My husband and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary at a fancy restaurant. After he ordered an expensive bottle of wine, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his gift to me. It was a handwritten list of treasured memories from our marriage. Memories, he said, that reminded him of how much we belonged together.
It was a long list, maybe twenty or so memories. I glowed and held his hand as he read them to me. Some memories I had long forgotten, like the deep embarrassment that accompanied our first and only visit to a nude beach. Others were stories we told over and over because they touched our hearts.
I met Russell in Georgia a few days after I had made the decision to leave Atlanta and return home to Buffalo. My life in Georgia had taken a turn for the worse and I needed to go home to the safety of my family, regroup and start again. We had been dating casually for about three weeks and despite loving my time with him my plans hadn’t changed. But that didn’t keep me from agonizing over them.
One night, we were returning to his apartment after a date. He was unlocking his door when I began complaining about my dilemma. “I really should move home,” I said. “And it’s too late to change my plans now.” He stopped fiddling with the key and turned to me, exasperated but smiling. “You could keep debating about this, or… you could stay here and be happy with me.”
That sentence ushered in the next twenty years of my life.
My husband folded the list of memories and put it back in his pocket. Our food had arrived and there was no more time for reminiscing. We had more important things to talk about. Like where each of us was going to live and how we were going to break the news of our pending divorce to our kids.
There was no illicit affair, no drug, alcohol, or sex addiction, no financial troubles, no split-personality disorder and no secrets. None of the socially acceptable reasons to end what seemed like a perfectly decent marriage. Which is why some of our friends are finding this new development so hard to accept. And why my husband and I are having such a difficult time explaining why we are making the decision to separate after two decades together.
“And so, you’re going to end it. Just like that? As far as I can tell you’re throwing away a really good thing.” This, from a friend who loves me dearly.
“Are you sure you’ve done absolutely everything you can do? I mean, absolutely?” Another good friend.
It had never occurred to me that I would have to justify our separation to our loved ones. I expected surprise and maybe sympathy, not outright demands for an explanation. And my reasons never seemed quite good enough.
“Honestly, Kris. Your marriage is a dream compared to mine. You don’t know what you’ve got.”
“It couldn’t have been that bad or you wouldn’t have waited so long. What about your children?”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
As scenarios like this played out over and over I found myself resenting these questions and the people who asked them.
“If you are so sad, why don’t you work on your marriage?”
I was stunned. Why the anger? Why the hostility? What the fuck? We had read the books. We had seen the therapists. We had taken the vacations strategically designed to rekindle the romance.
“I’m sad because I have been working on my marriage! I’ve been working on it for eighteen years and it’s not getting any better!”
I’d had enough. Didn’t the fact that my husband and I no longer shared the same dreams count? Didn’t it matter that we had grown so distant that we sometimes didn’t speak about anything personal for weeks? When we did dare talk about personal matters, it was always with trepidation. Who would disappoint the other? Who would blow up in anger or stop talking altogether? Who would cave to the fear of being swallowed by this growing sense of being stuck? Would this be the conversation when one of us finally admitted that that we were too tired to try anymore?
“Well, I think you are courageous,” a girlfriend told me over drinks. “You are making a decision that many of us would like to make but are too afraid to even consider.”
Like twenty years before, a single sentence changed everything. Our normally loving and caring friends weren’t demanding explanations. They were asking for reassurance. They wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing. But they were also afraid. For us and for themselves. They felt blind-sided. We seemed so happy. Yet, we did our best and our foundation still broke apart under our feet. Could the important things in their lives crumble too?
The list of memories that Russell gave to me for our anniversary was bittersweet. It was full of loving, tender, and funny moments. The problem was, except for two notable exceptions, when our daughters came into our lives, every single memory that reminded Russell of why we belonged together, was from the first two years of our twenty-year relationship.
Our closets weren’t full of shameful secrets, cackling skeletons rattling the doors for attention like a cheating spouse or a gambling habit – reasons for divorce that our friends could understand. No, our skeletons were like ghosts, floating just behind us, reaching out their thin bony fingers to tap tap tap on our shoulders, and whisper… don’t turn around, you will have to face what you see.