Runaway bride

It's not that I didn't want to get married. I just wanted to make sure that I could take a break from the institution whenever I needed to.

Published December 20, 2004 7:24PM (EST)

I stood on the dark, crumbling front stoop of an apartment building that was not mine at 2:30 a.m., jiggling and cursing this key that I had paid $500 for. But it would not open the front door.

Earlier that night, I had schlepped an unwieldy, overstuffed suitcase onto a bus in suburban Edgewater, N.J., and endured the bumpy half-hour ride to New York. A subway ride and an 11-block walk later, I'd arrived at the building that would be my home for the next week and slipped through the front door with a resident whose key did work.

But now, after a night out with friends in the city, I was alone on this desolate, unfamiliar street. And in the seconds it took me to realize this key was not going to unlock this door, I was stripped of all the excitement and bravado I'd brought with that ridiculously large suitcase. I was going to be by myself! Come home when I pleased, without answering to my fiancé! Eat nachos for dinner every day for a week without facing an inquisition! Watch an entire "I Love the '80s" marathon without fielding complaints!

For minutes I tried to preserve those feelings anyway, while jiggling that damn key and kicking the door. Then I started to cry, sob even. But soon enough I laughed, because I realized this was what I had come here for: to remember that freedom has its price. That sometimes you're locked out with no partner inside to let you in. Sometimes you are sobbing on a stranger's stoop, and no one's there to care.

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

I postponed my princess-bride wedding a year ago, right around our 10th anniversary together. My fiancé and I met in college and were lucky enough -- or cursed, maybe -- to fall into that kind of relationship that's so comfortable, so right, you just assume you're stuck with each other. He stole me from my lingering high school sweetheart with a killer combination of broad shoulders, a stunning ability to quote Shakespeare even while stumbling drunk, a passion for politics, and an inexhaustible instinct to take care of me when I'm moody, sick or stressed, which is pretty much always.

After a few weeks of dating, we settled into what would be, presumably, the pattern for the rest of our lives: My fiancé budgets and plans everything, services I desperately need. I drag him out on weekends because otherwise he'd never meet another soul. We work well together, and there's nothing we've ever been able to do about that. Throughout most of our decade as a couple, I've rarely thought that we should do anything about it. When the Navy sent him to California to serve out his ROTC scholarship obligation, I left my hometown of Chicago and followed. When he went back to grad school in Chicago, I went with him. When he got a job in New Jersey, I followed again.

And when he proposed, I said yes. None of these decisions, big as they seem, took much thought. I adored this man, and he adored me. What else would I do with him but eventually marry him?

But after I'd said yes and plowed through about half of my wedding-planning checklist, I started to feel very engaged. I told him I might like to move into the city, at least for a few years while we were still young ... but he balked at how expensive that would be. He talked about having kids in a year or two ... but I had barely gotten started on the career I'd always wanted as a magazine writer. I stayed out late with friends. He called to ask where I was. I felt guilty.

And then one day I looked in the mirror and saw that someone had cut my hair into a frumpy bob and dressed me in longer skirts and baggier pants that were so not me. I'd become so concerned with hair appointments and makeup options for my future wedding day that I'd forgotten to be the admittedly vain -- but also, I like to think, sexy and fun -- woman my fiancé had fallen in love with. I'd grown, without even noticing, to look respectable, taken, off the market, ready for motherhood.

Engaged. Just the word itself implies a certain narrowing of scope, a choosing of one thing to the exclusion of all else. No other options will be entertained ... I am engaged. I felt trapped. I had lived my whole adult life for this man, moving wherever his life took him, living in the condo he chose, following his every carefully laid plan, and now I was promising to live the rest of my life for him. I still didn't doubt my love for him, and yet I couldn't breathe.

I wanted my relationship and my freedom. Married friends scoffed and said that wasn't possible. But when I thought back to the last time we were deliriously happy together -- just after taking a "break" from each other while he was in grad school -- I thought maybe ideal wasn't so unattainable.

I knew he wouldn't go for the kind of break most couples take as a wimpy precursor to breaking up -- the kind where they go sleep with other people to prove to themselves someone else wants them before they say goodbye. And that kind of break was beside my point, anyway. We just needed time apart to think about the bigger questions -- where we'd live, whether we'd have kids. And I needed time to remember why I liked having him around. Basically, I wanted to trick myself into missing him. And I was pretty sure it would work.

I daresay it would work for a lot of other couples, too. Sure, some pairs can't stand to be apart for more than a day, those "you complete me" types who are, it seems, made for marriage and all its personal-boundary-invading glory. But the rest of us -- a growing contingent if all this divorce and cheating stuff I read about is accurate -- have a kind of bipolar relationship with the idea of happily ever after. We love it! We want so much to believe in it! We cannot share health insurance without it! And yet we also get these urges to live for ourselves -- choose our own career paths, act on our own authentic desires, whether it's to live in an apartment near Central Park or let the dirty dishes pile high in the sink.

We are told, over and over, that compromise is the key to making marriage work. To me, that meant: I will go away for a certain amount of time to do the things I want to do, both big and small. You will stay here and do the things you want to do. When I return, we will have done some things we each wanted to do alone. And we will have the added bonus of extra-hot reunion sex. Everyone wins.

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

I didn't see the solution so clearly at first.

We were too busy scrimping to pay for and then furnish our home and working like hell to get our dream jobs. We became this efficient little unit that had locked everything down to make sure nothing would happen to or in or even near our little love nest. And then we didn't need anything anymore, not as a couple. So we shut down.

Then suddenly our one-bedroom condo felt cramped. We came home from work every day around 7, said hi to each other, cooked our own separate little dinners, and watched TV. My fiancé went to bed; I went an hour later. We could go for days without a kiss or even an accidental brush. If we did talk, we'd run into a fight or a teary three-hour talk (this is where the moving to New York and the having of kids was discussed ad nauseam but never solved). All that tension led me to spend a lot of time out with my friends, which caused him to grow resentful, which made me feel claustrophobic and thus rebellious. So the next time I would stay out later, and the next week I would stay out later more nights, until I was barely home anymore.

We tried a string of marriage counselors -- one who told us we were getting old so we might as well settle down, one who was obsessed with having us tape our conversations at home and then listen to them in therapy, one who was perfect but wasn't covered by either of our insurance plans. We felt despondent and stalled.

Finally, the choice came: Either we order invitations that second or we put off the wedding. He pushed for invitations, and, telling myself I didn't like the card stock or font options that much anyway, I improvised: How about a destination wedding? What if we called off the big extravaganza with its puff pastries and tea lights and instead said our vows on some undetermined future date on a beach in Jamaica? We even checked a few resort Web sites and found -- yes!-- this would save us money. It seemed irresponsible not to cancel. I loved this solution: We were not getting married, at least not imminently. And yet, on some undetermined future date, we were.

I thought maybe we could just hang out in this fuzzy dreamland forever. It was very pretty, full of scenic brochures for wedding-friendly Caribbean resorts. But no such luck. Eventually my fiancé wanted to, you know, pick one of these resorts. Maybe call them up, choose a date, give them some money.

But we hadn't figured out how to tackle what started all this: the fact that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in the deadly doldrums we'd fallen into.

When the break option first hit me, it seemed a ridiculous impulse. Where on earth would I go? Then one day at work, I found myself wandering onto craigslist. Suddenly I was responding to about a dozen sublet listings. One seemed cool, offering a female name, a return e-mail address at a recognizable company, and a phone number. I called, I visited, I loved the place, and I rented it for the following week, when she'd be abroad.

Then I went home and told my fiancé. (Lesson learned: Tell fiancé of plans to rent random stranger's apartment before renting random stranger's apartment.) My proposal didn't go over well at first. There was a lot of understandable suspicion about my motives. Was this because I wanted to entertain gentleman callers? Was this my way of easing into an eventual breakup? And if I loved him as much as I claimed to, why would I want to go through so much trouble to spend time away from him?

He never, however, threatened to leave me. He worked to understand where I was coming from and when he still didn't understand, he let me go anyway. The brief separation would be endurable, he said, if I came back ready to get married.

So once I got into the damn apartment, thanks to an insomniac neighbor who finally buzzed me in and a trusting locksmith who fixed my key the next day, I got to live this stranger's life. I cooked with her pans, washed in her shower, watched her digital cable, and slept in her bed for a week. (This was a cool voyeuristic side effect of breaks.) I shopped at her health food store, where I bought soy ice cream bars that I still buy all the time. Walking to her home from her subway line after work, I stumbled upon a new boutique I continue to visit from time to time. I read one of her books (thanks, Sublet Woman, for having the one David Sedaris I hadn't read yet!).

In short, I experienced things I liked about being an unengaged woman (namely, new little experiences like all of the above). I discovered things I didn't like about being away from my fiancé: being locked out at 2:30 a.m. with no one to call for help, for starters. Not to mention having someone who cared about the stupid little things that happened to me every day ("How was your day?" really is an expression of deep love), who would listen to my way-too-involved theories about why this week's episode of "The O.C." was pure genius, who would tell a bad pun to cheer me up when I came home crabby from work.

The week went fast, though, and I wanted more. I missed my fiancé and was happy to go home to him, but while I felt like I'd been getting somewhere, I hadn't gotten there yet. That first, week-long break taught me what may have been the most important lesson I'd ever learn about our relationship: that this man loved me so much, he would grant me the freedom to pursue my nutty idea to live alone for a week, even though he didn't totally get it.

He probably never thought I'd use that fact to go on yet another, longer break just a few months later.

I was still dragging my feet on setting a new wedding date, to even my own annoyance. But he was still resisting my pleas to move into Manhattan. And I hadn't committed one way or the other on the children question. We continued to fight over my late nights out with friends.

Then I happened to stumble upon a friend of a friend who needed someone to share her rent for a month until her roommate arrived from out of town. Once I heard that, I couldn't shake the thought of another break. This time I told my fiancé before I wrote the check. Of course, he wasn't thrilled about hearing "I'm moving out" for the second time in three months. But he was willing to listen. (I admit it: I reminded him, pointedly, that I'd given him months to figure himself out when he asked for that grad-school-era break. And that was the kind of break that allowed for the dreaded "seeing other people.") He wrote me a letter reminding me how much he loved me, and then, bless his heart, helped me move my stuff to the new place.

Many nights at my new third-floor walkup in Brooklyn, I read or wrote until 3 a.m. I really did eat nachos for dinner every day for a week straight. I stayed out as late as I wanted. I bought whatever clothes and makeup I wanted. And no one asked me why or how or with whom or how much. I was me, just me, moving to my own rhythms and tending to my own whims -- which helped me realize my bigger wants: to share my life with someone I love, but not grow to resent him; to plan some things, but not obliterate the surprises that make life interesting.

To have a marriage ... with the option for breaks.

Incidentally, with all this doing as I pleased, I saw my fiancé several times throughout the month. We started out intending to avoid all contact. But then, you know, I had to call him because I needed a phone number, and then I just wanted to check really quickly how this big work project turned out for him. Once, on a day when I was trying to think up another excuse to call him, he called me because he was in the city for a meeting. He asked me to an impromptu dinner at a little Italian restaurant; we kissed goodbye near his car on a cobblestone street and left each other wanting more. I agreed to go to a wedding with him, and we spent the night together at our condo having the kind of sex you have because you can't stand not to, not because you're lying next to each other and it's Saturday night so why not.

(And, by the way, keeping a month-long separation secret from most friends and family is easier than you think, thanks to cellphones. After trying to explain it to my mom and about three friends, that's what I did -- no matter how much intellectual discussion you engage in about freedom and compromise and the confused state of marriage in modern society, everyone still ends with, "So you guys are breaking up?")

I returned to our home at the end of the month having genuinely missed our life together. I wanted to please him, for the first time in a while. I knew I could live without him but didn't want to. And so I'd give him some of what he'd been saying he wanted: more involvement in my social life, more time together, dinner prepared by me once a week, and the prospect of kids in several years after I make some progress with my career. I ditched the dowdy engaged woman look for good, and my long hair and short skirts and tight jeans, thank heavens, returned.

My fiancé agreed to move into the city, seeing how happy my time there had made me, and to let me have my fun with my friends. He discovered he could let me go without worrying I'd forget about him. My glorious month away accomplished more than months of stalemate talks and torturous couples counseling.

And though things are better now, I wouldn't rule out hitting craigslist again if we start feeling cramped in our new one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan (which I presume will happen eventually, no matter how happy we are). I'm not sure I could marry somebody who couldn't occasionally let me go.

In fact, we're on another (albeit involuntary) break right now -- my company sent me to L.A. for two months. And because he doesn't have to worry about this being my idea, my fiancé is even getting into the spirit this time around: He's considering a film editing class he's always wanted to take but never had time for, and he's making new friends in the city. And I'm planning a small, casual wedding for next year.

By Jennifer Armstrong

Jennifer Armstrong is a correspondent for Entertainment Weekly, where she writes about television and pop culture.

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