Marriage problems are making the rounds in my circle, and as we share our confusion and disappointments and try to unravel all the complexities of long term relationships, it’s hard not to get cynical. There are days when I wonder how anyone stays married. Recently a German political candidate suggested all marriage licenses should expire after seven years. There was an outcry of vocal protest in the Catholic community in Europe, but I bet there were a whole lot of people secretly thinking, “She’s right!”
When I was 26 and living in Oklahoma, I enrolled in a degree program at a university that was 66 miles from the home I shared with E. Yeah, that’s a long way to drive for classes. I hooked up with several women from my town, all my age or older, all married, two with kids. We organized a carpool for that first semester. On the long drives to school, we chatted about everything. One woman was a devout Mormon, two were Baptists—all were active in their churches, all had been married eight years or more, all were getting teaching degrees.
One day as we were driving, we started talking about marriage. One woman posed the question, “If you had to do it all over again, would you get married or marry the same man?”
I had been married six years and I was the only one in the car who answered “yes.” Everyone else either said no or hedged, mentioning that if they hadn’t married, they wouldn’t have kids, and so yeah, marriage was OK, sort of, because hey, look at these great kids!
To say the least, I was shocked to hear this from these traditional, religious, conservative Midwest women. I loved my husband, and I believed in marriage.
My second semester, I gave up on the whole carpooling thing and just moved into a dorm room on campus. E and I had a commuter marriage—I was at school 4-5 days a week and at home on weekends. This was in the days before cell phones and before e-mail. There were only three phones in the dorm, one on each floor, and there was a 10 minute time limit on using them.
I never used the dorm phones. I used to walk down to the football stadium and use one of the outdoor pay phones there. If I was lucky, I talked to E once a week while I was at school. He’s never been a guy to sit around the house, and catching him at home within hearing of the phone was tough (a lot of time he was outside). I still remember nights when I’d be down at the stadium in the dark, trying to reach E, hearing the phone ringing endlessly, willing him to answer it, hoping that he’d walk through the door any minute and pick it up.
Over time I reached the point where I seldom called. I just couldn’t stand the whole sad cycle of anticipating getting to talk to him and then being disappointed, standing in the parking lot of an empty stadium feeling like Lonely Girl. I tried to get E to come up to school sometimes, and I sometimes had parties at our house on weekends and invited my school friends, but it just didn’t work. I accepted that I had a life at school and a life at home and they seldom intersected.
When we finally began living together again after nearly two years of me spending most of my time at school, it was far harder than I thought it would be. E seemed so conservative to me compared to the artsy, creative types I’d hung out with at school. I’m sure I seemed different to him as well. We moved to Virginia, and it took a few months to learn to be a couple again, but then we became closer than ever. E’s career was taking off, and I was finally starting mine. We were living where we wanted to live and enjoying a life that had so many more opportunities for us than we’d had in Oklahoma. Still, I remembered the women in the carpool and the chasm that opened up during our commuter marriage years. I was in my late 20s, and I knew my marriage wasn’t invincible. Up until then, I had never believed marriage problems or divorce could happen to me.
Now in my mid-40s, I’m surrounded by people ending or renegotiating their marriages and am working on renegotiating my own. As my friends and I struggle to understand what’s going on with our lives and our spouses, we’re often surprised. How did we reach the point where we’re even thinking about splitting? When did we start to separate? Why is it so hard to talk to each other now? How did we come to occupy different realities in the same house? Did I change? Did he/she? Has he/she always been like this and I just didn’t notice or care? What does he/she expect from me? Can I meet those expectations? Do I want to try? If we can’t go back to the way we used to be, can we find a way to move forward without falling apart?
Some in my circle have loud fights and volatile relationships. Others of us just have a sense of things disintegrating behind the mostly calm façade of our lives. Sometimes we envy those whose marriages explode in affairs, not because we minimize the profound sense of loss, pain, and betrayal that results from that but because most of the time an affair provides a clear cut ending to a relationship—fewer discussions, less debate on what’s wrong, no cycles of hopes rising and falling, no guilt that you gave up on the relationship without good reason.
People change and sometimes grow apart instead of growing together. You can't go back, and you can't always go forward together. Sometimes a rough patch is a catalyst to getting to a better place in your marriage, but sometimes it simply highlights everything that’s been falling apart over the years and can’t be repaired. Midlife is full of remodeling projects, inside and out. Sometimes you can renovate, knock down walls, add rooms, throw on a fresh coat of paint and make a new home together. And sometimes you just have to sell the house and move on.
October 19, 2007