When my husband requested a trial separation, I assigned the both of us homework.
When my husband of almost four years asked me if I thought we should divorce, I opened my laptop, started a list and tried to get to the bottom of things.
Did we still love each other? Did we still want the same things? Why were we so unhappy lately?
In situations like these, I was usually the hysterical one. I had severe PMDD, and was always asking myself, about once a month, what we were doing together. We'd shout. I'd cry.
And in the midst of things, unexpectedly, he'd make me laugh, despite the tears pooling in my collarbone, the twisted, damp tissue clutched in my hand. We'd move on.
Now that he was calling my bluff, I suppose I felt that it was my turn to be the rational one.
We had been more like roommates than romantic partners lately, two ships passing in the night, so I looked at my list and typed "weekly date nights." I added items like "schedule sex" and "try hanging out with Michael's friends more." I wrote "contact shrink."
I assigned the both of us homework.
The next week, we typed up love lists for each other, and read them out loud. I mentioned his cleft chin and his well-defined arms. I mentioned his willingness to try anything with me… no matter how odd. I mentioned the way he smelled and the way he made me feel safe and the way he managed my crazy.
He told me that he loved how comfortable we were around each other. He admired my talent and passion. He liked that we had the same values, and that we were both cat people. "You had me write a love list," he wrote, "and it makes me love you more."
For several weeks, things felt good. Then we backslid and I took off my ring, because I was tired of having the same fight over and over again.
We didn't talk things out.
At night, lying next to him, I stared at shadows on the ceiling and kicked the sheets around and didn't sleep. During the day, while he was at work, I felt exhausted and nauseous and distracted. My ring finger felt exposed and wrong. I tried to imagine what leaving him would be like. I tried to imagine moving on: Going on dates. Finding my own apartment. Making enough to pay the bills.
I tried to think logistics. Would he let me take the cat we'd adopted together? Would I have to bribe him with furniture? The coffee table I'd ordered from Target? The china cabinet I'd inherited from my mother?
Sick of being alone with my thoughts, I e-mailed him, feeling that what I hadn't been able to convey verbally, I'd be better able to express in writing.
"I feel as if I'm your lowest priority," I wrote, "and that, frankly, you'd rather spend time with anyone—or anything—other than me." I wrote that I had been trying to be a better wife, but that we both had to be willing to compromise. I told him that there needed to be a change, and that I wanted us to try therapy.
I waited almost two hours for his response and, when it came, I curled into myself. "We aren't a good match," it began, and my heart lurched up into my throat. "I thought we were, and maybe we were a better match in the past, but it's very clear this isn't true. Or at least I don't feel it's true anymore."
He suggested a trial separation.
I cried, alone, for the next four hours. I tried to think of someone to call, but I didn't want to burden anyone with this, not even my mother. Besides, telling someone would make it real, and I didn't want to make it real. Not yet.
I waited for him to come home.
When he finally arrived, we sat on the bed beside each other, me cross-legged, him with his knees hugged up to his chest. "Well… " he said, glancing at me nervously, waiting for me to speak. I sputtered, unsure of what to say.
And then, despite all the doubts I had felt in the past—about our compatibility, about our relationship, about our future—I fought for our marriage.
We covered a lot of ground.
We talked about my social anxiety, and about how he hated having to explain away my absence when he went out with friends. We talked about his priorities, and how he seemed unable to set boundaries with his work. We talked about how he felt tied to the area in which we lived, while I desperately wanted to leave. We talked about the late nights he spent in the city, and how he oftentimes neglected to tell me when he wasn't coming straight home from work.
"You have a spouse to come home to!" I said, looking for a sign that he still loved me. "Do you even want to be married?"
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe I don't."
I became angry. "You're not leaving me because you're going through a mid-life crisis at the age of 31," I snapped. "I'm not letting you do that."
He sighed. "I just feel as if marriage should be easier," he said. "We shouldn't have to compromise this much."
I looked at him in disbelief.
"That's what marriage is!" I said. "Marriage is about compromise! It isn't about finding your carbon copy. It isn't about finding your soul mate." I flung my hands into the air, exasperated. "It's about realizing that you love someone, and deciding that you choose them. You choose them to spend the rest of your life with. It's about realizing that, and then working your ass off to make it work!"
I began to sob.
"I can stay here," I said, frantic, desperate, realizing for the very first time, without a doubt, that I couldn't live without him. "We don't have to move away." I swallowed back snot and tears. I gasped for air. "And I'll go out with your friends more often. I'll be more social." I paused. "And I'll be more understanding. And… and… " He put his arm around me and told me not to cry.
But I was scared. I had been pushing him away for no good reason, and now he was going to leave me.
He hasn't left me. Yet.
But I still feel as if things are precarious.
Is it possible to bring a marriage back from the brink?
I think so.
Can date nights, scheduled sex and love lists be your salvation? Can it help to seek out help? I hope so. (We've already scheduled our first therapy session.)
But more than anything else, I think you bring a marriage back from the brink at the moment you both realize, without a doubt, that you still love each other, and that you can't live without each other. You bring a marriage back from the brink when you grab ahold of it—determined to make things work—and refuse to let go.
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