Our old problems will still be problems, but I think we both understand ourselves differently now.
I'm taking a do-over on my marriage after a two-year break. My almost ex-husband and I are looking for a new place to live, and this time we're going in with a plan and clearly defined expectations for how our lives together should look.
No way could we have done that 12 years ago or even two years ago when I left. For this marriage to have any chance of making it, it first had to come all the way undone.
I met Sam in line for Grateful Dead tickets a few months after I started my first out-of-college reporting job. He was tall and tan and big across the shoulders with brown hair hanging down to his chest.
Some scenes you see forever in your head. I still see Sam coming down the block. How his arms hung away from his body, not touching his sides when he walked. He had on Birkenstock sandals, khaki shorts to the knees, and a green and black plaid flannel we still called "grunge" in 1993. And he was palming a cantaloupe.
After introducing himself, Sam pulled a Swiss Army knife from his shirt pocket, sliced the melon and offered a piece. I thought I hated cantaloupe, but he looked good and I took it anyway. When I asked to bum a smoke, he handed me a fake cigarette packed with pot grown in his basement.
Usually my mind would shut down around a man my eyes saw as more than a buddy, but with this guy the words came easy. We sat there all morning smoking and talking.
A few hours after we'd each gotten our tickets and gone our separate ways, he called the paper trying to track me down.
"I didn't get a chance to ask you your last name or your phone number or what you're doing after work," he said. My heart beat all the way up in my ears. "I got yesterday's paper out the garbage to find your byline."
We shot pool and saw my favorite band that night, and had sex for hours the next. There were chunky buds of bright-green pot drying on the terrarium beside his futon bed, and they made the room smell all skunky. But I was more stoned on Sam than that pot.
It was only supposed to be a summer fling, that's what I told myself, no strings. He was moving out West in the fall, and I had a killer new job. But hey, no reason we couldn't have some fun before he left.
Thirteen years later, we sat on our therapist's couch not touching. "You met me in line for Dead tickets, who did you think you were marrying?" he asked.
Right then the answer was easy.
I thought I was marrying someone who'd grow up with me as we grew older. And I thought I married someone who'd catch the irony of that comment, because he met me in line for tickets, too. And I was there first.
But the truth is when I met Sam at 23, and when I married him at 26, I had no ideas about how our lives should look ten years out. I wasn't one of those girls who spent childhood daydreaming her fairy-tale wedding and the happily ever after to follow.
That was the problem. I didn't have a vision. I didn't know myself well enough to define the boundaries I needed to keep whole and happy. And, even If I had known those things, I didn't know how to define them to Sam.
We married at 26. Stood on the deck of this tiny boat, off the coast of Alaska and exchanged vows with a Hershey's bar broken in half so the split made "hers" and "heys." No rings. I wore a white fisherman's sweater inside out to hide the dirt. Sam wore black fleece pants, a purple sweater, and a knit cap. We were half drunk and laughing all the way through.
Three years later we bought $1.50 wedding bands in a Mexican silver-mining town where white houses with terra cotta roofs stacked up and down the mountainside.
Some people enter marriage with picket-fence visions and expectations about mortgage loans, career paths and who will do the cooking. I had a great friend, lover and travel partner, and that was all I wanted or needed or expected back then. That was my expectation. I never considered what I'd require from a grown-up, settled down partner.
We snickered at career-path jobs, and rented houses without considering buying a home because who wanted to be tied to a mortgage working 50-weeks a year to pay for it?
It all worked perfectly, until it didn't.
Because after Alaska, Mexico and traveling off to somewhere new every time life got hard, I was 30. I wanted us to settle down, have kids, get jobs with possibility and live in a house for longer than three years.
I thought, of course, Sam would shift right with me. When our first daughter was born, I expected it to go without saying his top priority would be our family's stability.
He expected to quit jobs when he stopped liking them. He spent a year trying to build his own design business. When he discovered he hated the business end of it and how having to constantly generate work really sucked, he expected to drop the business and finish his degree by taking full-time classes and working the kind of campus job I'd had at 19—when my parents bankrolled my life.
He expected life as a daddy to be exactly like before, but with a kid. Every time he switched directions, I rearranged my life to accommodate. And I said nothing. By the time our second girl was born he'd burned through three jobs in as many years.
I wanted him to suck it up, keep a real job with a real income, do night classes — the way other grown ups with children finish school. And when I finally found the voice to tell him, that's when we started coming apart.
Every marriage, failed or not, has its list of "she dids" and "he didn'ts." I think there's a reason some can outlast pressure and pain that would crush other relationships three times over.
Partners have to know the difference between disappointments and deal breakers, define the absolutes, communicate expectations and—the hardest part—learn to let go of everything else. Which is most of what we struggle over: everything else.
The things that killed my marriage the first time were deal-breakers, but they grew in the vacant space where our communication should have been.
My friend Jane and I scrutinize the "why?"s and "what's acceptable?"s and the "how do you get there?"s in marriage. She's been married 17 years and dated her husband for six before that. At 45, that's half her life.
Five years into the marriage she realized she'd married her dad. James wasn't a drunk, but he was controlling and she felt micromanaged and left out of important decision-making.
She spent last summer alone in the mountains thinking about her marriage. And, even after returning to her big, beautiful home and kids and James, she was unsure, but she stayed. A year later, they're on better ground.
"We're compatible in the important ways, and we've learned how to maneuver around the many ways we aren't," she says. "I think the biggest thing that helped increase the happiness level was dropping the comparisons to others and only 'judging' our marriage against itself."
I think about that a lot. Because the thing is, of course I believe we'll make it this time. Why else would my apartment be half-packed for the move?
I know our old problems will still be our problems, but I think we both understand ourselves differently now. That was the value of leaving him.
I am 38 this time. I'd never eat something I thought I hated just because it was offered by a guy who looked like Sam did when he was 23, even if I knew taking that bite meant finding out I love cantaloupe. My boundaries are particular, and they are more about Sam respecting the things I need to keep myself whole: time and space on my own.
I had this epiphany, a single sentence I emailed to Jane: "I think the only way a relationship can survive the disappointments of unmet expectations is with constant communication and clear firm boundaries. And, a little bit of letting go thrown in."
She said: "A LOT of letting go thrown in, acceptance, and dropping the rope in the on-going tug-of-war game!"
Amen, Sister. I'm working on loosening my grip.