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Marrying Mr. Wrong: Did She Ignore The Red Flags?

red flags
Contributor
Heartbreak

She thought he was "the one." Some obvious relationship red flags indicated otherwise.

JULY 4, 2002
I’m sitting on our deck in the Hamptons an hour after everyone has left, realizing that my marriage needs to end. There have been too many red flags and it’s been too hard for too long. I’m drained. I’m sad. I’m lonely. My husband is just on the other side of the screen door, sleeping on the sofa we bought together at Ikea right after we bought the house. On his chest, our eleven-month-old daughter drools in her half-sleep.

RED FLAG #1, APRIL 1995
One of my girlfriends leaves a message on my machine Saturday evening at six. "A bunch of us are meeting at that new bar around the corner at 9:30. It’s gonna be a great group. See you then." I’ve already planned a night of order-in Chinese food and Middlemarch, but at 9:45 I overcome my innate inertia and force myself out.

My future ex-husband is sitting at a long, candlelit table, chatting with a few other guys. Over the din of the hip bar, I say, "You look familiar. Really." Then I realize that actually, he just looks like someone who works in my sister’s office. I’m about to tell him this but he says, "You’re right. We have met." We talk about everything that isn’t too personal: politics, sports, our favorite music from the '80s. He seems to be an expert on every topic, which I find sexy.

The next morning, I’m on the treadmill sweatily fantasizing about my future ex-husband, when the girl who introduced us the previous night gets on the treadmill next to mine.

"I really like your friend," I gush.

She makes a shocked face and says, "You two? Eew. You're completely wrong for each other. Please. Trust me. You two are the most-wrong-for-each-other people I can think of."

I laugh, and ask why we're so mismatched. "Trust me," she says gravely. "He’s not for you." Then she shrugs. "It’s your life, babe, but I don’t think you'll be happy."

RED FLAG #2, JULY 1995
One of my friends has a rule: if you don’t kiss by the third date, there’s no real chemistry. My future ex-husband and I don’t kiss until the third month.

RED FLAG #3, AUGUST 1995
We're walking down the street on our way to dinner and I ask my boyfriend a question, which he ignores. I say, "Can you hear me?" and he says, "Huh?" After dinner we go to the movies. While waiting for it to start I ask him if he thinks Jennifer Lopez is attractive. He ignores me.

I ask, "Are you going deaf, or are just ignoring me?"

"I don’t like to answer dumb questions," he says. Then he adds, "There's nothing wrong with silence. Sometimes I think you say things just to hear the sound of your own voice. I’m sure you don’t really care what I think of Jennifer Lopez. It's all right for two people to be together without talking."

"Actually, it’s boring," I want to say. Actually, silence frightens me. Actually, his silence, in particular, frightens me because it makes me feel isolated and depressed. When he goes silent, I stop feeling him; it's as if he becomes a sudden stranger.

RED FLAG #4, MAY 1996—PARIS

We have a lovely day and a lovely evening that concludes at a lovely restaurant, which my boyfriend pays for, and then we get back to our lovely hotel room and get in bed. With the lights out, I whisper, "Did you forget something?" He says, "What do you mean?" Against my better judgment, I say, "A card? A present? I don't know. Something. It's my birthday." After a pause he says, "I'm your present."

RED FLAG #5, JULY 1996

We’re in the car discussing our goals for the relationship. "I just want to get to a place with someone where I can coast," he says. I say, "What do you mean, 'coast'?" He says, "You know, not go from crisis to crisis. Just kind of exist together."

I say, "But you always have to evolve. You have to struggle through tough moments and hold tight during the good ones. Sometimes you can coast, but you can't get to a place and then coast."

He says, "You've misunderstood me. Of course, I think you need to evolve. I just mean not everything has to be such a struggle."

I say, "I agree," but for the rest of our relationship I will remember that word, "coast." And every time he avoids an argument or refuses to discuss something with me, I will think, Why didn’t I coast out while I could?

RED FLAG #6, AUGUST 1996
We're on a hiking trip in the Alps. We wake up early because we've planned a big trek, but it's raining out and cold so I get back in bed, relieved. In my heart of hearts I'm not a true mountaineer. I'm a Jewish girl from Manhattan who went on a few hiking trips at camp. I'm trying hard to please my man; still, there are limits, and hiking in the rain is one of them.

"It's clearing up," my boyfriend says, standing eagerly by the window. He points to a piece of sky in the distance that resembles every other piece of sky on the horizon: gray and menacing.

We head onto the trail, and for the first hour there's just a light drizzle that nevertheless turns my skin to gooseflesh. Then the rain picks up, and I notice that the trail has become vague. I notice that there actually is no trail. I suggest to my boyfriend, who takes great pride in his navigation skills, that we may be lost.

"We’re not lost," he says, pointing down a rocky ravine. "There’s the trail, right down there. Let's just traverse this hillside."

I watch the way he digs in with the front of his boot, his body almost flat against the steep mountain. He's smiling with the joy of the challenge, the star of his own reality TV show: Adventure in the Alps. When we get back to the hotel room, I throw myself on the bed and turn my traumatized body away from him.

"Wasn’t that awesome?" he says, spooning me. "You did great! I’m so proud of you."

I close my eyes but don’t fall asleep. Why am I doing this? I ask myself. Why am I here? Is it to prove to myself that I can keep up with an earthy, unspoiled guy? Is it to prove to myself that I can push my body to its limits? Or is it because I'm desperately trying to land a ring on my finger before my thirtieth birthday? Either way, I'm clearly somewhere I don’t belong, doing something I shouldn't be doing, with someone I shouldn't be with. Keep Reading...

RED FLAG #7, JANUARY 1997
We’re living together now. It’s Friday night and my boyfriend calls to say he'll be home around seven. Seven comes and goes. I leave messages on his cell. I order in Chinese food and hunker down in a chair with a book and my anger to wait. He comes home at ten, drunk and defensive. "Why didn’t you call?" I demand. He rolls his eyes and turns on the TV.

I'm staggered by his rudeness and can't understand how he fails to see his behavior as such. To compound things, he falls asleep on the couch in a pattern that has become a routine. Wasn’t the point of living together to get in bed beside each other every night?

"It's time for bed," I say, pulling him up. "Let’s go. Up." And like a petulant four year old being dragged by his mother, he follows me into our bedroom.

RED FLAG #8, APRIL 1997
I'm sitting at breakfast in an ornately decorated dining room in a hotel in West Virginia listening to the head of banking address the "spouses/significant others" of the managing directors.

"Please be understanding when your husbands or boyfriends come home late," the head of banking says, "even if it’s two in the morning and they've been at a strip club. It's just a work thing, ladies. Nothing to get alarmed about." There's a smattering of giggles from the audience. The head of banking is pleased with himself and smiles, too.

"Become your own community, ladies," he continues. "Support each other. Get your nails done together. Have a girls' night out. Because we consider the work that you do on the home front to be as important to the success of the firm as the work your spouses are doing for us."

After the talk, I return to our plush, pink, green, and gold room, take out my suitcase and start to pack: the cocktail dress for the semiformal Friday night dinner, the tennis skirt, the gown for tonight's black-tie ball, the bathing suit for the Whirlpool my boyfriend and I hoped to soak in together. I'm collecting my toiletries when he comes in and asks what I’m doing.

"Going home," I tell him. "This isn’t for me." I tell him about the lecture by the head of banking. "The head of banking is a moron," he says. "He has nothing to do with us, and you have nothing to do with anyone else who was in that room. Ignore it. It's bullshit. He was just trying to be nice."

My boyfriend is right. He's usually right. He's a real individual, and I'm too easily swayed by group opinion. I thank him for helping me to be a better person. I thank him for helping me recover my sense of humor. I make a joke about heads and banking and he laughs. I paint on a fresh coat of lip gloss, brush my hair, and out we go to meet the others in The Orchid Room for lunch.

RED FLAG #9, JUNE 1997—UNION SQUARE
I have a drink with my ex-boyfriend, a fellow writer, who asks if my current boyfriend is my soul mate. "Definitely not," I answer flatly. "Does he understand you?" he asks. "He doesn’t understand me at all," I explain. That night, I climb under the covers and sob myself to sleep.

RED FLAG #10, AUGUST 1997
I’m no longer interested in sex. It's been weeks now, maybe months. I'm depressed because I'm already 30, and my boyfriend hasn't asked me to marry him yet and we've been together for more than two years; and I'm depressed because he might ask me to marry him and I know we aren't right for each other.

THE REASONS I IGNORE THE RED FLAGS
I ignore the red flags because I really want to get married. I ignore the red flags because I'm terrible at math and my boyfriend is a math genius. He also has a great sense of direction and I have no sense of direction whatsoever. What's more, he can skip a stone across the water, drive stick shift, work a grill, make a fire; he appreciates the smell of honeysuckle; he thinks ahead, he thinks calmly, he thinks in a linear progression, while I live in the moment, get overwhelmed easily, and think free-associatively. Have I mentioned that I really want to get married? And I will get married. I'm a Taurus. We’re a very stubborn, determined bunch.

OCTOBER 1997, KENT, CT.
The suspense is killing me. Will he ask me? If so, when? Should I get a manicure once a week, just in case? Should I wear makeup before I leave the house in the event that we'll want to take a picture to document the moment?

Then, on a magnificent Saturday in early October, my boyfriend suggests we go hiking. Sounds like a nice way to liberate myself from the prison of my engagement anxiety, so I throw on some boots and a ratty old T-shirt. We set off in the car for Kent, where the leaves are apparently at their peak. We get to a clearing high up with a beautiful view.

Another couple is already there. My boyfriend becomes agitated and suggests we walk further. I begin to complain: I'm tired and sweaty and feel we've gone far enough. But something in the urgency of his tone makes me relent, so off we go into a beautiful, leafy glade. We stop for a moment while my boyfriend appears to be tying his boot. He isn’t. He's getting on one knee. I begin to laugh. This seems ridiculous. But I bite the inside of my cheek and warn myself that a man is about to propose and I better shut up and let it happen.

My boyfriend tells me he wants to climb all of life's mountains with me—the real ones and the metaphorical ones—and will I marry him? I laugh and apologize for complaining. He says that isn't an answer to his question and asks me again if I'll marry him. I say, "Of course!" and he laughs with joy and relief. I wish I could feel some kind of honest thrill but I don’t. I'm not entirely sure that I feel anything.  

JUNE 1998, THE WEDDING
I don't like my dress. It weighs 800 pounds and I can barely move in it. It feels symbolic of the life I am signing on to: the life of an indentured servant; the life of a banker’s wife. I cry during the ceremony.

Everyone thinks it's because I’m so moved by love but, I can tell you now, it was out of pure terror. I'm angry about the lighting. It's too dark and I don’t like the shadows being cast on the white carpet. The chuppah, too, is not what I had expected. I didn’t want to go over the top. It’s clear that I have.

JUNE 1998, LONDON
When my husband accepts an offer to move to London, I agree to go because I know that theoretically most people would love to live in London in a three-story townhouse with a garden in the back in posh Chelsea with a successful banker who runs marathons and climbs mountains. I agree because really I have no choice other than annulment, and I wouldn't dream of doing that. I had done it. I had gotten married. I pulled off a huge, successful party. It's behind me now. Two years of hiking and biking and running and skiing and watching 18 rounds of golf and arranging dinners with friends and going through all the talks—all those endless talks! Eight months of preparation for a 20-minute ceremony and a three-hour party. I got what I wanted. Didn't I?

I wonder if this is how it is with all newlyweds. I ask some of my friends. Many agree it's hard to keep passion alive. So I feel OK. I feel like I'm part of something larger than myself. I'm participating in a cultural ritual and I'm doing just fine.

DECEMBER 2000, PREGNANT
My husband and I have been married for two years and we've been together nearly six. Against all odds and a constant low-grade fever of anger running between us, we seem to be surviving. It seems like the time to start a family.

On the last Saturday of November, we head to the Hamptons for our first weekend alone together in close to two months. Two weeks later it's confirmed: I'm pregnant.

I’m not as elated as I thought I would be. Instead I become depressed because things are tense and miserable with my husband most of the time. I start to feel insane for bringing life into the world with someone I don't like most of the time. My husband and I see a marriage counselor. I cry hysterically and say I don't feel connected to him; we never really talk.

He says, "Let's go out to dinner, then, and talk." We go out to dinner and I say, "You start." He tells me about a nursing shortage in Ghana. He goes on for 20 minutes at least. After a while I interrupt and ask him what this has to do with the fact that I'm feeling anxious about the pregnancy and the state of our relationship. He says it has nothing to do with it: I told him we never talk, so he's talking.

I say, "What about the baby?" and he tells me, with exasperation that I mistake for passion, that he loves me and is thrilled at the thought of becoming a dad. Suddenly way too exhausted to fight for our marriage anymore, I decide to feel reassured by his excitement. I decide to calm down. I decide to be happy. It’s amazing all the things you can decide to do when you really want something to work.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
It’s a magnificent morning. I tell my baby nurse I'd like to take my newborn daughter to the Baby Gap in the Winter Garden, which is attached to the World Trade Centers. Our conversation is interrupted when a plane flies by the window of my living room. A moment later it hits the North Tower. I think about the plane and my proximity to the buildings. My husband took an 8 A.M. flight to Washington, D.C., for a meeting near the Pentagon so I know he isn't reachable. I decide that if a piece of the plane hit something on the ground, the whole neighborhood could go up in flames. "Let’s go," I say to the nurse.

En route to the Upper East Side, I hear that an 8 A.M. commuter flight has flown into the Pentagon. Is my husband dead? I wonder. My husband isn't dead. He sends an email to my father from his Blackberry many hours later. There is cheering and general rejoicing at my parents’ apartment. Intellectually, I'm relieved but I'm too numb to feel actual relief. As usual, I feel nothing in the moment; I feel nothing at all.

I lie awake most of the night watching the news. One station keeps playing the frantic phone message of a 32-year-old woman to her fiancé. The bereaved fiancé is in his early thirties, wearing a light blue Oxford shirt that matches his eyes; that matches my husband’s eyes. "She’s my soul mate," he tells the newscaster between sobs. "I don’t want to be alive without her. I don’t want to be alive ..."

What is love? What on earth is it? After getting to know each other so deeply, after surviving fights and deluges in the Alps, sitting together through funerals of friends and celebrating at the brisses of my sisters' sons, I felt certain that what I felt was love.

And yet, when I examine the reality of my emotions, or lack thereof, I know that I don't feel the kind of love that the bereaved Romeo on the TV feels for his lost Juliet. I want to feel that way about my husband, but I don't.

I will give myself one year. If one year from today we haven't made deep, structural improvements, it will be time to move on.

SEPTEMBER 2002, BRIDGEHAMPTON
Lying in our bed—the bed where we conceived our daughter; where we shared moments of passion, exhaustion, happiness, sadness; lying in our bed on the hard mattress I've always hated but chose anyway because my husband prefers a hard mattress.

Lying in our bed, this is what goes through my head before I utter the words that will usher in a new chapter between us: Do we really belong together? Will I ever find this so-called love I think I'm missing? What will happen to all our friends? Will they take sides? Who will I go to the movies with? How will we explain this to our daughter? Will the pain and confusion I feel ever go away? "I’m no longer thriving in this relationship," I say quietly but clearly. "I think we need to consider a separation." The words surround us and we bathe in them for a moment. Then he says, "I agree." I start to sob and then we make love with the desperation of two people who will soon be separated by war.

OCTOBER 2002, INFANCY
And so I begin my new life: the life of a separated person. Like any newborn, there is a lot of wailing in the beginning. I cry every day for a few weeks, and then every few days for a few months, and then every so often. Eventually, there are no more tears left. I will learn to live on my own again. But first I have to learn how to sleep through the night.

2005, THE AFTERMATH
I’'ve been asked by every man I've dated since my divorce why I got married in the first place, especially if I knew there were real problems. I've reduced the answer to the basics. Timing: I wanted to get married. Fear: I didn't have the character to call it off. Indecision: I could never truly decide by which criteria you choose your life partner.

Of course, one person will never have every single quality you desire. Here's what I've concluded. If there's one red flag, march on. If there are two or three red flags, proceed with caution. If there are more than 10 red flags—and I left many off my list— don't just stand there watching them wave in the wind. A red flag at the beach is a warning to stay out of the water, a warning to protect your life. Take care of your heart with the same vigilance. Otherwise, no matter how nice your bathing suit or how fit your body, you're going to drown. Take it from me. I've tasted the sand on the ocean floor.

Adapted from The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage and Divorce, edited by Sally Wofford-Girand and Andrea Chapin, copyright 2007, Warner Books

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