Marriage is tricky. Love is complicated. And not complicated. It’s the uncomplicated kind that I miss the most. The kind of love that made everything else disappear. You remember it, or you might be in it now. I remember falling in love, especially during a cold, Chicago winter. It was the best thing in the world. I remember waking up on a freezing February morning, next to that warm skin, under blankets, safe. It didn’t matter how expensive the blankets were, or where we had gone out the night before. It didn’t matter that we had to get ready for work or that I had work due but not nearly enough time to do it well. It didn’t matter if the whole world was falling apart at that very moment. I was safe, and warm, and happy. That kind of love makes the rest of your anxieties, insecurities, and ambitions slip away as if they were never valid to begin with. I remember feeling like time had stopped for me; that the whole world was still running on super-speed, but I was coasting along, like in a little boat, in a calm pond filled with lily pads, sunlight streaming in on me through the mossy trees. I felt like that even while navigating Lake Shore Drive during a blizzard, cars spinning off to the side of the road, or while trying to keep two jobs straight while going to college. That uncomplicated love made me feel like I was part of an alliance, one that could take on the world and win. I miss that kind of love.
My husband and I have been together for thirteen years now, and married for nine. For a long time, I’ve known that the love between us was gone. We have a working relationship to care for our children and keep the family traditions. We have an antagonistic relationship when we have to negotiate anything, from purchasing a home to the way we decorate it. Resentments build constantly and manifest in strange ways, sometimes in front of friends and family. Making time for ourselves, without our kids, has been a point of contention for nine years. The division of domestic responsibilities, for twelve years. We must have had seven million arguments over that. I’ve never felt that it was fair. I told a counselor once that “He thinks I’m June Cleaver!” We don’t watch TV together anymore. I go to bed early, he goes to bed late. When we go to parties, he ignores me completely. We really just drive there together. I don’t feel as sorry for myself anymore because the older I get, the more I realize that many women, the world over, are living in marriages like mine. The question for me is, do I stay?
If we had no children, the choice would be simpler, I think. But we do. Daughters. Our eldest is almost twelve, and just starting to become a young woman. She’s starting to navigate complicated friendships, noticing boys noticing her, the balance between difficult school work and extracurriculars, and she feels keenly the tough competition in Chicago for good grades, to get into a good school, to get into a good college, to get a good job. Life is hard enough without chaos at home. Our little girl is only four. She is so open, and she trusts us completely, for everything. She’s vivacious and eager to discover new things. She likes to take things apart to see how they work (just like me!). She is just starting to figure out the rhythms of our family and the world around her, and where she can fit into it all. I love them both so much, to even think of hurting them breaks me into pieces. My love for them is completely uncomplicated. I would step in front of a train for them in a heartbeat. Their souls are worth twenty of mine, maybe thirty of my husband’s.
Jeanette Winterson said that, “My passion…showed me the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love. The one is about you, the other about someone else.” My husband and I may have invented ourselves from the start. We were in love once, but we got pregnant four months after we started dating. Our uncomplicated love became suddenly, very complicated. I thought our love would be enough, but now that I look back, I don’t think that love lasted. I think it may have been gone for him by the time he proposed and we got married. We both wanted it to work so very much. It made sense—we were the right age, we liked each other, we had a baby daughter. It made sense that it would all work out. I can honestly say that I tried my best over the years to make it work. I cooked, shopped, cleaned, planned, hosted holidays for our families, loved our daughter. I loved him. I went back to school to become a teacher. I made friends and hosted dinner parties. I asked him to watch scary movies with me, to enjoy dinner with me, to experience new adventures with me, though he wasn’t always enthused, less and less so over the years. I wanted to be a good wife. I wanted him to love me back. But it didn’t happen that way.
In the beginning, I tried talking it out, being honest, trying to find solutions to our problems. He took it as criticisms and felt anger. I tried reasoning with him, to help me more while I was working and taking classes and taking care of our daughter. I told him I was drowning in work and feeling constantly overwhelmed. He felt I was nagging him and made little effort. The red flags had been there from the beginning, even while we planned our wedding, but I didn’t want to see them. I did love him once, with that beautiful, uncomplicated love that makes you temporarily blind. But he didn’t want to put his arm around me on those cold, winter nights anymore. Dorothy Sayers attests that, “The only sin passion can commit is to be joyless.” She is right.
The practical side of me feels that the real decision is about one thing—is my own happiness and desire for love, uncomplicated, real love, too much to ask? By thinking of leaving, am I putting my selfish desires above all that we’ve created here? Our daughters, the family holidays we’ve been having for twelve years now, the circles of family friends I’ve made (my husband has many skills, but making friends is not one of them), the home that I’ve built and the memories we have as a family, will all be different, past. Is it really that bad to be neglected? He told me once, many years ago, that I should be happy because he doesn’t drink excessively, he doesn’t stay out and sleep with other women, and he doesn’t do drugs (like many of his old friends from the South Side). At the time, I thought that was a ridiculous notion, that I should be happy to be married to him because I could’ve done worse, but in making this decision, isn’t that what I’m thinking?
Our society has accepted divorce as a valid life decision. I know the repercussions personally because I am a child of a dysfunctional family that resulted in a messy divorce. That gives me pause. My parents’ divorce was a nightmare for me. Yet it is still so common. Parker already has two close friends from school whose parents have divorced. I know that children are resilient. I know that it would be worse for them to hear us fighting and to feel the tension between us when we disrupt the façade of our working relationship with actual life. Divorce. It feels strange and incongruent, dissonant, just to write the word.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning tells me that, “If thou seek roses, seek them where they blow in garden-alleys, not in desert-sand.” She may be on to something.