IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Husband and I Separated Twice with No Intention to Get Divorced

Almost everyone around me expressed radical lack of faith in my marriage.
Publish date:
August 19, 2016
marriage, divorce, separation

Although we ran this piece through our plagiarism-detecting software without any flags, it has since come to our attention that a portion of the last line of this piece — "compatibility is an achievement of love, not a condition for it" — is nearly identical to a sentence in Alain de Botton's New York Times piece "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person." - Marci

Yesterday, my husband and I honored our tough little four-year-old marriage by meeting after work at a favorite restaurant in the same neighborhood as the church where we exchanged vows and rings. We then made our separate ways home.

We will also take a road trip this coming weekend as a way to spend time together. Merely a card or exchange of texts would not be commensurate with the achievement that four years really is for us; "day of" activities are important to me, but too big a celebration risks eclipsing the seriously vulnerable state our relationship is in.

Four months after we married, the pastor who did our premarital counseling and officiated our wedding confessed one-on-one to me that he had been holding back inappropriate affection for me for four years. My husband and I had to leave the congregation we met and spent the previous five-plus years in. My husband's coping mechanisms clashed deeply with mine, and we abruptly separated after a few months of volcanic, emotionally isolating rows.

The hardest part to explain to the few friends who knew of our situation was that neither of us had any intention to divorce.

We each moved in with different friends; the ensuing 10 months proved a necessary cool-down period, but we had not broken our old patterns' hold on us. He is an avoider who withdraws from emotional intensity; I smolder with big feelings about everything and am a consummate clasher. After living with encouraging, nurturing friends, I still couldn't admit — because I didn't even know — that I thrived on conflict. My husband persisted in his belief that true love meant no secrets and, while his steadfast idealism was one thing that initially drew me to him, his bouts of external processing often left me hurt and confused about his feelings.

We hadn't done enough of the work, together or individually, that marrying the wrong person demands. Any person would be the wrong one — we are all insatiably mad, fragile, ill-equipped and scathed — yet I vigilantly held to the vision, though I saw it nowhere around me, of a perfect union, as if I was immune to the difficulties of life alongside another. My husband and I reunited without really reconciling either our particular struggles or ourselves to the fact that every encounter with another person is a cross-cultural experience every time. We (as humans) want wordless understanding in love because this is what we have needed from the very beginning of our lives. It is extremely difficult to be consistently close, and in close quarters, with another human, and a lot of that is because we are very difficult to live with ourselves (something that being single really has no way to bring out in us).

We made it nearly two more years before the fight where he said things he would later want to take back and that sparked another separation. This time was not so impervious to the notion that separation is always the first step toward divorce. This time, I couldn't automatically brush that assumption off as wrong. Maybe we were in this situation again because we were simply not meant for each other. Maybe the four breakups prior to our wedding should have taught us that.

For over three months, I spoke to my husband only for logistical purposes. I lived alone in our apartment with the belongings he couldn't fit in the small room he began renting from friends the month I turned 30; I wrote my sore, brittle heart out; I found and deeply connected with a new therapist.

Almost everyone around me, including a wise and dearly trusted father figure and mentor of almost eight years and my former best friend expressed radical lack of faith in my marriage. This was, of course, validating; they had only told me of their deep doubts after reading the seven-page essay detailing my grievances I'd bitterly composed after the fight that triggered our second separation. Though I could not do enough mental gymnastics to get myself off the hook for making a lifelong covenant with another person, divorce was a realer option to me than it had ever been before; that is, it was actually an option for me. I even warned my parents, neither of whom I am close enough to to have shared even a hint of marital discord, that dissolution was probable.

I would not have been able to consider all the possible ways I could proceed in my marriage, including ending it, had I not basically role-played doing so by separating without any expressed agreement to reconcile. It was those three months of silence that invited me to consider what life might be like with someone else, which was, as it turns out, merely a trap to get me nose to nose with every childhood fear and neurosis surrounding relationships that I'd not yet shed. The only person I could imagine being any kind of compatible with was a man I constructed in my own head, a patchwork of real experiences I longed to have again and flawed fairy tales of all-in-one rescuing romance infused throughout my pre-working-woman-Barbie-sans-Ken girlhood of Disney movies and messages that a woman's highest accomplishment in life is/should be marriage.

I asked my therapist what he considered his biggest accomplishments to be and he listed "building a successful marriage" as one of them. By then, I had already cautiously begun approaching reconciliation with my husband, and his sincerity ratified the longing I have felt every time I look at white-haired couples sitting hand in wrinkled hand on a park bench, 35 or so years into constructing and rebuilding their creaky but beautiful edifice. I was not simply reflecting the cultural waters I grew up drinking and swimming in: the thought I want that has been so strong it has choked my heart every time.

I'd had a few long-term relationships before meeting my husband, so I had the chance to enact what being with different people would be like, but I just didn't have the maturity to see them in context. It is not that I regret failing to compare my partners to each other; it is that I had been doing what I thought love was supposed to do: seeing only them and how to make life work with only them, one at a time. What I do regret is that I seemed only to have the capacity to be dissatisfied when the inevitable gravel patches disrupt the smooth terrain of beginning. I regret that I didn't have the wisdom to see that unhappiness is not necessarily a sign of failing love because love's work not merely the contentment of its objects but in their continual growth and learning.

Separating without prior expressed desire to reconcile is what made it possible for me to genuinely consider being with others, if there was perhaps a better match for me and for my husband out there. It took going twice around the block of separation, which will last a while longer for us as we take up the work of reconciliation, but I wouldn't have seen without it that compatibility is an achievement of love, not a condition for it.