The following is Part I of an excerpt from the book "Reconcilable Differences: Marriages End, Families Don't"
My marriage ended one cold January night, over dinner at a bustling Greek restaurant. Joe and I had been to a parent-teacher meeting at our son's high school and had decided to catch a quick dinner afterwards. Over plates of Greek salad and souvlaki, I blurted out what had been on my mind for months. "Either we go into therapy or I will end this marriage." Disbelief clouded his face. I had raised the subject before, but this was the first time he seemed to really hear me. "You're kidding," he said. A feeling of shock settled over our table, and the air became still.
Joe and I have never had a lot in common. We move at different speeds. He ambles; I hurtle. He's an "on the one hand, on the other hand" Libra; I'm a rototiller Leo. He listens to the Ramones; I like Handel. He's a Type-B artist; I'm a Type-A media producer. We met in 1985 at a local farmer's market, where I was breaking off a romance with a colleague of Joe's from the studio where they worked. Oblivious to the drama, Joe wandered over to chat and I was immediately intrigued. He was funny and handsome, with a brilliant smile.
Two weeks later, I asked him out. I was completely smitten. I had been married to a cad who had cheated and lied, so I was on high alert for knavish men, but Joe was the opposite, with an honesty and sweetness that made me trust him, and within months he had moved into my small apartment. We began to collide with each other early on but our shared sense of humor helped us survive even our testiest moments.
Three years later, I discovered I was pregnant. Our son was born in late December, and Joe and I soon lost ourselves in the business and busyness of raising him -- washing cloth diapers and doing daily daycare runs. Four years later I became pregnant again, and since our tiny home couldn't hold another person, we bought a roomy five-bedroom house just before our daughter arrived. We were an unlikely pair, Joe and I, but I cherished his kindness and his humor and appreciated that he was a fully engaged dad.
For many years he gave me comic strips as gifts -- depictions of our life together, scenes of domestic bliss, discord, hilarity, and angst. I loved the way those comic strips chronicled our flawed union, and I framed them all and hung them in our kitchen. They were overstated caricatures, but they told a truth about the stormy relationship my mother-in-law called our "funny little marriage." It was "funny," but for a long time we were able to brush off our differences.
We never waged all-out marital war, but we had constant border skirmishes that I used to call our "lettuce and laundry wars." We'd argue about the kind of produce I bought or how he made the bed. The washer and dryer became the locus of friction as we disagreed about color sorting and wrinkle control. He didn't see the need for either, and I was commit¬ted to both. We were so at odds about domestic issues that I sometimes said to him, only half joking, that we should move into side-by-side duplexes with a dial on each door that we could spin to indicate whether the other spouse was welcome to visit.
Eventually our differences became too significant to laugh off. We lost the habit of conversation, and disaffection settled in. Every time we tried to broach the problem, it was like striking steel on flint. I would talk and talk to keep the sadness at bay; he'd climb to his third-floor studio and bury his feelings in his work, drawing for hours on end. Or he'd sit in the family room, watching film noir videos and folding huge piles of wrinkled sheets and towels. I'd lie in bed, looking glumly over the footboard at a wall of family pictures, feeling trapped and hopeless. We weren't a car-wreck of a marriage, but we were stuck in cruise control. I knew we were in serious trouble when our ten-year-old daughter would jump in to mediate as we bickered about something minor. Looking at her earnest little face across the kitchen one night, I thought, "Things have gone too far." But if we split up, what would happen to our family?
I began therapy and implored Joe to join me. He wasn't ready yet, and by the time he visited the therapist, the "we" that used to be was over. I felt we'd gone as far as we could, but I had no idea how we could dissolve our couple-life without jettisoning our family-life. We had inhabited our relationship for almost two decades and I didn't know how to take it apart and rebuild. We both struggled. The central concern for each of us was the kids. Early on, we made one pledge: our children were not going to become cannon fodder in any of our battles. One friend who'd gone through a hideous divorce, and plowed all his money into fighting with his ex-wife, encouraged us to "keep our eyes on the prize" -- meaning the children. We knew where we didn't want to go, if not exactly where we were headed. We may have been lousy as a married couple, but we were partners in the slog of everyday life, and we were great co-parents. We were almost always in agreement about how to raise our children, and tensions in that area were always surface, not profound.
I trusted that we both wanted to preserve what was good between us but get rid of what didn't work, and gradually I found myself trying to imagine what might be possible. Joint parenting was our bottom line, but could we do better? We shared a vague sense that we wanted something other than a "one week on, one week off" routine. Also, there were financial concerns. We had lived within our means, but we were mortgage-poor, and Joe and I would each have even less trying to go it alone. Was there some way to stay together geographically but split up emotionally?
For the first few months after our watershed discussion we stumbled around while we continued to live together, keeping our decision from our kids. It was hard. I used to sit for hours in front of the fireplace in our living room, musing about how to reconfigure our marriage without nuking the entire family. Joe would sometimes stop on his way to the third floor and we'd talk to each other over the stair railing. Some very delicate conversations took place while he lingered by the newel post and I sat curled up on the couch.