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April 9, 2000

Why Can't We Stay Married, If We Love Each Other?

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I would like to say I liked being a wife. But if I am honest, I did not. I liked being good. I liked being perceived of as decent and honorable and committed to my family. And while I was committed beyond reason to my children, the same could not be said about my commitment to my husband. Not really. So I was a good wife. Until I wasn't.

If you ask my husband, he will say our seven-year marriage ended the day I began to have feelings for someone else. More precisely, the day he broke into my e-mail account and discovered I had feelings for someone else. For him, this is likely true. For me, it is more complicated. Because I am a woman, and women, as a rule, live in the gray areas of life.

Women want things to go on. All things. Even, or perhaps particularly, sad things. We want our lovers to love us forever. Not necessarily to be with us forever, but to carry us someplace in their hearts, someplace prominent. Women want to matter. And as such, we do not like endings. We prefer the untidy swell and ebb of emotion to the change-of-address card. We know that feelings are complicated, fluid, uncontrollable-and all that really count in the final days of life. We know this intuitively, and because we know it, we are happy in the mess.

Men, not so much. When men leave a marriage, they just go. They follow their bliss. They make no apologies. They move on, the cord cut. Women need a reason to leave. "Because I want to," is never enough. We need witnesses and encouragement and approval and an alternate vision of our future, which explains why, statistically, most women decide to leave their marriages seven years before they actually do, and why, when they finally go, it is often into the arms of another man. Messy, but real. Or it feels real, which can be enough.

I met my husband at a Halloween party. I was dressed as the Dick half of Dick and Jane, a sartorial choice that left him assuming I was a lesbian. He chatted with me anyway, asking many questions in his lethal Australian accent. By the time he was unlacing my boots back at his apartment later that night, he had revised his initial impression. We had sex on the floor in front of his couch, Mozart's Requiem playing on the stereo. The next morning, in the harsh light of sobriety, I hurriedly dressed and fled. Less than two weeks later, we were engaged. It was a great story, one we delighted in telling in the years that followed, watching the predictably startled response of more reasonable people when we said, "And then, 10 days later, he proposed!"

Two weeks was not a long courtship. But that is not what killed the marriage. In fact, our mutual impulsiveness and the pride we took in our balls-out approach to life bound us. We were ridiculous, madcap. Other people were timid. We belonged together in our happy, stupid, puppy-dog life.

So we married, and nine months later (almost to the day) our first daughter was born. Fifteen months later, a second daughter came. During that time, we moved five times, twice across the country. We collapsed a lifetime of experience into a few years. We were busy. More, we were distracted. There were signs. There are always signs. The problem for every married person lies in discerning what is a sign and what is a normal consequence of sharing a life with someone. Are you bored because you aren't with the right person? Or because no one stays interesting after 10 years? Do you want to cheat because your sex life is mediocre? Or because you are randy from ovulating? Are you in a rough patch? Or is this it for life? Every day yields a reason to leave. What you need is a reason to stay.

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