love lessons

How Separating From My Husband Saved My Marriage

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My father, I am told, pursued my mother after glimpsing her at a party, intrigued by the “aloof” girl who seemed immune to his charms. He won her over with a rose he’d fashioned out of paper, presenting it to her in the middle of a screening of Gone With the Wind. My husband’s parents also fell for each other on their first date, trading thick, lovelorn letters when the Navy shipped him out. They were engaged after just a handful of reunions shoehorned between his tours.

As for my husband and I, we met at an airport in the Philippines in January of 1994. He’d missed his flight and ended up on mine, and we wound up sitting next to each other at the gate. I borrowed his paper, a USA Today; we started talking and discovered that after our first leg, we were heading to the same city on different planes. He tried to chat me up mid-air, but the flight attendant made him go back to his seat when turbulence hit. We lost each other at immigration. Still, he tracked me down to the radio station where I worked and we moved in together five months later. We were married by August.

“I never want to get divorced,” he said. I thought we’d live, yes, happily ever after. I was 23; he was 27. To say we knew what we were doing would be an exaggeration.

By the summer of 1999, we were separated. We were living in San Francisco then, and the weekend of Memorial Day, I drove down to Los Angeles with our almost 4-year-old daughter. I’d asked him to move out while we were away.  The two months before I’d had bout after bout of bronchitis. My doctor kept searching for a physical reason why I couldn’t shake it, eventually asking, “Is there something going on that’s causing a lot of stress?”

My husband and I had been fighting for months about almost everything — money, child care, how to spend a Saturday afternoon. We were no different from our parents, after all. His mom and dad’s great love story had ended up in a divorce so acrimonious they still shit-talked each other decades later. He called her a “wicked witch” to his children; she wouldn’t acknowledge his existence at our wedding. As for my father, he left my mother when she was pregnant, never to be seen again. I’ve only met him once, at 19; he found me and invited me to visit for a glorious-but-confusing few days, but dropped out of my life again soon after.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” And in our early days, my husband and I were mad, mad, mad — for each other and for love. But real life intrudes. A surprise pregnancy came two months after marriage. Soon enough, years of under-employment gave way to hyperactive work schedules that made child-rearing complicated and difficult. Our origin story, compelling as it was, couldn’t sustain us, especially when our experiences with our own families haunted us. He was used to barely being parented and grew up feeling like a bother; I was forever in audition mode, worried about being found unworthy. Neither of us knew how to openly negotiate and make things better because we were both secretly worried we’d get screwed. He skirted conflict by not acknowledging our differences. I didn’t want to be deserted, so I placated until the resentments began to build. Bickering led to silent treatments, which led to passive-aggression and fights that, though contained to late nights so our daughter wouldn’t hear us, festered well into the morning. I started coughing in March and couldn’t stop.

Reaching our crisis point, we worked out a deal: He’d move in with his brother and we’d go to couples’ therapy. We’d each find a shrink of our own, too. He saw our daughter every day, either for breakfast or dinner. Sometimes I slept over at a friend’s so he’d get to read to her before bedtime. (We told her Mommy and Daddy were arguing so much we needed a time-out from each other, just like in preschool.) When she asked what to do when she missed him, he wrote his number on a Post-It and told her to call anytime. She kept that piece of paper in the pocket of every outfit she wore, even her pajamas.

We had another rule, too: No sleeping with other people. If we were going to split up for good, it would be because we’d decided to quit together and not because there was somebody else to get to, and quickly. Everything else we improvised. I wasn’t sure we’d make it. I wasn’t sure I cared. But we gave each other space to figure out whether we did, and who to be and how to be and what we wanted.

Cue the reconciliation story. Bigger and better — and in Technicolor! — than the origin story. Isn’t that how it goes in movies? But there isn’t one, really. Yes, my doctor did find a tumor in my left breast that needed removing that same summer. (It turned out benign, thankfully.) And yes, it did frighten my husband, who asked if he could move back. I missed him. He missed me. We missed being a family. But, again, it’s not like the movies. We were awkward and guarded weeks after he returned. There were no moving speeches or roomfuls of flowers. My husband isn’t a grand-gestures kind of guy, and even if he was, they’d be wasted on a girl like me, who had grown suspicious of swoony origin stories. I wanted a relationship fueled not just by the magic of meet-cute and promises of happily-ever-afters, but of genuine hard work, real talk, and forgiveness. It’s messy, messy stuff. Still, you invest: I choose you. You choose me. We choose this.

I joke that the summer of 1999 was our “stock market correction.” Life had gotten so frothy so quickly our bubble had to pop. But I’d be lying if I said that was the only time. (Early this year? Ugh.) Some days I feel like I’m at a T on a road. Turn left to leave, right to stay. I always choose right. We still feel like we belong. I can’t fall asleep without tucking one foot into the crook of his leg and feeling his hand on the small of my back. It’s like docking into port.

Sometimes I’m asked how I met my husband. I tell whoever wants to know about the missed flight and the borrowed paper and the phone call at the radio station. It’s lovely to revisit, but the power of that story has faded. It’s just one day in a 20-year-long marriage, a photo tucked in a box full of them: the time I stayed up waiting for him to get back from a business trip so he could come home to a hug; the afternoon we dropped our daughter off at college and the long drive home; last weekend when we argued about whose turn it was to scrub the shower; this morning when he shook me gently awake, kissed me on the forehead, and told me to have a nice day. And yes, too, the day I got into that car on Memorial Day weekend and tried not to cry, him on the side of the road watching his wife and daughter drive off, not knowing what to do next.

On our 20th anniversary last August, he gave me a ring. It’s nothing outrageous: a plain silver band from Tiffany’s embellished with one diamond so small you have to squint to see it. I have three others I wear on the same finger, one for each of our children: ruby for the girl with the feisty, generous personality; sapphire for the older boy with the quirky swagger and sweet center; emerald for the youngest with the big, bold heart. My husband presented it without much fanfare, just us in a bedroom in a house we’d rented in the Outer Banks for a family reunion, the kids downstairs squabbling over whose turn it was at pool, relatives upstairs divvying up grocery lists. “Will you wear this ring?” he asked. Were it another day, one of our off days, he joked, I’d probably say no. I laughed, teased him about breaking our pact — no gifts over $30 — and let him slip it on my finger. Then we tucked in the sheets, fluffed the pillows, and finished making the bed. There’s not much else to the story. We don’t need stories anymore.

How Separating From My Husband Saved My Marriage