't just cut his losses and leave, he responded, "Because you are my wife."

I now realize that marriage was his gift to me, that the institution I had loathed for so long quite possibly saved my life.

-- Laurel M. Hayward

The North-South divide

My husband and I first met when we were 13 years old. We got married after meeting again at our 20-year high school reunion. People love our story. It's one of those you-should-be-on-Oprah stories, and I can see the nostalgia lighting up the listeners' eyes as they sigh and say, "That is so sweet."

But then, inevitably, the question comes: "So, which one of you lovebirds is going to move?"

Stan lives in Northern California and I live near San Diego.

I take a deep breath, give them a reassuring smile, and say, "No one. Not until the kids are out of school in five years." Five and a half years, actually.

We have what we've come to call a commuter marriage, not to be confused with the better-known but ill-fated long-distance romance. We spend a week together, followed by a week apart.

When Stan and I saw each other at the reunion, we had both been divorced for three years. We had dated the necessary round of transitional guys and gals, who'd had to put up with our teary tirades and sluggish steps toward healing. We were ready to meet each other again.

In fact, Stan, not even knowing I'd divorced, asked the reunion organizers if I was going to be there. He'd been thinking of me for some reason. We had been friends who never officially dated, but who had always harbored a crush for each other. We both knew it. The way, in photography class, we always managed to be in the darkroom at the same time, brushing arms as we dipped our prints in solution; the hours of talking; and yes, that's me on his shoulders in the senior class picture -- these were just a few of the giveaways. But for some reason we never became a couple.

Stan says it's because he would have screwed it up back then.

Stan and I were the last people to leave the reunion. And at the picnic the next day, after Stan tucked my boys into the back seat of my packed Jeep and hugged me and waved goodbye, my son Michael, who had just turned 9, said, "Mom? You gotta marry that guy."

I told him there was something referred to as protocol, that first it would sort of be good for Stan to maybe call me and perhaps ask me on a date. What I didn't tell Michael is that I doubted I would ever want to get married again.

When I walked in the door 10 hours later, the phone was ringing like a blessed church bell. "Is it too early for me to call?" he asked. I said, "Considering I started waiting for this call 20 years ago? No. Definitely not too early."

After Stan made the first of many 600-mile trips, we had a long talk. We agreed that no one should move, not him, not me, and not our kids away from their other parents. That's the real reason neither one of us could move -- we didn't want to leave our kids behind.

We agreed to take it one round-trip plane ticket at a time. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't mention the negatives. Traveling can be stressful, hauling things back and forth can be perplexing. I've stood at the grocery store in front of the spices way too many times, racking my brain, trying to remember which house I kept buying cumin for, and which house I kept buying curry for, and which house, damnit, needed which?

In our first marriages we failed to stay together for the sake of our children. I guess you could say that in this marriage, Stan and I vow to stay apart for the sake of our children. We are united in a way all my old starry-eyed schoolgirl daydreams never could have conjured up.

-- Seré Prince Halverson

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

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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