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I Knew My Marriage Would Fail Before It Even Started (and It Did)

Because it's way than calling off a marriage.


In the pictures everybody appears to be smiling. But if you look closely, my eyes are red-rimmed and they don’t have those telltale “authenticity crinkles” around them. I’m clutching a Kleenex in my hand, as well as my bouquet. There’s one where my parents are in a huddle with our pastor, being consoled. My dad—nothing if not a  sport—allows himself to be wrapped in a West African King’s attire (a huge drape of Kente cloth); his shoulders are tensed to his ears. There’s a painful snapshot where the family dog is parked on my train licking her crotch. It would probably be funny if I didn’t already know as we were taking those pictures that I was making a mistake. It might be a real lark if it wasn’t colored by the endless days of darkness that characterized our divorce.

The living room of my parents’ house was truly beautiful that night, and had I felt differently deep down in my gut (where it counts), this could have been a truly fabulous wedding grad post. It would have been about an intimate, romantic and affordable living-room winter wedding between a winsome West African man and an idealistic young woman so in love they would beat all the odds. I pretended it was just nausea from my two-month long pregnancy, but the bile I fought to swallow as I waited to walk down the stairs to the song that didn’t quite fit us, was a rising sense of panic. My body had been trying to tell me all week not to go ahead with it all: it started with a galloping case of cold sores, then progressed to a heinous sinus infection, and  because I was two months pregnant I couldn’t take any medicine. I got sicker and sicker as the day approached.

Finally it was the big day: New Year’s Eve. The spa where I had planned to spend a day of bonding with my sister refused to touch my viral, pregnant self. There was the requisite comic interlude with my bouquet: it looked more like “Miami Vice” than “Winter Fairyland” and it ended with my best friend pounding down the door of a farmers’ market and scraping together a $9 bouquet that was absolutely perfect.

I had bought tons of creamy candles on post-Christmas clearance. They were cradled in different crystal votives and balanced on mismatched crystal candlesticks. A few bare branches and pine boughs rolled in fairy glitter gleamed over the fireplace, and the big window that framed us as we exchanged vows revealed a chrome-crisp Maine winter night bright with stars. I remember the theme of our address was “Crazy Love.” Our wise pastor warned us of our love being tested beyond what we ever anticipated. My throat ached. Afterward my new husband played the tam tams, we sipped champagne left over from my sister’s wedding earlier that year, and snacked on appetizers ordered from a restaurant in town.

After the ceremony we headed downtown to Portland’s most fabulous restaurant (Street & Co.) where I ended up hyperventilating and passing out in the bathroom. My sister found me there, slushy grime streaking my skirt as I leaned on the toilet hot tears seeping out of my eyes, fever flushing my cheeks. She took off my corset bra so I could breathe, hid it under her shawl, and told the waiter we’d be having this reception (and cake) to go, thank you very much. We all ended up eating cake in our PJs and laughing. On our wedding night, my husband cooled my fever with a wet rag, and lovingly rubbed my feet. He was so thoroughly happy and I thought: “This will be ok.”

Three years later, Eat, Pray, Love-Style, I was again weeping on the floor of a bathroom, as I decided to leave my husband. Over the years, many people have asked me: What were you THINKING? The edge of judgment barely concealed. My uncle asked me the same question gently, with a tone of respect… the way he asked it let me know he assumed I was thinking something logical and smart, because that’s the kind of woman I am… thoughtful. Here’s what I told him:

Well… there was a civil war, a little girl, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. There was a strong family mythology around marriage: meet young, struggle and grow up together, and love is work, by the way.

I met my ex-husband when I was a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Cote d’Ivoire. He was charismatic, sharp as all hell, gorgeous, and special. He was an attentive single father of a little girl whose mom was too young to care for her. He showed me how to cook, took care of me when I was sick, and taught me most everything I knew about negotiating that place. He more than made up for his lack of formal education with curiosity, resourcefulness and street-smarts. The guy played the tam tams like a dream, charmed snakes, and spoke six languages. I fell in love with him in lamplight, and yearned for him sleeping just on the other side of the mosquito net he had put up for me (to keep me safe, of course). We started “dating” and I just knew that if he ever had the opportunities I had been born into, he would be going places. After Peace Corps I got a job in Abidjan with an international NGO—I wanted to see where our relationship would go without the pressure of our time together having an expiration date. His baby daughter moved in with me. Then he did. And we were happy enough.

Then a coup happened, and that escalated into a war. All hopes of him working evaporated. We evacuated to a neighboring country, where I began working as a country director for the same NGO. I could have broken it off then, which would have meant leaving him and my stepdaughter, then 4, in the direst kind of poverty, in the worst slum, to die in the crossfire. I felt I had promised him more. I just couldn’t do it to either of them. I loved them.

Five years went by, one foot in front of the other. Things were good. We talked more about getting married. He really wanted to. It would be so much easier for him to be on my health insurance, for my step-daughter’s school to be covered by my benefits package. The unofficial status of my “family” began to be an issue with my company, we couldn’t be evacuated together if this country fell apart. Because of visa issues, it was getting harder and harder to travel as the family we actually were. Why not just put one foot in front of the other and make what was already fact official?

My sister got married; there was leftover champagne. We decided to do it over Christmas vacation, in the living room. We would only invite four people outside of my immediate family. The fact that I didn’t want to shout our marriage from the rooftops should have been suspect (given I was a lifetime bridal-porn junkie) but I rationalized that it was all very practical. I felt proud of my uncharacteristic lack of extravagance, mistaking a desire to hide my lie for maturity. I got pregnant (mostly) accidentally and was happy about it. He was over the moon. One foot in front of the other, and we would continue the long journey of marriage that we had already begun.

I was thinking other things too:

What is marriage after all, if not a day-to-day negotiation with someone who you decide to make a life with? When my mom had heard I was going into the Peace Corps she had said: “But you’re not the kind of girl who does the Peace Corps!” (I was a swank women’s magazine editor living in NYC at the time). I remember retorting that we are the people we decide to be, and if I decided to do the Peace Corps then I was, by God, the type of person who does Peace Corps—(plus, lipstick travels!). Marriage is a decision every day, every minute. Love is work, everybody knows that. Fairy tale soul mates are just that—fairy tales. Real love is deciding to be together over and over, even when it is hard, and we do love each other. Commitment is an act of will. I can WILL soul-mate-hood into existence. I can WILL us into the peaceful kind of happiness others smugly pretend to have.

There were nagging doubts I repressed about our differences—many of them voiced by my parents. I was defiant and defensive—I knew what everybody was thinking, and I just knew that they couldn’t see past their American biases and fundamental belief that he was a gold-digging-visa-seeker. I knew different. I was not going to be racist and classist like them. Plus I am feminist, thus I was fine with role reversals and being the sole breadwinner. His lack of ambition was actually a relief (I reasoned)—it allowed me to pursue my dreams without having to accommodate a competing career. He was an artist, a free spirit. He would be the at-home parent.

A lot of this was honest and true.

But in my rebellious, self-righteous haze, I was also dishonest about our fundamental compatibility on life rhythm stuff. Like how much music we like and how loud, how many people we like to have over, how much we drink, how we spend money, how we feel about financial dependency, how important formal education is, how to deal when the kids have problems in school. The tone of voice we used to talk to each other deteriorated. We both signaled we were hurting and needed more, but those signals crossed in space. These were the issues that killed us. As the years went on, our power differential widened. He didn’t pursue more education but didn’t want the jobs he was qualified for (they were beneath him). His self-esteem plummeted as I won the bread for our family. He could feel my respect for him slipping away and countered harshly, with attacks and a growing sense of entitlement. He spent us into debt with endless retail therapy and diversions. I became more and more independent, needed him less and less to negotiate Africa and my job. I was flying, hauling up my own star (to use Meg’s fabulous term). I ceased needing him at all. He grew jealous and resentful—afraid he would lose me. I, in turn was hurt by his jealously, confused by his malaise, but bound by the kids and terrified of losing my step-daughter. He got more and more controlling, drank more and became increasingly verbally abusive. It went downhill from there. One day I was hiding in the pantry, crying silently and my step-daughter found me. “Mama,” she said, “Why is Daddy so mean to you?” I found myself holding her tight and whispering vehemently: “Never let a man treat you like this.” Then I remembered: I’m someone’s daughter too.

Months after I knew I was done, years after that candle-lit New Years’ Eve, I finally screwed up the courage to tell him it was over. The excuse was something small and stupid. Hearts broke over and over as we slogged through the milestones of divorce: endless spirals of grief as we circled the drain, violence, despair, panic attacks, him moving out, meeting other people, picking up the pieces with the kids, custody battles, money negotiations…

I learned you have no idea who a person is until you divorce them. I learned ripping apart the web of arteries and veins that is a marriage can make you both almost bleed to death. Divorce is viscerally terrifying. It is the suspension of reason. If children are involved it takes you to primal, reptilian places in your psyche. I learned divorce is never an escape hatch. It is not an option. It is the deepest and darkest last resort when you look at the 50 years stretching in front of you and know that if you have to continue your soul will die. It is never about what is fair, only what you are willing to do to be done. It was a salvation I was so grateful to have, but I was so wrong when I comforted myself on our wedding night that I would always have an out, that we could always get a divorce.

Several years later this story does have a happy ending. I hope to have the chance to tell in another post—after all, I am reading this blog because I am planning a wedding with the love of my life. My two girls, who stayed with me, are my maids of honor. My fiancé is my soul mate. Fairy tales do exist. I am overwhelmed with excitement and cannot wait to share our day with everyone we love. I also am so sure. Our fete is elaborate and detailed because that was the wedding I always dreamed of (and should have known keeping it low key was a sign something was wrong).

Because I know what divorce is, and so does my fiancé, we did serious due diligence on this thing. We checked and cross checked every element: attraction, sex, respect, financial beliefs, political beliefs, habits, dreams, parenting style, conflict resolution style, life rhythms…. We both know, from experience, that divorce is not an option.

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