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

We love each other. We have two beautiful daughters. Why couldn't we stay married?

He calls it his bachelor apartment. He sleeps well there. Jerks off a lot.I am upstairs. In our bedroom. In the bed we shared for seven years. I do not sleep. I do not jerk off. I do what all women do. I think. I blame myself. I marinate in my failure. I hate myself for my feelings. Sometimes I cry. More often, I stare at the ceiling and wonder what the fuck is wrong with me.

It is August 2005. By September, my husband and I spend a lot of time walking around our farm talking about ending our marriage.

"Maybe we should spend some time apart," I generally begin, weakly. I do not say "divorce." I tell myself this makes a difference. That until I say the words out loud they won't exist. That there is still a chance we will find each other again.

"Breaks never work," he snaps back. He is right, of course."What do you expect will happen? That without me around you will discover some forgotten attribute that will change your mind?"

Yes, I think."I just want some clarity," I say.

"You just want to sleep with someone else."

"That isn't what this is about."

"Isn't it?"

"Not for me. I am still in love with you." That I can say. That feels hopelessly, urgently true. I say it again."I love you."

"That is such bullshit," he answers.

"No it isn't."

"It doesn't mean anything when you say that."

"Yes," I say. "It does." I take his hand. He lets me."I love you," I say again.

In my mind, I imagine that if I can convince him I love him, he will forgive me for wanting to leave. He will understand the roil inside me and know it isn't about him, and we will go on to be wonderful, dear friends. All of this mess will fade with time, and in the mutual love of our children we will rise above it, because we are good people and that's what good people do. But my husband doesn't want me to love him. That is too complicated. Better that I hate him. Or love another. He wants math, not poetry.

"I love you," I say, starting to cry.

"Just shut the hell up," he says, dropping my hand.

Five months later, my husband moves out of the basement and into his own apartment, three hours away. He leaves on New Year's Day, his belongings tossed into a half-dozen Hefty bags.

I was a good wife. That I can say. I did all the wifely things one should. The old-fashioned duties, like keeping up with the socks and the pediatrician appointments and the amount of Windex in the house. I also provided the modern wifely contributions of an independent income and a body maintained within a few inches of its premarital form. I cooked and cleaned and packed the kids' lunches. I laughed often, kept my rambling needs in check, and made love to my husband with vigor, making him feel brilliant and beautiful, which he was.

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.

I knew the moment I would leave my husband. Three years before our separation, I was having dinner with a woman I respected-older, beautiful, successful. She was in the middle of her own breakup, after 15 years of partnership, and it was leveling her. Not because it was the wrong thing to do, but because she was the one leaving. I asked her what made her so sure she should quit. And she said, "I finally figured out that no one will be grading me at the end of all this." And there I sat, gunning for the A. For what?

That one sentence made me realize for the first time just how much of my life was about trying to please someone else, how it had been years since I had even considered what I wanted. This was not my husband's fault. I was the one submerging myself. His only crime was letting me. When I got home from dinner, there was an e-mail from my dinner companion. "Trust yourself," she wrote. I wept when I read it. Because I didn't know how.

In the years that followed, I found myself unconsciously seeking out women who left their men. Women who dared to listen to themselves. At parties or PTA meetings, I would grill them with impertinent questions about divorce and loneliness and sex after separation. I wanted to see the consequences, the fallout. What I saw were women who were relaxed.

And there was me. Balled tight as twine. Still gunning for the A.

I tried to tell him.

"Sometimes, when I walk across the overpass, I imagine if I timed it right, the jump would be quick and the end painless."

"Oh, so now you're suicidal?"

"No. Not really."

Was I? Maybe I was. Maybe for that few minutes when I crossed over the bridge and saw the semis roaring below, it did seem like it would be simpler if I would just cease to be. Because the other option-facing myself, dealing with my inappropriate feelings of rage and isolation and self-loathing-was going to be a tall piece harder than jumping off a bridge.

"You could tell the kids it was an accident," I say.

"You are being an idiot."

"I know."

There was one time, in the middle of the end, when he mentioned our oldest girl. Reminded me how sensitive she is. How his absence would cause her nothing but hurt.

"I'm her father," he said, as if I'd forgotten. I wanted to climb onto my women's empowerment crate and speechify about being a role model for independence: the life lessons she'd gain from living with an autonomous mother, the comfort she'd feel from my being a happier parent. But I knew that was bullshit. I knew my choice would hurt my children. Just as it would hurt my husband. To become myself was to become a wielder of hurt. To leave was to knowingly cause pain to my loved ones. And why? Because I wanted something else. Something I couldn't even articulate. Intimacy? What did that even mean? I wasn't sure I even believed in intimacy. I believed in moments. Like when you are running, and both feet leave the ground. Unsustainable. Impossible to capture. Transcendent. Didn't we have those?

I remember when my first daughter was born. It was a difficult and terrifying delivery. A transverse baby, she was lodged sideways in the womb, a lima bean stuck in a straw. After her heart rate began to falter, there was talk of an emergency cesarean. Blinking equipment was wheeled into the room, the nurses talking in hushed, hurried tones. My sister, also present, began sobbing. At the last moment, the doctor was able to move the baby internally, and she arrived, head squashed and face bruised, but alive. I wept with relief and fatigue, my body shaking enough to rattle the rails of the hospital bed. I looked at my husband, now a father. He was beaming. And I thought to myself, We will never divorce because how could we ever leave each other after that? No one will ever love the kids the way he does, I think. No one will ever know how I looked at 33, in Sag Harbor, NY, on that intemperate day in the fall when everything froze. No one will remember the sound my second daughter made when she saw her first dog. Or how my eldest squealed hysterically on her first roller-coaster ride. To divorce is to say farewell to your record-keeper. It is to jettison your history, to abandon your ready identity. For years, you are someone's wife. And then one day, you aren't. And then it becomes your job to decide who you are. Sunday morning, a week before he left, I made French toast and used the special challah bread from the local baker. Fried bacon. The girls, still unaware of the impending split, helped, spilling cinnamon on their aprons and fighting over who got to break the eggs. We all ate, and it was delicious. Everything seemed perfectly normal, as it had always been-the four of us sharing Sunday breakfast, deciding how best to spend the day.After, the girls toddled off to watch cartoons while my husband and I talked about how we got derailed.

"Why did you always have to make me feel bad?" he said. "That is what killed it. Your constant judging."

He wasn't wrong. I did judge. And that is the thing about breaking apart. When the person who knows you best decides you are an asshole, you kind of have to believe them. Because they've done the time. They've seen you naked.

"I'm sorry," I said.

It wasn't much. But there it was.

"I may not love you in the way you need. But I would carry you across burning sands. Doesn't that count?" he said.

It did. But not enough.

My marriage wasn't bad. I just didn't belong there. I know this now. I am not wife material. I like being alone. I enjoy sexual freedom. I believe the payoffs of tending to a man pale greatly when compared to the benefits of tending to myself. I believe I am a better mother without a husband, because I am happy and strong and not sleepwalking in a bath of resentment about who is or isn't taking out the trash.

My divorce has taught me some other hard truths:

That good sex can survive even as your marriage dies.

That it really is the little things.

That you have to talk about the ugly stuff-with each other.

That only you can ask for what you want.

That words matter, but not as much as emptying the dishwasher unprompted.

That charisma gets old.

That, love of his life or not, you will be replaced. Probably by someone younger. Probably sooner than you think.

That smart women choose men who make their lives easier.

That all men choose women based on how those women make them feel.

That love may be everything, but it is not enough to keep two people together, no matter what they say in the movies.

My love for my husband was and remains uncontested. I love him, and I will always love him. My heart cleaves to his, even as he moves away, loves another, even as time and paperwork dismantle us. I love him as a person apart, for who he is, not for what he does for or to me.

And that will last. Till death.

On our second real date, my husband and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We held hands. He joked about medieval triptychs. I wept in the statue garden. We ate cheese and bread in the overpriced cafeteria. He told me he'd spent eight months in India. I told him I'd played high-school basketball. He said he once loved a woman who brought a hair dryer on a camping trip. I said I didn't own a hair dryer.

We walked the 40 blocks home, the wind lashing our faces. We stopped for sushi. We kissed on street corners. We did not say, "I love you."

The next morning we were engaged. I told no one. I had no words.

"Do you remember that day?" I asked him recently.

His eyes welled up. Then he swallowed, and I saw the tears recede. I saw him bury himself in front of my eyes. I recognized the move.