I was in the first grade the first time I heard about divorce. My friend Heather's parents were getting one. I remember hearing with wonder about how Heather's parents would live in separate houses and she would go back and forth between them. My own parents were much unhappier than Heather's parents had ever seemed to me. Oh, how I wished my parents would divorce!
Now I'm married (illegal as it may be) with kids. We have none of the fighting and philandering that defined my parents' marriage, but we've had our problems. Three months after our first baby was born, we came within inches of divorce. I recently shared this information with a friend who is struggling in his marriage, and he was stunned. Up to that moment, we had represented "shining beacons of trouble-free couplehood" to him (his actual words). Just hearing about how close we came to ending it all, and about how we made it back from the abyss, made a big difference in his perspective on his own relationship.
In our culture most weddings are stressful but joyous events where friends and relations gather to kick off the marriage of two hopeful people. When all the cake is eaten and the last drunk, sweaty guest is pulled from the dance floor, the happy couple is wished well and sent forth. Alone. They might be given some vague instructions like, "Never go to bed angry," or, "Marriage takes work," but mostly well-wishers only smile and hug them and say, "Good luck!" (while making mental predictions about how long this will last). Our wedding, gay as it may have been, was no different. For some people, this works out fine. They've either had good marriage role models, or they're mystical creatures who've managed to intuit and enact healthy relationship models in the face of an omnipresent parade of nightmarish examples.
For others, things fall apart when they hit the first or second or fifth major bump in the relationship road. My partner and I had some issues from the beginning, mostly communication-related, that caused a poisonous buildup of resentment and slow erosion of trust over a five-year timespan. I'm an emotional, talk-it-to-death kind of person, given to blubbering. My partner is far more reserved, nearly stoic, given to holding it all in. You can imagine how well this worked for us. After bumbling through the difficult and expensive journey of trying to conceive, we were thrilled and relieved to welcome our first son. My partner was mired in a Ph.D. program, though, and I had my own business that required me to work seven days a week. Stunned by how exhausting and unrelenting taking care of a baby could be, we slipped into survival mode and became cranky, bewildered parent ships passing in the lonesome, desolate night for months.
That's really not even the half of it, but I'm not one to publish the particulars of our marriage meltdown on the Internet. Suffice it to say that things fell apart.
For me, the situation was made worse by this new, brilliant kind of love that I felt for our son. Whereas my love for my partner was entangled in and half-choked by our issues and past hurts, my love for my son seemed to course visibly in the electric air between me and him, pure and robust and incomparable. Sure, he kept me awake night after night and repeatedly threw up into my hair, but my heart pounded, my brain shut up, and birds burst into song whenever I gazed at him, which was a lot like how I felt when I first met my partner. This made me wonder whether it shouldn't still be like that with my partner. And I figured that if it should be like that with her but wasn't, then maybe we weren't "meant for each other." I wasn't about to do what my parents did by wasting my life and raising my kids in a doomed, miserable marriage!
No, thank you.
Unfortunately, we had that "shining beacons of trouble-free couplehood" reputation with a lot of our friends, partly because we were among of the first in our social group to get married, but also because we both had had public, terrifically bad relationships prior to meeting each other, so this time around we were careful to keep our (comparatively minor) conflicts private. Therefore, we didn't feel like we could reach out much to our friends, because it was embarrassing to acknowledge that our mythic status was undeserved. Besides, involving friends has its own complications. They don't always forgive and forget when you need them to. They feel uncomfortable or unwilling or uninterested in viewing your dirty laundry. They may have ulterior motives, even subconscious ones, for the advice that they give.
Because of our sexuality we felt additional pressure to appear publicly unbreakable. We knew that people in our own families, as well as many more strangers, would be pleased to see us, a queer couple with a young baby, break up, as though our personal dissolution would somehow lend credence to their belief that same-sex relationships are unnatural and unhealthy and bad for children. It made me sick to give those people that satisfaction, even though I knew they'd be wrong about all of it. (When straight people divorce or coexist miserably for decades, that is not seen as having any bearing at all on the validity of heterosexuality or its effects on children.) I couldn't quite articulate why I wanted so badly to have a wedding when we did, in a place where we'd receive no legal benefit. It felt meaningful and natural and vaguely necessary for us, but also like a jubilant and glittery "f*** you!" to the anti-gay people in our lives, which -- I won't lie -- I enjoyed. But it took testing the bonds of marriage to understand what I must have had premonitory knowledge of, somehow: that the only thing holding us together in some of our darkest hours seemed to be a distant, misty memory of that magical day, and the awful specter of erasing it.
Still, the recollection of our earnest promises couldn't fix us. We needed professional help for that. So we spent almost two years in couples counseling. Our health insurance didn't cover it, but we were lucky enough to find someone who let us pay a sliding-scale fee of $35 per session. She also allowed us to bring our baby so we didn't have to pay a sitter. This was still a significant strain on our finances, because we needed a lot of work at first. Financial strain was one of our major stressors, too, but we viewed therapy as a necessary investment in our future together, without which that future might have ceased to exist altogether. In other words, if our house had a big hole in the roof, we would have somehow found the money to fix it rather than abandon the house outright or hope everything would be fine eventually, while rain poured on our bed and our belongings putrefied and returned to nature.
Therapy saved us.
We learned how to talk to one another about difficult subjects, how to repair damage when it's done, and how to identify and then ask one another for what we need. (Why weren't these topics covered in Home Economics? They seem far more useful than units I remember on proper hand dishwashing technique and making chili.) We're more content and our relationship is healthier now than on our wedding day. The bliss of new motherhood for me gave way to something very similar to the seasoned, mature love I continue to have for my partner. I'm so glad we did not divorce. Still, we're not trouble-free. If we're shining beacons of anything, I want it to be as an example for our married or long-time partnered friends to seek help when they need it, before they reach that woeful, proverbial point of no return.
Of course, not everyone should stay together. There are a lot of circumstances that cannot be repaired, and actions that cannot be absolved. My parents finally divorced when I was 17, after fooling most of their friends and relatives into thinking that they were shining beacons of trouble-free coupledom for nearly three decades, with happy-looking family photos and enthusiastic, year-end wrap-up letters sent at Christmastime. My mother's life, at least, dramatically improved as a result of her divorce. But if you've "grown apart" or worry that you've "fallen out of love," and you're looking out at your comrades in wedding rings thinking that they're so much more together, more in love, and happier than you, remember that you might just not know the half of it. One or two of them may even be able to refer you to their secret, heroic therapists.