The state of your unions

Coming to terms with racist family members, dealing with the fact that you're the "other" woman, and other tales from the frontlines of marriage.


Salon Staff
January 22, 2004 1:03AM (UTC)

The other woman

I am not married, but I love someone who is.

I never thought I would be that girl. In my 26 years, I have toed the line, celebrated the marriages of my friends, never once devaluing the institution itself or losing faith that it is the best and highest expression of love between two people. How far I've fallen, both in love with him and from my own sense of myself.

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He told me he was happily married the first night I met him, in a marathon discussion that sparked a connection neither one of us could deny or turn away from. I felt safe, as if I had the green light to spend time with this amazing person unencumbered by fear that there would be confusion about where we stood. After all, he was married.

The days and weeks that followed were the most energized and happy of my life, as I fell in love with him over dozens of lunches, cups of coffee, glasses of wine, tennis and golf outings -- we connected on every level. Our senses of humor, our political beliefs, our career ambitions ... everything merged into an undeniable chemistry that quickly moved from a fun distraction to a consuming need to be together.

Somewhere along the road to a deep and real friendship, his professed "happy marriage" lost its glossy, imposed façade, and the person who was becoming my most intimate friend told me of years of sadness, loss of passion, disconnection with his wife. He called it a midlife crisis. He longed to feel alive and in love as he once did, and he hinted at an internal struggle to remain faithful for the first time in his 10-year marriage.

And there I sat, in love with this man, aghast when he would relay to me how his wife would berate him for doing things to take care of himself, resenting his happiness as if it were a zero-sum equation she couldn't disentangle from her own consuming depression since the birth of their first child. There I sat, knowing I would spend my life making him happy if he would just let me. I cultivated a persona for him that painted me as the antithesis of his wife -- fun, young, uncomplicated, understanding, patient -- the ultimate abdication of responsibility that he craved. I loved him and wanted him to be happy. I still do.

"Don't hurry home."

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"Don't worry, I won't."

Those were the last words spoken between him and his wife the night our affair began, when we crossed the line. We still don't know who kissed who first, but we know it didn't matter after that first moment. Nothing has ever felt so right or been so wrong. He kept saying, "My life is complicated." I kept saying, "I know." We couldn't stop.

Our affair lasted only weeks, ending when I had to return to school 2,000 miles away. I am still in love with him, and I was in love with him the day I ended our affair, imploring him to take the energy he'd invested in me and turn it back toward his wife and making the life he'd already chosen resemble the one he deserves.

I used to think people who had affairs were weak, that they just couldn't contain their rampant sexual impulses. But now I understand that affairs are devastatingly complicated, and that they aren't just about sex but can be the product of the even greater human need to feel connected to another person. Our affair never felt cheap. I'll be less quick to judge the other "other" women I meet, and may find empathy where I once found only disdain in my heart. I have been the woman on the other side, and it wasn't what I expected at all.

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-- Anonymous

Uncharted waters

How did we get here?

My husband of 11 years was depressed. On occasion I would remark on this and try to get him to confide in me or seek counseling. Finally, last summer, after a year of severe depression, he told me that he was gay.

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He was a mess. He felt guilt, shame, sadness and despair. I could see it in his face. I could hear it in his voice. And it broke my heart. For a few days, I was very concerned about his mental state. My first instinct was to protect him and our two young children. I wasn't ready for change. We still needed each other. I loved him and knew he loved me. There were many long talks over the next weeks, but it was clear that we both wanted to stay married.

We had a great marriage and were best friends. Until this depression, we communicated very well. We'd had our rocky moments but we could talk through them. I was convinced we could continue to do so. We found a good therapist and went to see him separately and jointly.

I knew that my husband desired emotional intimacy with a man. I knew that he needed to explore this side of himself. We discussed the myriad of health, emotional and practical issues involved and came to some understandings.

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He met someone and began to spend some evenings away from home -- which was expected. For a while things were fine. But with increasing frequency, I found myself feeling profoundly sad. I realized I was mourning the loss of what I knew as my marriage. I still loved my husband. I wasn't jealous. I wasn't angry. We still talked, remained open and honest with each other, and did things as a family. But I was alone, even when he was home.

Last summer during the first visit to my therapist he asked me what I was doing for myself. I remember staring at him dumbly. Eight months later, I'm just beginning to grapple with this question. I realize I need to build a life separate from my husband. I told him last week that I loved him and always wanted us to be best friends. I also told him that I didn't think we could be husband and wife.

For now we still share the same house. We love and care for our two children. The kids need us. In some ways, we still need each other. We want to do this right. We're taking things slow.

We're in uncharted waters -- operating on instinct, through our affection and respect for each other. I don't know how this will work or how long it will take. I only hope we come out on the other side separate but whole.

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-- Anonymous

Sometimes you just know. Or do you?

So I'm on the phone with my big sister, looking at bridesmaids' dresses online. She's bitching about the paucity of options to flatter her upper arms ("Cap sleeves! God!") while I'm smiling to myself, basking in the knowledge that I have found The One. Martin and I both realize it's ridiculous to be talking about marriage after we've only been together for four weeks, but we just make so much sense together, and he's about to turn 40, and we are both good people with similar goals for the future, so why wait? I'm only 28, but Sylvia Ann Hewlett has informed me that my fertility is already in decline, and my sister has informed me that if I turn down my own personal Col. Brandon because he doesn't get me as sweaty as some pretentious, artsy 25-year-old tool, the family will no longer require my services.

Also, my shrink, who has in the past blatantly marshaled every ounce of her professionalism to keep from screaming "Dump the jackass!" at me (more than once), not only thinks Martin sounds great but says her parents got engaged after three weeks and stayed married for 50 years. Sometimes you just know, as they say.

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Martin and I aren't actually engaged, because we are both entirely too pragmatic for that, even with my shrink's blessing. So instead we have conversations like:

"You know that wedding we're not officially having, because it would be ludicrous to be planning a wedding at this stage? Is it OK if I make an unofficial appointment for us to talk to someone about a reception at the Delta next summer?"

"Unofficially, I'm free Friday afternoon."

I have put off plans to move back to the city where I grew up, 500 miles away. Instead, we take a vacation to that city so Martin can meet my friends and family. They love him. How could they not? I fly 2,000 miles to meet his family. They love me. How could they not? We're both so nice! Personable! Compatible!

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You want to know what kind of guy he is? He's the kind of guy who will go see Freaky Friday with me and my 9-year-old niece. And when I walk out of the theater, elbow my niece and say, "Seriously, how hot is Chad Michael Murray?" and she goes, "Totally!" he laughs good-naturedly and says, "Yeah, well, I've had a crush on Jamie Lee Curtis for 20 years, so I enjoyed it, too."

My niece and I turn and stare at him. I mean, I'm old enough to see where he's coming from: Jamie Lee Curtis is hot. I'm also young enough to see where my niece is coming from: "You were hot for the mom?"

Bah! Age is a construct! We're in love! We want all the same things! We make sense!

Fast-forward a few months. I'm driving to my hometown again to visit my friends solo, to really catch up this time. I've decided I'll visit at least once every three months, as long as I'm not actually moving there, because I love my friends in that city so much.

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He's said he'll move to this city with me. He just can't leave for a couple of years. That's OK. He's just gotten this new promotion, and he's developing a product that could really make a name for him in the industry. Staying there makes sense, for now. I cross the border into the state where I grew up and wiggle happily along to the music on the radio, knowing I'll soon be having a beer with my oldest friends, the people who still make me feel most myself, in the place that was home for most of my life. It's OK that my adopted city is sort of home now, even though I was more than ready to pack up and leave it a few months ago. That was a flighty impulse anyway -- as my late mother always said, "Geography does not equal happiness." Also, "You're too flighty. Settle the hell down."

I know she's looking down on me now, pleased with the choices I've made recently. I know she's proud of me for giving up my wild, adolescent fantasies and finding a man who, above all, can be depended on to stay. Who will be a good father, a good provider, a loyal husband. Someone who will help me find my real, adult self, and put to rest the dreamer whose impulsive behavior and emotional recklessness probably contributed in some measure to my mom's heart problems. Someone to help me be more responsible, more... presentable.

I break up with Martin when I get back.

I want to say I still have doubts and regrets, but honestly... Nope. Despite Hewlett's dire warnings, my biological clock seems to have stopped dead. For the first time in my adult life, I don't particularly care where the next boyfriend will be coming from. For the first time in my entire life, I'm considering the possibility that I might never marry or have children, without being horrified by it. I do want those things, but now I can also imagine building a life for myself, by myself, around the people and work and places I already love. I'm starting to believe I can have, if I choose it, a universe with no center, a world in which flightiness and volatile emotions and chemistry and pheromones and pretentious, artsy tools are the pillars of long-term fulfillment, the things that will make me fully human.

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-- Kate Harding

An ecumenical marriage

Once, at a party, a friend's father referred to my husband and me as ecumenical. We didn't know what the word meant, so we smiled, nodded and hoped that we were being complimented. We stayed for a few drinks before leaving. Within 30 seconds of arriving home, both of us were peering into the OED.

Ecumenical /adj./ 1. Of or representing the whole Christian world. 2. Seeking worldwide Christian unity.

It was a wholly unsatisfying definition. We consulted a thesaurus instead and found that we are cosmopolitan, cosmic, open-minded, planetary, tolerant and universal.

It's not unusual for us to get these types of comments. "You two make such a good-looking/wonderful/darling couple," we are told. Another variation: "You two are going to have such beautiful children. Mixed children are the prettiest." The "mixed" is always spoken in a hushed tone. Never mind that we may not want children. Never mind that our children may, in fact, turn out to be trolls.

People say these things because I am Jamaican and my husband is Korean. Said differently, I am black and my husband is Asian. Or, as my husband likes to say: Together, we are two kinds of non-white.

My husband, David, says he knew he wanted to marry me within the first two weeks of our relationship. It happened the first time he heard me singing in the shower. This sweet thought was quickly followed by a prophetic one: "Oh shit."

Even before we decided to get married, there was the issue of the staring and the commenting. Not the "what a wonderful couple" kind of comment that I discussed before. Certainly, we've gotten used to being told that we are a beautiful couple and how genetically lucky our progeny will be. Though we find these comments slightly offensive in that they exoticize us, they seem harmless and, to be fair, we are sometimes flattered by the attention. The comments we will never get used to are the overtly rude ones: Black men yelling at David about how he is stealing their women. The disgusted clucking from some black women accompanied by a look that says, Look at her. She thinks she better than everybody. We'll never get used to the incessant stares of grandmotherly Korean women. They glance, then glance away, only to glance back again. They shake their heads with empathetic shame for David's family.

Still, none of this, the racism or the absurdity, compares to the pain my husband has endured and continues to endure in order to be with me. David hasn't spoken with his parents for a little over a year now. They did not attend our wedding. They didn't even send back the RSVP. My husband is sad and angry for obvious reasons. Paradoxically, he is also ashamed -- on two fronts. The first is more manageable, more intellectual: David is a well-educated man and he is embarrassed by his parents' ignorance. Less benign is the shame borne out of his sense of himself. He is both a part and a product of his parents' culture. If his parents can abandon their own son out of deference to their culture, then what does this mean for him? Is he a son who has forsaken his duty to his parents, to his culture? Is this culture something he wants to call his own, to pass on to his children? If he rejects it, is he then in limbo? Does he become a man with no history?

For my part, I alternate between anger and resentment. I am angry at the sadness David's parents have caused him. And I am angry at their cultural ignorance. What did they think would happen when they came to America and decided to have children?

Alongside the anger is resentment. I resent his mother for saying that if he married me she would have to be in a family with those people. By those people she meant my very accepting, very hard-working Jamaican parents. The same parents who, though they would rather I married a black man, welcomed David into their house simply because I was in love with him. I resent the fact that I have never met my husband's father. I resent the audacity of their prejudice. They are immigrants as we are. They've had to fight hard as we have. Our families have more commonalities than differences. How dare they presume to think that they are better than us? Are we not, all of us, strangers in a strange land?

Sometimes I wish I never had to think about David's parents again. But then I think about our not-yet-conceived progeny that folks seem to think will be so attractive. It would be a shame for them to grow up without their grandparents. There is a Korean heritage that I simply cannot teach them.

So, why did we get married? Because marriage is about two people. It isn't about strangers' comments, or family approval or disapproval, and it's certainly not about interracial discourse. We got married because ritual is important. We wanted to stand in front of our family and friends and declare our promise out loud. In the end, the only people who attended were those who were happy for us. Was it painful that David's family wasn't there? Yes. But so it goes.

Why did we get married? Because we were in love. We still are.

-- Nicola Thompson

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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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