marriage: an investigation

Former New York Times Correspondent and Editor Sheila Rule Married Her Prison Pen Pal, Joe Robinson

Photo: Ed Kashi

They say you can never understand someone else’s marriage. But this week, New York Magazine and the Cut decided to try. We interrogated dozens of couples (and a throuple) to see what makes their marriages work — or not.

Sheila Rule and Joe Robinson, 14 Years

Photograph taken in 2016.

What, if anything, do you remember about the circumstances surrounding this shot?
Sheila: I checked my 2016 planner and saw that Ed [Kashi, the photographer] came to our house on October 8, 2016. Joe had only just returned home on October 3. Right after he came home we were going to a range of events and charity galas and meeting friends, so it was very hectic. I remember that day Ed came, thinking to myself, I hope it’s not all too much, too soon.

Joe, was all that activity overwhelming or stressful for you?
Joe: I don’t know if I would say I was overwhelmed, but it was a lot. Because the thing for incarcerated people is you go from sensory deprivation to sensory overload, in one day. In one day. I’m still reacclimating. I’m much better now, but it’s a process.

Had you discussed that first week back, what it would look like?
Sheila: Before he came home, we drew up a lot of lists. Things we were going to do around the house, activities we were going to do. But we didn’t talk about the first few days at home.

Joe: We clearly talked about some of the practical things we would do together. For example, the first day after I got out we went shopping for things as basic as underwear. We got suits and ties and shoes. Then I had to get a cell phone, laptop, and everything.

Did Ed pose you?
Sheila: I think he said, “Let’s take a photo on the bed,” but I don’t recall that he posed us … As I look at that photo, it strikes me that I was still in a dreamlike state. There were times when we’d be out together or at home, sitting at the table, eating dinner, and I’d say to myself, almost as if I was startled, “Hey, Joe’s home,” “Wow, Joe’s home,” “Gee, Joe’s home!” In some ways it didn’t seem real,  because it was something we’d been yearning for and talking about for so long.

Joe mentioned conjugal visits.
Sheila: One of the best things about New York State Corrections is that there are conjugal visits. So that gave us about 44 hours every few months together. And it made a huge difference in terms of familiarity, comfort, the health of our marriage. It meant that we could really have downtime together without overseers or prying eyes. It really was a gift to us, a gift to our marriage.

It sounds like you were putting in real work to maintain the relationship.
Joe: When I was incarcerated we had the nonprofit, we had the publishing company, we had all these balls in the air.  So at times it was challenging to balance the marriage as an institution — to maintain the friendship, intimacy — and do the work.

Sheila: It was like a relay race in some ways. In New York, the lingo for conjugal visits is, “Are you going on a trailer?,” because conjugal visits are in trailers on the prison grounds. So we’d have trailers and develop ideas and work on developing a nonprofit, and then we’d be on the phone, and Joe would have more ideas. So he’d hand me whatever we had decided, and then on the outside, I’d run with it, getting in touch with the right people, making connections. And I’d be doing it my way, which wasn’t necessarily his. So at some point, Joe said, “You know, I think I’m trying to live through you.” I think that’s where there was tension, and once we were both able to see that it was a relief.

Some couples present their marriages as effortless, others not so much. 
Sheila: We hold our marriage dearly. So we really work at it. On our anniversary, we do two things every year: We speak our vows to each other, and we do an exercise called “five words to describe your marriage.” We each write the five words, and then we’ll share the words and say why we chose them. It’s like keeping your finger on the pulse of the marriage, what we need to do to make sure things remain great, or where we better get busy because there’s work to be done.

When Joe was incarcerated, the effort involved being in touch as much as possible, making the most of your visits, communicating any issues. What did that effort look like after Joe came home?
Sheila: Maybe a little more than the first year after Joe came home, what we decided to do was that the beginning of the year we would sit and make a list of the things we wanted to do, like where to go, places to see, places to eat, fun things, and we’d compare our lists, cross off duplicates, and then cut them up and put them in a basket, and every week we would shake up the basket and just pull from it. It was a way to stay connected and to really enjoy each other, and to make sure the marriage did not become stale. We made that part of the rhythm of our lives.

Joe: I tend to be a person who talks through what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, how I think we’re doing. And I check in with my wife and see how she’s doing, particularly if she seems down.

Sheila: Joe has great empathy, but also he’s very perceptive. It’s interesting because in prison, what I learned from his experience there, you gain a high level of perception. It’s about survival. So transplanted on the outside, it really serves to enhance our marriage.

*A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Former Times Editor Sheila Rule Married Her Prison Pen Pal