The state of your unions

Dealing with a life-threatening illness, resisting the urge to call off the wedding, searching for the desire to have children, and other tales from the front lines of marriage.

By Salon Staff
January 28, 2004 8:59PM (UTC)
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Trials of the heart

My first marriage at age 18 was a predictable disaster. Coming out of an emotionally abusive family, I settled for the first person to say "I love you" without further questioning. My first husband had the emotional distance of my absent father and the abrupt rages of my depressive mother. After two children I woke up and left him, but only after he had an affair. The physical and verbal abuse wasn't enough to make me leave for good -- only his rejection of me got me out the door.


Many years passed -- 15 -- before I was willing to take a chance on marriage again. I had grown accustomed to single life and autonomy. I had the control over my environment that I had lacked in my childhood and first marriage. Now I was willing to share that control and to trust that this man would also keep our home peaceful and safe.

My second husband embodies many of the qualities missing in my early life and first marriage. He is funny, gentle and kind, he never yells at me, never insults me, is always willing to listen to any complaint I have and work out a solution. He makes me feel sexy and loved. The first few years went by quickly and happily. I never took for granted the peaceful way we worked out our differences. I knew what a rare and precious thing that was.

Then disaster struck. I was diagnosed with heart disease and immediately needed a quadruple bypass operation. I was 42, the same age as my mother when she had her bypass operation. I had thought I might make it to my 50s before the disease that killed both my parents struck me. My lifestyle was somewhat better -- I was vegetarian and a nonsmoker. I thought this would buy me time.


I am 14 years older than my husband. He was not expecting this old-age disease in our young marriage. He was in shock. He tried to soldier on. I tried not to burden him with my very real fear of dying. He tried not to burden me with his fear of my death or disability. We stopped talking in the deep, connecting way that keeps a marriage alive. And so our marriage began to die, slowly, almost imperceptibly at first. We gradually found ourselves going through the motions.

We knew we needed counseling, but we couldn't afford it. We would make feeble attempts at connecting as if trying to act out a memory of the love we once felt so keenly. Deep down we were encased in our shrouds of fear, my fear of dying or of being abandoned if my disease made me too needy or disabled, his fear of losing me or of becoming an around-the-clock caregiver.

Finally our financial life improved, we moved to a cheaper apartment, and we looked forward to finding a counselor and getting the help we needed. It was at this unexpected moment that my husband became drawn to a co-worker and began to move toward having an affair. Fortunately, the woman decided against it and I caught on to what was happening almost simultaneously. This forced us to deal with our problems, finally.


We are now in couples counseling and making progress. I am trying to find the faith to trust that he won't have an affair or abandon me if I have another heart attack. (I had one right after my surgery.) He is trying to find the faith to trust his ability to handle whatever happens to me. We are talking again and sharing our fears instead of bottling them up. I feel like I am falling in love again.

I can understand the temptation of divorce, and I have felt it myself. I can easily imagine creating a fortress in which no one can ever hurt me again. Yet I believe that there are lessons I can learn from sticking through these hard times that I will never learn by running away. It takes more than love to make a marriage work, and yet that love is what keeps me trying and keeps me believing our marriage is worth saving. I still love the kind and gentle man I married, and I know he still loves me.


-- T. McDaniels

Hoping for the best

We definitely fulfill the old adage that opposites attract. He's quiet; I'm not. He's rational; I'm way down at the other end of the emotional extreme. He is a computer geek; I'm still trying to find my desktop. He comes from parents who showed us the video of their wedding -- laughing and rewinding the good parts; my parents don't even have pictures of that ill-fated day. I've lived through three divorces -- two of my parents, one of my own; he was raised in a religion that believes that marriage is a sacrament.


I was talked into marriage once -- he needed health insurance, I needed to feel loved, and I needed to change him. One thing we didn't need was the standard definition of marriage; we were going to define it on our own. His mother, an ordained psychic minister, signed our marriage license and we went out to dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant. After a year of coming home to empty beer bottles and a blank gaze on the couch -- not to mention the other women he never could admit to -- I called it off. We filed the papers together, spending the afternoon poring over books at the law library. I threw my dog in the car and cried all the way to my new life in New Mexico. He hopped back into bed with his 19-year-old of the moment.

After my one disaster I truly believed that I would become that eccentric 80-year-old who lives down the street, pecking away at a typewriter with the eternal cigarette hanging out of my mouth, a thermos of coffee and whiskey at my side and 17 dogs lying at my feet. My best friend signed on to become my 80-year-old roommate. Then I met him. He showed up at my door with a picnic blanket in his backpack and it wasn't even a date. He let my dog come along. He kissed me softly in the back of a noisy bar. I sneaked into his bed that night and hugged his long, warm body close.

He was patient with my pain. He held me when the tears shook me. Slowly, I began to understand what it means to be loved. We were driving through Northern California -- the redwoods were swaying, there wasn't a cloud in the sky -- when I brought up the idea of marriage. I'd been trying to think of a way to approach the subject for months. He'd been asking his parents for advice on how to propose. Moments later, we were holding hands tightly between the gearshift. We shopped for a ring in San Francisco. This time I was going to do it right and I truly believed I knew what it meant to be ready.


I've bought the bridal magazines and signed up for a screen name on We've chosen a caterer, a band and our siblings as our bridal party. As the months inch along toward the big day, my stomach gets tighter and tighter. This time, I search for the words to tell him that all I can think about is my escape plan, that all I want to do is get in my car and drive away.

My best friend thinks that I am consumed by worry that my parents won't behave on my big day. I think it's my fear that something that is so unknown to me will turn into something familiar. I love his big blue eyes too much to see them filled with scorn and hatred. I can almost hear my parents' words coming out of our mouths -- followed by the screaming, the slammed doors, the tires screeching. Then the cold affection, forced for the children's benefit, and the tension, ever present, that comes from never knowing what will set the other person off next.

Three times over I've felt the betrayal and watched as pain takes over and combat, venom and numbness become the new reality. The next 113 days are supposed to be my countdown to happiness. And after the priest says the magic words, I'm supposed to crumple up my escape plan and throw it in the wastebasket. I think I'll still be waiting for happily ever after.

Then I look into his big blue eyes and see the hope, the excitement he holds. He believes that togetherness can be a beautiful thing. He reminds me that our togetherness -- painting our new house, eating pizza in bed by candlelight, always ordering dessert -- already is a beautiful thing. Sometimes I think maybe he has enough hope for the two of us. And then there are the times I think that maybe, somewhere deep down inside, I have a little bit of hope too.


-- Emilie Karrick

Of loving, living and letting go

He was the first boy to ever ask me out. I was nearly 17. We ate tacos at La Cocina Restaurant, then sat in the car at the edge of town to watch the lights of the city glow in the distance. After that he would sit in his pickup truck, across the street from my high school, waiting to give me rides home. I had his undivided attention. He was a big man, and I used his size as a measure of his character -- strong, confident, independent. I said, "I love you" back, because I thought I did. My parents, preoccupied with the agony of their divorce, barely noticed I was on a crash course with the altar. A month before I turned 18 we wed.

I remember the next 20 years in five-year increments. The first five we played house. I was a bank teller; he was a carpenter. We struggled with money, sex and in-laws like the experts told us we would, but for the most part we got along.


The second five years I was pregnant. We planned the first baby. The second was a surprise. The third came 19 months later, and by the time the fourth one showed up we were certifiably overwhelmed.

I remember his jealousy. He hated having to share me. I resented his neediness. I lived with a baby on one breast and him on the other. They leached my energy and spirit, but I thought that was the way life was supposed to be. I was determined to keep the marriage together, no matter how hollow, sleepless or desperate it became. I parceled out pieces of my soul to my husband and my children, until I no longer recognized the woman in the mirror.

The third five years I fell apart. Once everyone was weaned and potty-trained I began to find myself interested in things that had nothing to do with babies or husbands. I started to read -- something I hadn't done since I was a newlywed. I discovered how much I enjoyed it. Then I began to write. Seeing the language coming from my fingertips prickled something in my chest. A timid flame flickered. I kept it to myself. One day I asked permission to take a writing class. "What do you want to do that for?" he said. "It sounds interesting," I told him. "I suppose," was his skeptical response.

One writing class led to another that led to another. Now, my attention was diverted away from the home completely. The kids didn't seem to mind, because they sensed the joy I felt from learning. He, on the other hand, grew jealous and suspicious. He accused me of seeing someone else. He accused me of abandoning him. He accused me of forsaking my children. I kept writing.


The end came the night I thought my youngest son had once again sent one of his "Army guys" on a water mission in the toilet. The week before we had had to rescue a diminutive G.I. Joe from the clogged pipe. So when the toilet overflowed I thought it had happened again. I didn't know I had caused the problem by flushing a dead fish I'd found floating in the aquarium earlier in the day.

I must have seemed like a wild woman the way I accused my 5-year-old of sabotaging the toilet. I held my hands to his tiny shoulders and accused him until he pled guilty just to get me off him. I didn't realize my capacity for anger. I didn't realize I was taking it out on the wrong person. With the force of a hurricane, the power of 15 years of denial washed ashore.

The other children looked on in horror as I unjustly accused their small comrade. That's when I felt the blow. A sharp pain moved across my backside. I turned away from my son to see what happened. There stood my wide-eyed husband ready to hit me again. The kids scurried to the safety of their bedrooms while he and I duked it out.

He'd promised he would never hit me. Striking me was the last, ultimate betrayal. It was something I'd witnessed my father do to my mother. I had no capacity for tolerance or forgiveness. I needed to get out of the house, cool off, clear my thoughts. He blocked me. I forget most of what I said, though I remember white flecks of spit leaving my mouth as I struggled to get past him. I do remember saying that if I had a gun I would blow his brains out. I meant it. By God, I meant it. He finally let me through.

The kids said they thought they would never see me again. They didn't know I was in the driveway the whole time, sitting below the kitchen window, catching my breath, trying to stop shaking. Forty-five minutes later I returned. I gathered everyone in the living room and apologized. My anger and intensity had frightened me, too. Inside, though, I resolved that it was time to go.

The day I moved us out -- me and the kids -- was difficult, but every day since that one has been mine. He told me I was taking the easy way out, but I disagreed. Starting over at 34 with four kids as a full-time college student was the toughest, most rewarding thing I ever did.

That was five years ago. We are still raising our kids together. He lives three blocks away, and the kids are free to move between the houses as they please. We work things out on a daily basis. You could even say we're friends. Once, our oldest announced, "This is the best divorced family I've ever known."

I don't have the energy to be angry anymore. I don't hate my ex-husband; I just don't want to be his wife. I don't even get worked up that he hasn't paid his child support in over a year. Maybe I should. But that would take energy, and it would disrupt this hard-earned peace, and I can't for the life of me think of a good reason to give that up.

-- CynK

Procreation angst

I met Jonathan less than six months before my 28th birthday. Our courtship went pretty fast. Our first date lasted about 12 hours and our second began and ended with really great sex. Two weeks after I had met him, Jonathan's apartment in Brooklyn had become my weekend home -- a mini-vacation from the noise and congestion of Manhattan.

I was very clear on how my life was going to go before Jonathan sat across from me at Starbucks and shared his bizarrely honest philosophies on, well, everything. Writer, performer, artist, teacher, world traveler. Over the years, as I discovered the amount of work and sacrifice that went into creating a lifestyle, the images changed periodically, and I found vocabulary that better suited my goals. But not until I started falling in love with Jonathan did I realize that none of those images ever involved a kid, a cozy house with the accompanying SUV or a husband.

Even before we made it to month two, I was well aware that the pictures living in Jonathan's head differed drastically from mine. He told me he wanted children -- three of them. He had only made it to 33 without any because he wanted to be sure he was ready financially and emotionally to raise them. "I want all the joy and all the pain of being a parent," Jonathan told me. I almost cried when he said that. Partly because I so badly wanted him to get exactly what he saw in his picture. But mostly because I knew that I would not be the one to give him those three little Jonathans.

It says a lot about the heart when you can fall in love with someone who you are absolutely incompatible with. One morning I turned to Jonathan and told him I was hungry. He disappeared into his kitchen and emerged with an Entenmann's box and two cokes. I hate coke and had gotten used to stopping by this quaint Hungarian cafe for a Sunday morning croissant and latte over the years, but I tore off a piece of stale Danish, sipped my coke and thought, I am in love with this man. I want to be what he wants. I want to give him what he needs.

Then came all the damn questions. All these years when I was saying I wasn't interested in motherhood, did I mean not until I'm 30ish or did I mean I just didn't want children? Ever? If it was a "just not now" response to my newly mothered friends, what if I got that uncontrollable urge to squeeze out 8 pounds of life when I was 40 and less fertile?

As our relationship progressed, Jonathan told me point blank that our relationship could only go so far. "You don't have to pledge to be the mother of my children right now, but you have to at least want children if this is going to get any more serious." Then he asked me the question I still did not have an answer to. "So, do you?" I gave the easiest reply I could. "I'm not sure." He didn't respond.

I broke up with Jonathan three months after we celebrated my 28th birthday. There was a weekend of panic when I ended up back in his bed, hoping I could convince myself that family was not a tedious job with loads of grunt work and little time to yourself. After a few weeks, we were right back where we started. "What do you want?" he wondered. I wonder the same damn thing.

-- Keturah Kendrick

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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.)

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