"But you're married…."
I hear it every time I'm sharing cocktails with single friends, swapping stories in the dim, loungy light I rarely find myself socializing in anymore, listening to tales about failed dates and messy breaks, and I think to myself, They are right: I am lucky. I have a husband. I have a partner to share in life's ups and downs. And yet, there's another side to being married that their refrain does not comprehend. The voicemails that often do not get answered between the hours of 8 and 6; the brief blurts of texts with train schedules and kid activity pickups; the daily quandary about dinner. The nights too exhausted for sex.
The highs and lows of married life pale in comparison to the passionate, intimate flings my single friends are still chasing, having, and then, unfortunately, losing. But in many ways, the risk is much greater. To throw your lot in with one partner and hope your communication and love and intent are enough. To mingle finances and dreams when so many around you have untangled those very same vines in disappointment. I find being married is a higher, quieter risk, but this is a story single friends don't want to hear over cocktails. To them, I have everything. To this I say, Yes, including loneliness.
I want to tell them life on the other side of the fence is not the fantasy; in fact, it is sometimes the nightmare of someone who likes independence, as I do, but who craves company. It's hard to believe marriage isn't the perfect social arrangement for such a disposition. In fact, it's a state that demands much more from your comfort zone, often at times when you don't have much to give. I'd never have believed anyone who told me the lessons I learned while single, on how to handle disappointment, terrible surprises, and sleeping by yourself for weeks at a time, would still be pertinent after merging our lives together. But they are.
The loneliness pops up at strange times, like in the months after we were first married, when you'd assume we would be inseparable, or on vacations, when you'd expect closeness and ease. Not for us. Rather, these time periods are filled with disconnection, which is common, our therapist has said, more like a necessary reorganization of selves. We are tired and busy people who need alone time even when we're together, my husband and I reason together. But sometimes, it feels bad.The duality of operating separately but carrying on with activities anyway; the worry and concern there's something wrong with us, with me.
The last time I encountered this dynamic back in my twenties is hard to forget: Two weeks before Valentine's Day, my 29-year-old self met my then love, a strapping sculptor, at Avenue A Sushi for a typical date: delicious drinks, a few pieces of yellowtail, and a drunken stumble to a cab up to his loft in the flower district. We had been together since Thanksgiving, he a gift dropped from the sky for me after a big breakup, and our time together had been easy, full of sex and affection. Or so I thought. In mid-bite of an enormous tuna roll, I heard the callous words: "I don't want to see you anymore." I nearly choked as my heart broke.
Breakups happen in everyone's life, but I had never been broken up with before that moment, and the blindsiding spun me into a deep despair. Not only had I not seen it coming, I actually said the embarrassing words, "Are you serious?"—making the moment deeply awkward in my memory for years to come. Two weeks later, the terrible confusion of still not knowing what actually happened became the ballast in the group Valentine's karaoke outing. I was with friends, fortunately, but in my heart the lack of understanding, the insecurity and shame that something was inherently wrong with me, persisted as we sang. I remember that moment often, especially when my husband and I are at odds.
Certainly, my husband and I can disagree about things: work, politics, parenting, and money. But these are the easy disagreements—the vocal ones. It's the unspoken ones that do damage: arguments you don't start, frustrations that fester into resentments. They sit between us like a dead animal, and prompt private worries: Maybe we don't see eye-to-eye any more; maybe he's hiding something; maybe I was wrong to trust my life to this man.
There is nothing lonelier than wondering if the life you built is a sham.
I know these musings are not only mine. When we're at the beach in summer and I see other couples who seem happier than we may be at the moment, I tell myself none of us are fooling each other. We are all faced with the same risk. The risk of losing, of having been wrong.
I know this because I remember another friend, a gregarious man who was soon to be engaged, confiding in me his concern about marriage. In a moment of less than stellar judgment, I got involved with him on the brink of his proposing to his fiancée. I knew I didn't love him, but when he told me like the stockbroker he was, "I'll leave her tomorrow if you say you'll be with me today," I felt his terror, how painful he found the idea of an empty apartment, appearing at functions without a plus one. I knew then the fact that I liked myself, that I could withstand going to a restaurant and a movie alone, tuck myself in with a bath and a good book, was a great power, and I lost respect for him. I didn't have empathy for his position then. Now, however, I see the very real chasm he faced on the brink of marriage. I see it on a regular basis. How it seems safer to start over with someone else rather than face the loneliness that a life in marriage inevitably presents.
The thing is, these feelings of loneliness come and go, and a marriage can be fine. We are fine. Strong, even. Loneliness and steadiness in marriage aren't mutually exclusive. But they do create conflict.
A few years ago, my husband was traveling to England, Scotland, and South Africa for 10 days, then 15 days, then 31 days for business. We always try to Skype during these trips, but the time difference has us waking or staying up past normal, neither of us look good on the screen, the Internet connection is spotty, and every time we get past the general "How's it going?" we get disconnected, literally. We are not phone sex people. I miss his lanky body, the weight of him on top of me, but we can't even sustain a conversation that reminds me we have spent years getting to know each other's deepest secrets.
There is nothing lonelier than feeling like a stranger with the man who knows you best.
What single friends sometimes don't realize is this: The unpleasant feelings of loneliness do not go away when you are married. The doubts still creep in. The worry that you could be so much happier if X, Y, or Z were true intensifies. Striking out with the wrong solution (a night on the town; a weekend getaway together) still burns. What's worse, hiding in marriage has consequences on the intimacy still intact, so drowning your sorrows in drinks with friends or endless and pointless parties only highlights what's wrong. And what's wrong is almost always the same: figuring out how to manage the feelings that come when life isn't a perfect picture.
After 10 years of marriage, however, I encounter such feelings with another perspective: This will pass. Riding the waves of constant change pulls two people apart as often as it throws them together. There's a lot of time for loneliness to creep in while finding equilibrium again, for living with uncertainty and disconnection while lying next to each other. But I've learned to back-burner the doubts, even absorb the loneliness in pursuit of the reconnection I trust will come. So far, it always has.
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