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February 10, 2009

Split Decision

My best friend's divorce nearly ruined my marriage.

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Photo Credit: Javier Pierini/Getty Images

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Last summer, my friend Maria was in the midst of a huge crisis in her marriage. And boy, was I ticked off at my husband about it.

Maria and I met when I moved to Milwaukee eight years ago, set up by a mutual friend who thought we might have a thing or two in common. Did we ever: We both had long, brown curly hair, dark eyes, and glasses; had gone to the same high school (but hadn't known each other); settled on the same major in college; and eventually ended up in graduate school to study writing. We'd both dated men from Ireland — I married mine — and had spent a lot of time traveling there. We also shared similar fertility issues. Soul cyst-ers, we called ourselves, as we commiserated over our difficulties and made fun of our obsessively fertile friends. Eventually, we both got pregnant — within five weeks of each other.

Because I didn't know Maria's husband, Scott, very well (we were never couple-friends), I had always viewed her marriage in terms of my own fuzzy logic: Maria is like me, therefore her relationship must be like mine. I assumed that the feeling I got when Andrew slumped onto the couch next to me and I rested my head on his shoulder and there was nowhere on earth I'd rather be was just another thing Maria and I had in common.

Then, last spring, after Maria had just given birth to her second child, another girl, while I was pregnant with my second, also a girl, she and Scott began to argue more frequently. Even relatively minor matters, like whose family to visit over Christmas, triggered major blowouts. I chalked it up to growing pains — the same twitches and twinges my own relationship suffered from. You're exhausted, and you feel like you do 96 percent of the child care and 97 percent of the housework? Tell me about it, cyst-er! He doesn't listen to you, he has issues with anger, and you haven't slept in the same bed in three months? Uh ... well, so maybe Maria's partnership was closer to the brink than mine was, but I encouraged her and Scott to go to counseling and told her all the things I told myself — that the transition from couple to family can be emotionally complicated and physically exhausting, that they loved each other and they'd get through it.

But as the summer wore on, her complaints began to intensify. There was an anger in her eyes, and the things she told me — that Scott had stormed out of the house and didn't return until morning; that he had been unkind and insulting to their daughter Olivia; that, during one of their fights, he'd thrown a glass pitcher against the wall — felt more intense than the standard domestic squabbles. She began to speak of Scott as if she truly didn't like him, as if they might not make it.

I found myself coming home from nights out with Maria and peering at Andrew through her eyes: sacked out on the couch when there was a sinkful of dishes waiting for me? Unbelievably selfish! He snapped at our 5-year-old, Molly, when she wouldn't go to bed? Borderline abusive! Once I criticized him bitterly in front of my parents for telling Molly a story about zombies before bed. Andrew was confused by my bouts of fury. Weren't we the same couple who'd been doing just fine a few weeks ago? Well, were we?

Then came Maria's undeniable feeling that life without her husband was starting to look better than life with him. If she left Scott, she knew she'd be in for hard, sad times. But, she confessed, she was beginning to feel the first inkling of life after Scott: of hope — of freedom.

One night at dusk, Maria called me. Andrew and I had been sitting on our porch watching Molly turn cartwheels on the lawn. I took the phone inside. Her voice low and thick, Maria told me that Scott had moved out, that she had asked him for a divorce. As I gripped the phone, I found myself not at all surprised by her news. But I was surprised by the panic that lodged in my stomach. Maria and Scott weren't taking a break. They were getting a divorce.

After we hung up, I sat alone in the living room, listening to Molly and Andrew laughing outside. Maria — so like me that people sometimes couldn't tell us apart — was ending her marriage. I love my husband; we love each other. But Maria and Scott had loved each other, too. Maybe they still did. There was nothing separating us, the duo that is Lauren-and-Andrew, from the twosome of Maria-and-Scott, save for some very angry words and a slew of lonely mornings. Marriage is just two people making the choice, over and over again, to stay together, unless — until — one day, one of them makes a different choice.

I went back outside and sat next to Andrew. "Maria and Scott are getting divorced," I told him.

"That's sad," he said.

"Promise you'll never leave me."

"I promise I'll never leave you."

We watched as Molly did another cartwheel, propelling herself through space by sheer stubbornness and momentum. Like us.

Lauren Fox lives in Milwaukee. She has written for The New York Times, Seventeen, and Salon.com. Her novel, Still Life with Husband, was published in 2007.


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