Elisabeth: What If It’s Not Forever?

Recognizing the impossibility of predicting forever, and hoping for it anyway.

K came home the other day with her face drawn. A couple she’s known for a long time, two good people who have gone through a terribly difficult time, have announced that they are separating. She said she couldn’t stop thinking about it all day, and she tried to explain why over a salmon cobb salad: “I’m surprised because they made such sense together.”

We sat there for a long time, picking the good bits out from the lettuce, and talked about the news. About how she really liked both of them, and that they seemed like such a match. About how we both know people who are working hard to stay in situations that seem, from our outside perspective, at best baffling and at worst damaging, and how different this particular split seemed to be. There didn’t seem to be any reason for the separation that we could identify, even as we reasoned that this was a naive assumption. Those who are not involved in the intricacies of a marriage cannot even really know it. Are there things that people just cannot survive, we wondered.

It was a sobering conversation. Here we are, two people who dearly love each other, who are good for each other, in a million big and inconsequential ways. What could happen that would make us decide to leave each other? And what can we do to prevent that, besides keeping communication open, being honest with each other, avoiding condescension, and dreaming up ways to stay intimate? If we cannot reasonably take vows of love’s permanence, then what do the vows even mean?

“I really, really do not want to get divorced,” K vowed. As a child of divorce, I agree with her. I don’t want to go through it, and I don’t want my future kid to go through it. But then I think about my own parents, who are much better not married to one another. My world was rocked when they broke up, but even with all the hurt, I wouldn’t want to stay in a bad situation either. Does that mean I’m not as committed to the cause?

After dinner, we sat down and started a small wedding registry, but couldn’t think of anything to add besides a pressure cooker from this century (we use an antique one we unearthed from the Chincoteague shed that seems MOSTLY safe). It was as if we were looking for some reassurance in the tea leaves, in sheets and towels and pans. As if registering for expensive things, and promising extra hard to be married and stay married, meant we could control all the possibilities of a lifetime.

People ask me why we decided to get married, and one of the things I say is that I realized I was starting to wonder what K would be like at fifty, sixty, and beyond. And I realized I hoped, very much, to be there to see it all unfold. When I’m living in the retirement community that my college friends are planning to launch, K’s the one I want in the bed beside me, holding hands.

She always falls asleep before I do, and that night I tucked my forehead into her shoulder blades and stayed there for a long time. I remembered being twenty-four and following an earlier love to this city, a rolling stereotype driving a U-Haul into Park Slope with two cats on the seat next to me. My twenty-four-year-old self could not have possibly predicted what this looks like now: this house, this girl, this life. How could I know what forty-four and beyond will look like, what I will want and need? How do you know when you know? What if it’s not forever?

Emily Dickinson says hope is the thing with feathers, that hope is what will weather the storm, that will keep singing, even in the chillest land and strangest sea. That’s how I want to remember my wedding day and start my marriage. Surrounded by people I love and the person I love most, recognizing the impossibility of predicting forever, and hoping for it anyway.

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  • Katelyn

    I’m sitting in my little cubicle just awestruck by this beautifully written piece, so well done.

  • Karen

    This was beautiful. I have been just like you: traveled across the country to be with someone who I was sure was “the one.” Only to find that she wasn’t. Now I’m thrilled that I stayed in this state, I have a wonderful partner and a wonderful home. And yet. There are no guarantees. When we see couples around us having difficulties, we humans question our own relationships: do have what it takes to go the distance? All I know is that every day I’m more committed than the day before.

  • Another Meg

    “All I know is that every day I’m more committed than the day before.”

    This. As an “encore bride” (so not sure how I feel about that term), this fear of everything falling apart later is always in the back of my head. But every day it gets a little easier to chase that ghost away, to realize that my fiance is not my ex-husband and we do not have the pitfalls of that marriage anywhere in our relationship. We are much stronger, and we grow closer every day.

    It’s all we can do- make the decision each day to commit to our relationship, and to work to keep it strong and healthy.

  • Kara E

    When we saw this with some friends, my now-husband’s very wise comment was that only -they- see the inside of the relationship.

  • js

    I both love and hate this. It brings up a myriad of emotions I don’t want to look too closely at. I am scared all the time of losing my partner because there are so many ways that could happen. The health scare I’m having right now has brought to the forefront how fragile and sometimes fleeting love is. Maybe one day, my insecurities will finally be too much to take. Or maybe I will grow tired of always being the one to make a move. Nobody wants to get a divorce; nobody marches down the aisle hoping that it won’t last. I know that. It is so true you can’t know a relationship until you’re inside it. I know I am loved, but I feel so alone sometimes.

    • I struggle with some of the same things. What I discovered? Worrying about all those things kept me stuck feeling bad. I started coaching myself to let go of the worries, actively redirected my brain when it was wallowing and started acting like I believe it was all going to be ok. Now I feel closer to my hubby and even better, less alone. Because I’m not, you’re not, we have someone there – we just have to let them in. Fake it til you make it, works every darn time.

      Good Luck!

      • Shiri

        This is really important. Taking control of those thoughts, when you can, can be the key to dealing with many types of anxieties. Learning how to stop that spin is so, so hard, but also so freeing. It helped me discover what I was actually worried about, versus what my anxieties centered around, too.

        • Catherine

          So wise and true Shiri!

      • Emily

        Kristen, can you describe more by what you mean by “actively redirectcd my brain when it was wallowing…” and how you did that?

        • LMN

          I wanted to chime in on this topic just in case additional thoughts are helpful. I hope that Kristen will share her thoughts, too. I have generalized anxiety disorder, and certain aspects of relationships (both with my FH and my family) and wedding planning can set my anxiety off in a big way. Long term, I’ve been working with a counselor and also take medication to learn how to deal with it. Day-to-day techniques that help me stop my brain from spinning out or wallowing:

          1) Sit still and focus on my breathing, thinking “In–out” as I go.

          2) Listen to a guided meditation mp3s on a daily basis, so that I’m trained to relax as soon as I hear this particular music/soothing lady’s voice talking about my chakras. I keep it loaded on my phone and keep headphones in my purse so I can have a dose of relaxation any time, any place.

          3) If I feel like I’m absolutely overflowing with anxiety about a million things (ahem *wedding planning*), I write out everything that’s worrying me. Then, depending on how I’m feeling, I either save the list to go through with my counselor or my FH, or I tear it into little pieces and shred it.

          4) Go for a brisk walk, focusing on everything around me. It’s hard for the anxiety to keep up when I’m in motion and directing my attention outward to look at birds, people, flowers, puppies, etc.

          5) Reach out to someone who already knows what I’m dealing with, in terms of anxiety, and who already knows that I may get in touch when I need help. Sending a text, email, or making a call to someone who loves and supports me helps break the cycle of panic. I tell them what’s happening at the moment and what I need–to talk about what’s upsetting me, or to be distracted–and they do.

          I avoided doing #5 for the longest time because I was so embarrassed about my anxiety, and I felt like it was an imposition to ask people to be willing to take a call from me when I’m hyperventilating or ugly-crying. But when I finally got up the courage and asked if it was okay to call my friends for help when I needed it, I got an overwhelmingly positive response. Just knowing that I can call someone when I need to keeps me from needing to call very often. My support network keeps me from feeling alone even when I’m physically alone. Also, my dog helps a lot. I can’t overestimate how much my dog has helped me deal with my anxiety.

          • Catherine

            Wow, wonderful advice. I love that we can talk about the “hard stuff” and the realities that come with lifetime commitment and real life here.

        • Sure – though as blase as I made it seem, as Shiri mentioned, this stuff isn’t “easy”. However, it is imperative for me at least.

          And it comes down to self awareness. If you want to change yourself, paying attention to what you’re doing, thinking, feeling and saying is key. So when I decided to try and loosen my grip on my fears, it meant noticing when I was getting upset/freaked out/angry, etc. More than that, it meant noticing when I was caught in a bad thought cycle (“he said that because he doesn’t really love me” or “He’s probably been in a car wreck”, all that stuff) and applying logic to the situation. Actively telling myself it wasn’t true and it was bad of me to talk to myself that way. Pointing out to myself that my husband is a scatterbrain and never remembers to call if he’s running late.

          Sometimes it helps me to pretend its a friend complaining or voicing a concern and then thinking of what I would tell them because I’m like a genius at passing out advice I can’t seem to take myself. So I’m trying to fix that.

          I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t worked very hard at self awareness. Now I’m on to self acceptance – definitely the harder of the two!

  • Emmy

    I met my fiancé when he was going through a divorce, so the nebulous idea of “forever” has always been in the forefront of my mind. We’ve talked about it and committed to always working on our marriage, and to going to counseling if it becomes necessary. But if, after all of that, we’ve still come to a terrible point and we can’t fix it, we will divorce.

    I always think of Louis C K: “Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce … That would be sad. If two people were married and they were really and they just had a great thing and then they got divorced, that would be really sad. But that has happened zero times.”

    • Class of 1980

      Well, I agree that divorce is usually right and I initiated my divorce. I would never go back.

      But it was also the most painful thing I ever lived through in my whole life. Even saying that is an understatement.

      • Emmy

        Oh, without a doubt. I think his point though is that in the end, it’s a good thing.

  • “That’s how I want to remember my wedding day and start my marriage. Surrounded by people I love and the person I love most, recognizing the impossibility of predicting forever, and hoping for it anyway.”


    • Olivia M

      one of my new favorite quotes about relationships. i only have four of them, and two are from apw.

      • adrienne

        what are the others?

  • Class of 1980

    I know a lot of people were taken by surprise by my divorce, but that’s only because our personal struggles were completely hidden from them.

    While you’re in the middle of serious problems, you’re trying to fix it, but not sure if you can. As long as you’re hopeful, you present a united front to the world. You’re in No Man’s Land for a long time (often years) until it becomes crystal clear that you have to leave.

    The only way to make people understand why you split up with someone would involve an invasion of privacy. It would mean talking to people about you or your partner’s deeply personal challenges.

    In some cases (like abuse), it might be necessary to give that information. But in most cases it feels wrong to destroy your partner’s privacy in that way. Your partner may have been struggling with personal issues that no one has any right to know.

    I NEVER ask anyone why they got a divorce. My family and friends only know some of the reasons for my divorce; the rest is just way too personal. My ex has told me that he never says anything negative about me either.

    The only time I divulged extremely personal stuff to his family was when I had to intervene years after the divorce to clue them in to his mental illness issues. He needed understanding and help, and they didn’t understand what was wrong with him. I did the right thing there and he’s better off because of it.

    If people knew the reasons for why couples split, it would all make sense. But then no one would have any semblance of a private life and nothing would be sacred.

    • Another Meg

      Oh my god yes.

      My divorce came as a shock to most people, and I still have friends who kind of judge me for it. But that’s because I am not going to tell them all of the little ways I was pulled apart in that relationship. People still see him around through other friends, and it’s not entirely their business.

      He and I know what happened, and hopefully he learned from it.

    • A Single Sarah for certain values of single

      I appreciate the point of not asking other people why they got a divorce. I’ve done that intuitively, but you actually give a reason. Invading privacy is sometimes tempting when I want to make sense of the world, but it’s not going to help anyone.

    • MDBethann

      I agree with not asking why someone divorced with 1 caveat – your significant other. If he/she is divorced, I think it is completely fair to ask what happened so you, as their (new) partner are fully informed. While my DH and I did have that conversation, it was after we were both certain that we wanted to be together and develop a deeper relationship. I’m glad he trusted me with that story, because it helped me understand and appreciate him more. It also made me more aware of possible potholes in our relationship and hopefully prevent unhealthy habits from forming. I think we’re doing well, having just past our first anniversary, and it helps that the divorce is constantly becoming a thing of the distant past. But it is helpful to know the history so you can understand how to move forward and not repeat said history.

  • KINA

    This is wonderful! This will probably sound weird, but as much as I love reading all the wonderful and positive things on APW/RW, I maybe love pieces like this more. Makes it feel okay to acknowledge the possibility of failure in our own relationships and not have all the answers. It’s a lot easier to plan a wonderful celebration of love (aka wedding) than it is to promise forever to someone, and maybe that’s okay. We can love and hope anyway, without having to pretend we know how the story will end.

  • KE

    This is one of the best things I’ve ever read on APW (and there are many good pieces to choose from).

    My husband’s best friend and his wife separated in the months before our wedding, and he stayed with us for a few days the month before. We were both surprised (though obviously they weren’t).

    In a weird way, it helped our relationship because we had to discuss the big scary things. I think we’d both been having “but what if it ISN’T forever?” thoughts, but didn’t want to be the one to bring it up and seem uncommitted. (To be clear, I’d much rather our friends still be in a happy marriage than for us to have been inspired by their divorce to have a big talk.)

  • Nicole Marie

    This is a really beautiful piece and it really resonated with me. I love my partner deeply; I love our life together, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us, but when I see seemingly well-matched relationships around us fall apart, I feel the stirrings of doubt. If their relationship can fall apart, whose to say that won’t one day happen to us?

    Posts like this help me feel a little less lonely in these feelings, and remind me that having these feelings doesn’t mean that my relationship is doomed.

    I especially love this part: “She always falls asleep before I do, and that night I tucked my forehead into her shoulder blades and stayed there for a long time.” On the occasions when those feelings of doubt start to creep in, I feel like all I can do is hold him as tight to me as possible, rest my head in the crook between his neck and shoulder, and try to soak up as much love as I can. I don’t want the fear that someday I may lose this to prevent me from basking in the joy of it now. And even if I can’t keep it forever, like Elisabeth I’m going to hold onto the hope that I can.

  • My ex and I were one of those couples. The ones who seemed to get along great and divorce made no sense. We never fought. Our families got along great. We liked all the same things. We had great jobs, no kids, two dogs, and awesome friends.We had been together for a long time. And yet…we still got divorced. Because divorce happens.

    I never talked about the reasons for my divorce with anyone until my ex was fully in recovery. His mom didn’t even know until about a year after I left him. Part of it was shame on my part that I couldn’t make it work. Part of it was that I felt like it wasn’t my story to tell. Addiction is an awful, private thing to go through. And if he wasn’t prepared to admit it, who was I to do it for him? Which was a gift I think to myself and him. It allowed him to recover in his own time, in his own way without people nosing in on him. And it allowed me the time to forgive him in my own time, in my own way without people telling me how I was supposed to feel.

    In a lot ways choosing to get divorced is a lot like choosing to get married. Friends on the outside can try to understand but it’ll only make sense to the couple involved. Mostly they just need to say, “I love you, I trust your judgement, and what can I do to help.”

    PS. I totally needed this post today btw. APW you guys have been hitting it out of the park this month.

    • LMN

      “I love you. I trust your judgement. What can I do to help?”

      THIS. I want this to be my mantra, and the mantra of my friends and family. I’ll try to practice it as often as I can.

      Thank you for sharing this.

  • april

    This is a really timely piece for me right now. My fiance and I just got back from his dad’s wedding, and it was a weird experience. His mom and dad divorced fairly recently, and no one (his mom included) really saw it coming. So while the ceremony was very sweet, there was this sort of dark cloud hanging over it …

  • kgoesgallivanting

    “hope is the thing with feathers, that hope is what will weather the storm, that will keep singing, even in the chillest land and strangest sea. That’s how I want to remember my wedding day and start my marriage. Surrounded by people I love and the person I love most, recognizing the impossibility of predicting forever, and hoping for it anyway.”

    The last paragraph really struck a chord with me. My fiance and I went back and forth for the better part of a year, discussing how and why we should get married. We kept asking ourselves, “How can we know if something is forever?”, and the simple answer is we can’t. This fall we finally decided that we want to make our relationship work. We’ve been choosing each other everyday for six years, and we’ll keep choosing each other. It was and still is the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but I’m proud of the way we approached the situation and the steps we’ve taken to make sure that we both feel supported and comfortable in our relationship. In the end, that’s really all we can do, give each other our love and support.

    • KB

      I agree – there’s no use in repeating the question over and over to each other, the “What if it’s not forever?” Because the answer is most definitely “Yeah – so what do you do about it?” I think to a certain extent – and I know people will totally disagree with me here – that if you the best odds of a marriage surviving, you will interrogate each other inside and out, fully examine all annoyances and weakness. And then you lock all that $%&* away and jump into it with full-on denial. Because I look at people who have been married a REALLY long time and I feel like if you asked them how they stay together, a lot of themwould say, “I dunno, you just do.” With the exception of truly damaging and abusive situations, I think that type of “failure is not an option” thinking needs to be present a lot of time in order to help partners to stop focusing on their short-term needs and look at long-term happiness which, hopefully, involves staying together.

      And on THAT note – is anyone noticing or has anyone experienced being more annoyed with their partner as the date of the wedding gets closer? Is this just a version of cold feet? Like, not the “Oh God, he picks his nose, I can’t marry him” but more of the “Oh God, he picks his nose, I’m going to have to deal with that FOREVER now…”

      • Haha, yes. And sometimes it recurs post wedding, but it does fade.

      • jlseldon7

        Oh yes. Because it suddenly seems like this is the last moment to jump ship before you are stuck. So you sit there and ask yourself, “can I deal with THIS for the REST of my LIFE?” But the good thing is people do change habits, and whatnot, and afterwards it’s not nearly so bad, because “well, I guess I’ll just get used to it”

      • Audrey

        I was fine with that before the wedding, but I totally had that right around when we were going to get engaged.

      • Elisabeth

        Oh KB, the litany of things I have suddenly found as we get closer. Like K’s cheerful willingness to turn on her light at 5am and read for an hour while emitting a lot of cheerful yawns before the sun is up — which gives me something I like to call ‘night rage.’ Not my best.

        We know a couple who’s been together about 30 years now, and they operate using an extended cooling off period — so if they’re in the middle of something difficult, they both know that they’re going to give it at least 6 months, if not longer, of living in and working through the hurt and anger before they even consider entertaining ideas of separation or something more permanent. While I imagine this happens organically for many relationships, I do like the idea that these intentions are so explicit. “I promise not to listen to my catastrophic thoughts and to stay in the discomfort, even though I don’t even like you right now.”

  • NTB

    This was wonderful to read, and at the same time, undeniably difficult to read as well. My husband and I attended a wedding for two dear friends one week after our own wedding, and eight months later, our friends are divorced. It’s sobering, and it does make you wonder (in a curious, non-judgmental way) how this could happen to two people who seemed so great for each other—two people who seemed happy and in love and in it for the long haul.

    It makes me wonder, too, how many things happen within a marriage that are never discussed or communicated or brought to the surface. How do two people manage to build up so much resentment that they can’t stay with their spouse? ‘Until death do us part’ and ‘Forsaking all others until I die’ are two vows worth examining every day, if for no other reason than to remind myself why I got married, especially when the goings get tough. (and they do get tough.)

  • PhillyBride

    This is a fear that comes up from time to time for us as well. As we watch friends divorce or split, we wonder what will make us different.. I guess there is no answer except our love is wonderful and each day brings new and exciting feelings. All we have is this moment. Thanks for this wonderfully poignant piece

  • I have a fear of divorce. My parents divorced when I was young, and I grew up with my wonderful stepdad. But divorce has always been the way things were for as long as I remember. When the boy and I got married, literally on our honeymoon, I freaked out because now that we were married, the only thing that could happen was for us to get divorced. (I mostly got over that in a day or so, and moved on to enjoying the beach).

    When we came back from the honeymoon, I told one of my best friends about it. She said her parents have been in an unhappy marriage since she was young, but they stay together for religious reasons. Her biggest fear of a serious relationship is that it would be forever, when it shouldn’t be.

    So there’s that too.

  • Carla

    We are planning our wedding and I think about this often. We are both divorced so we’ve been through the beginning and bitter end of a marriage. The different between the both of us and many of the comments is that we knew deep down the marriages wasn’t real and wasn’t going to last. I was 20 when I got married and thought it was the “right thing to do” from the religious pressure I was under (no pregnancy!). No one was surprised when I left him three years later because of the physical abuse (that actually started right after we got married).

    Now after a couple of significant relationships that ended for various reasons, I think about the potential loss. Having a chronic illness always brings things to the forefront with me. The fact that he has no living family scares me at times as well: no moral support, no one for him to talk with, no in-laws and what if the end of his life is similar to theirs?

    There are so many things to fear.

  • Rachel

    “How could I know what forty-four and beyond will look like, what I will want and need?” I think about this a LOT. As much as I want to be married and I am so excited to be, it IS scary. It’s such a public declaration of knowing not just another person but knowing yourself. Sometimes it feels like this very public gamble and that’s HARD, particularly in a culture that loves saying, “I told you so.” I don’t know how to get past it except to just know that even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still be OK because that has been my experience with other big life bets I made that didn’t go as planned. But like a lot of people here, I just don’t like to think about it much.

    This was such a beautiful and vulnerable piece, Elisabeth. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Elisabeth

      Rachel, I love your comment about the Big Life Bets and the reminder that when they don’t go as planned, things still eventually tip back to normal (or a new normal). That feels very comforting — not that I am planning for worst case scenarios, but that I am grounded and strong enough within myself to face them.

  • Jane

    My favorite passage on marriage and commitment unfortunately is too unwieldy to be a good wedding reading, or I’d insist on it for my ceremony. It’s from The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (basically Jesuits in Space, check it out). A woman in her 60s talks about being married to the same man for several decades. About every five years, she says, they had to take a serious look at who each of them had become and whether those people were still good together. And so far it had worked, but there were no guarantees. It always struck me as the most honest way to approach this issue. So when I say forever in a few months, I will mean it as well as I can: to try harder with this person than anyone else, to be honest with her and myself, and open-minded and loving enough to make my world a place that meshes with hers, and hope like hell that those worlds stay in tandem. I’ve chosen as well as I can.

  • Molly

    This post is wonderful. It’s lovely to see this side of your writing.

    Though I don’t know what 44, 54, 64 and beyond will look like for me, or what I will want and need at those ages, I do take great, great comfort in knowing that the promise my wife and I made to each other on our wedding day was not to hold each other to the dynamics of the relationship we knew and loved on that very day, or the people we were then. It was to trust in each other to make space for and cultivate and protect the people we would become — both together and separately. To me, this is what forever means: I am your person, I am a growing and changing and evolving being, and I know that you are, too. And I promise to love you and trust you and be gratefully and openly loved and trusted by you as we grow into ourselves and each other.

    • Caroline

      “I am your person, I am a growing and changing and evolving being, and I know that you are, too. And I promise to love you and trust you and be gratefully and openly loved and trusted by you as we grow into ourselves and each other.”

      Thanks for those beautiful words, Molly…..how truly and meaningfully you express it! This reassures me, as I too grapple with these forever-or-not-forever questions.

      And since I do, I want to thank Elisabeth and APW for publishing this. I’m not even engaged (I got into APW when a friend got married and mentioned the blog), but I am at the point with my partner where I’m carefully (*cough* obsessively) considering whether or not we should start orienting ourselves towards marriage. And the fear of the unknown DOES scare me. I’m happy for all the ladies on here who are just SO EXCITED and OMG THRILLED TO DEATH that they are marrying their partner……but let’s please hear more brave perspectives like this and talk about the fear, uncertainty, and how to deal.

      And also because I love everything Elisabeth writes. From a fellow public health person in Brooklyn, I salute you and your fantastic writing!

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