Notes On The End Of My Marriage
Author's note: This is a sincere attempt to learn the end of a relationship, a final love letter, of sorts. Some of the names have been changed and my former partner has consented its publication.
8.2011 -- The Beginning
There is no easy way to masturbate into a small plastic container. I find this out as I approach climax, simultaneously holding the container in place while stoking my erection with the other hand. Truth be told, I don't actually masturbate very often -- perhaps something about the act I continue to find shameful.
Suddenly: a rush of white light and a moment of fleeting ecstasy. I return to Room B at the Genesis fertility clinic in downtown Vancouver. Two voluptuous women continue their own vigorous pleasure on the TV screen mounted above my head.
I steady my breath and screw the cap onto the container. I buckle my jeans, grab the remote and flick off the screen. I catch my image in the mirror, triggering an existential moment that feels utterly cliche -- all the cautionary tales of my younger years flooding back in a montage of bad teen movies, Sex Ed classes, and awkward chats with my father. "Millions of sperm live in every drop of semen!" he warned. "Sometimes they can live for over nine days!" And the ominous warning fed to every heterosexual male: don't get your girlfriend pregnant.
Now I'm 30. Four years ago, newly married and financially stable, my wife Katherine and I discontinued birth control and waited for the inevitable to occur. And we waited. And we waited.
Not only did conception fail to arise, without the aid of birth control my wife mysteriously had no menstrual cycle at all. Thus began the odyssey of doctor's visits, diets, supplements and hormone therapies, AKA "Trying to Get Pregnant."
5.2003 -- The Past
I am 22 and a pioneer in the early age of internet dating. I've trawled the online profiles of Lavalife over the previous weeks, occasionally setting up dates with various eligible women. I remember Katherine's profile picture vividly: long dark hair, a mysterious Mona Lisa smirk, and the cleverness of her username: WHATSADATE. Answer, written below in first line of her dating profile: A date is a small dried fruit.
I glance at her age: 26. I am ambitious, though four years beyond my own is pushing the boundaries. Gathering courage, I type her a brief introductory message. She responds within a day and we trade further charming emails.
Less than a week later, we speak on the phone. Her voice is sultry -- I suggest she could have been a radio host... or a phone sex operator. Her actual profession is computer programmer. She arrives at my door with the deafening rumble of her blue Harley Davidson roadster. Cue slow motion helmet removal. Cue long black hair tumbling down her shoulders.
Her green eyes are shining and vulnerable. Behind the flushed cheeks, I sense the legacy of past wounds. Her hesitant visage betrays a silent plea: don't be another one that hurts me.
We head for coffee and the conversation flows easily, punctuated by seagulls that follow our footsteps as we walk the trails beside the ocean. She asks "When was the last time you cried?" I can count the number on one hand and told her each circumstance.
A pause. Our lips find each other.
Our first date.
8.2011 -- Treatment
The first grey sky we've had in weeks wash the streets of Vancouver a dull monochrome. I watch the rain and smell the wet pavement. Traffic is light this morning for our appointment at the Genesis Fertility Clinic. Katherine is quiet, gazing out the car window. I wonder what she's thinking.
My sperm counts have tested normal. Her lack of menstrual cycle remains the challenge. The doctors have surmised a variety of theories, including a hormonal imbalance related to a severe eating disorder Katherine endured in her early 20s. Anorexia nervosa. Her significant weight loss had resulted in a 6-month hospitalization and treatment. While she successfully completed the rehabilitation program and her weight stabilized, the demons remained: caloric restriction, body dismorphia and relentless self-judgment.
After a year of attempting "natural" methods of restoring fertility (yoga, meditation, chinese herbs) the doctors suggested more drastic procedures. Today would be the first day of "ovulation induction" through fertility drugs (gonadotropins). And needles. Lots of needles. Katherine would need to self-inject with hormones twice a day for 3 weeks, returning to the clinic constantly to monitor the results. If the appropriate effect was reached, the doctors would proceed to step two: implanting my sperm directly into her uterine lining.
Inside the clinic, Katherine attempts her first injection under the watchful eye of the doctor. Her hands shake. I record the scene on my iPhone for review later (in case she forgets) but also because it's somehow absurdly funny. We drive home and over the next few weeks she becomes an expert.
Vial. Needle. Tap. Flesh. Squeeze. Done.
With each return to the clinic, Katherine's enthusiasm fades. Her hormone levels aren't reacting. The doctors increase the dosage. Double. Triple. Weeks pass, before finally, the numbers climb. On Day 35 we proceed to step two. They implant the sperm and send us home with the instructions to wait 10 days before testing to see if successful.
A few days later, in front of our apartment I pack an orange RV with a rusted bicycle and furry vest. The treatment wasn't supposed to take this long. We should have known before my planned departure to the Burning Man gathering in Nevada. I had contemplated canceling, though it was the first significant trip with my younger brother, and I didn't want to let him down. Plus, Katherine would have felt further guilt about her body's lack of cooperation with the hormone therapy.
She bids me farewell with a curb-side kiss and a promise to call me immediately with the results. My brother and I wave as we head for the dusty outpost of Black Rock City.
Scarcely two hours into journey, we sit in the vehicle lineup waiting to cross the U.S. border. I receive a text.
"It failed." Katherine writes. A miscarriage. Blood and tears in a toilet.
My chest constricts, sadness welling behind my eyes. But I can't cry. The border guard is waving us forward.
The Temple of Transition, Burning Man 2011
09.2011 -- Dear Temple
Purple dawn bathes the sky on the final morning of Burning Man, as my volunteer shift ends as a Guardian. I gaze upon the Temple of Transition, this palace of grief, adorned by the tears and scribblings of thousands of Burners. It is my third year drifting through Her halls, and this time, I finally understand why She is here.
In a culture addicted to the light, there is no altar for darkness. Yet life does not feed life. Only death can do that. The Man is burned for the party. The Temple is burned for our grief -- an offering for our willingness to remember those that came before and perhaps those that never will.
With this epiphany, my heart erupts into urgency. All I can think: my camera. My tripod. I locate my bicycle on the edge of the perimeter and pedal madly back to camp. The light is orange by the time I return, panting for breath.
Burners quietly walk the space like galactic monks on a pilgrimage to the holiest of planets, over the ramps, into the towers. Morning shadows stretch for miles, perhaps all the way to heaven, as if it was anywhere but here.
I close my eyes, exhale deeply, then begin my task. I shoot, capturing as much of The Temple as I can before She is gone. I'm aflame with the certainty that I must craft a love letter.
Scarcely 20 minutes pass and the crew begins boarding up the doorways in preparation for the burn. I'm asked politely but firmly to leave. Outside the perimeter, I face the tattered city and discover I'm accompanied by Sean -- my best friend since high school. As we walk wearily back to camp, he observes my face, asks me tenderly, "What's wrong?"
I don't look at him when I respond. "I don't think I'm going to have children with Katherine."
That night, no tears are shed. I couldn't watch Her burn. Two weeks later, as I return to the footage for the first time, I glimpse again the intact Temple.
She shatters me. And I weep.
10.2011 -- The Kiss
The Burning Man Decompression is a regional party that occurs in many major cities. Vancouver booked an extraordinary movie-prop warehouse -- henceforth ruining me for all future party locations.
I arrive late, my friends are already here. I weave through the crowd, skirting a scene from a medieval castle before emerging into a haunted house. I spot Katherine, clothed in red leggings and a sheer black shirt. She's sexy and flirtatious. She leaps into me and I wrap my arms tightly around her waist.
The bass is heavy, obliterating the chatter. Lights dance across the roof. I search her eyes and recognize her sadness. But tonight... tonight is for dancing. She untangles herself and disappears into the crowd, a blur of faces and limbs.
"Hello." I look down and a young woman with dreadlocks is sitting in a large armchair. I kneel beside her. We exchange pleasantries, sincere and open-hearted. I discover she's a spoken word poet. "Please share a poem!" I ask. She shakes her head, embarrassed.
"Please, I insist." She relents and I lean in with eyes closed.
Words tumble into my ear, one after another, lyrical and playful. I'm drawn into her language, a new territory conjured out of heart and soul. When finished, I open my eyes, gratitude beaming on my face.
She kisses me, hard. Surprised, I let it happen.
When it's over, we lean back.
"I'm married," I say, without an ounce of accusation.
She's immediately apologetic. "No, it's okay," I say. "It was an honest mistake."
Confusion flashes across her face. "You don't seem married," she says.
Her words puncture my heart. I look at her sadly.
"I know," I say.
6.2012 -- Confession
It happens again: always a different and worthy woman. Comfort for a stricken artist at a conference on the Salish Sea. Honor for a delightful dance with a soulful healer in Vancouver. Companionship for a lonely entrepreneurial Athena in San Francisco.
These interactions weighed heavy on my soul. I could not make sense of them. On the one hand, each felt appropriate, life-affirming and needed. Surely these could not be considered "cheating." What was a kiss anyway? On the other hand, such interactions were beyond the boundaries of our monogamous partnership to which Katherine and I had vowed. In my uncertainty, I waited, hoping somehow the situation would resolve itself.
Eventually, the guilt crested and I crafted a confession.
In our newly purchased suburban home, we sat across from each other in quiet anticipation.
"There's something I need to tell you," I speak, and watch the color drain from her face. Her entire body quivers.
Milan Kundera wrote, "Loves are like empires -- when the idea that they are founded on crumbles, they, too, fade away."
By the end of my story, our marriage has begun its slow descent into the sand.
11.2012 -- The Final Attempt
Six months since my confession and the question of "what to do" about my infidelity remains unresolved. Given the potential window for conception is closing, we agree to focus one final attempt at pregnancy.
On the eve of the expensive procedure, we stand in the kitchen and she accuses me "you don't really want to have children." I don't know how to respond, so I say nothing.
We try again. This time the implanted eggs hold. The doctor gives us an x-ray of the delicate "Twins" which we place on our altar at home. We resist the urge to discuss potential baby names.
A torturous week trickles by, until one morning, Katherine walks softly into the room with glistening cheeks. Failure. I embrace her quietly and the sobs intensify. Mostly, I feel numb.
The undeniable prospect looms before us: a future without children. We would be a childless couple.
That afternoon, I remove the x-ray from the altar and slide the photograph between the books on the shelf.
Maui. Jan 2013
1.2013 -- Opening The Relationship
The first week of the new year we spend in a manicured paradise. Katherine's mother decided to fund an overdue family trip to Maui -- a nostalgic return to the favorite vacation spot of her late husband. Amateur surfing, slow roasted pork, and impossible sunsets punctuate the time with my in-laws.
Upon their departure, Katherine and I retain an extra week for ourselves, with enough space to revisit "the question" once more: in the absence of biological children, what are we to become?
I pull the book Opening Up: A Guide to Sustaining and Maintaining Open Relationships from my bag and place it on the table. Her eyes grow wide.
"I think we should try an open relationship." I can't quite believe the words are tumbling from my mouth. Within the paradigm of the dominant culture, the sanctity of monogamous marriage is supreme.
And yet I feel compelled to reconcile the deeper longings of my desire, haunted by the alternative: the vision of a pleasant but passionless coupledom, like so many marriages that choose the facade of stability instead of the fire of truth.
She eventually, reluctantly agrees. The book came with a helpful questionnaire which we use as a foundation for our initial agreements and guidelines. What does "open" mean? What is the difference between sensual and sexual? Are over-nights allowed? Should we have veto power over the others' connections?
As darkness creeps into the room, serenaded by an army of frogs, we sign our names and step into the abyss.
The dam has broken and the next few months are a blur. I begin using words like polyamorous (meaning "many loves") and non-monogamy in conversation. I learn that you don't make any important decisions during NRE (new relationship energy) and that compersion (taking joy in your partner's joy) is the opposite of jealousy, but that both can exist simultaneously.
I explore a variety of connection with multiple women and have the first sexual experience outside of my marriage. After 10 years with the same partner, the scent and curves of a new woman feels at once odd and exhilarating. I keep going. I learn that while possibilities for connection are endless, time and energy are not.
Katherine and I practice regular communication, though mostly I don't see her. She embraces the openness with a vigor I'd never seen. Suddenly, she is free to entertain the secret desires she'd never confessed, perhaps even to herself. She calls ex-boyfriends to catch up, partly out of curiosity for their lives, and partly to flaunt her newfound sexual prowess.
I grow closer to a particular woman, Mya. We speak in poetry and myth, and she whispers a willingness to explore my untapped sexual nature. She's also engaged to another, and both of us remain secure in our existing relationships, happy to explore our connection without the pressure of core partnership.
Late spring, Katherine and I stand on a deserted beach, playing fetch with our much-loved dog Tobi. I toss the stick in the water and the conversation turns toward our latest erotic adventures. I ask if she's ever thought of exploring with her business partner Cameron. For the past 4 years, they had co-operated a successful yoga studio in our suburban city.
"Would that bother you?" she asks hesitantly.
"It makes sense," I respond, picking up the stick again. "You already work well together. Seems like it would happen eventually."
"Are you saying I can explore with him?"
A hint of jealousy surfaces. He is an accomplished athlete, fit, and handy with tools. In many ways my complete opposite. I remind myself the purpose of our open relationship is to explore our boundaries.
"Sure," I say. I throw the stick back into the water, and Tobi rushes after it.
7.2013 -- The Tower Is Burning
Early one summer day, without hormone therapy or warning, Katherine's menstrual cycle returns. She informs me in bed, breathless. We're awash in the mystery. No guarantee of fertility, but a promising sign nonetheless.
She spends most of her time with Cam. I begin hearing stories of her vibrant nature from mutual friends. "I barely recognize this woman," says one who has known her for years.
I can't shake the feeling that Katherine is drifting away from me. We continue with our weekly checkins, but her shares are mostly uneventful. No, our external relationships aren't competing for our own. Yes, we're still deeply committed to each other.
I opt to spend a weekend away at a local music festival with Mya. On my way out the door, I choose a Tarot card from the deck, standard practice for ongoing insight into our relationship. The Tower. The image is a large burning Buddha, illuminated by lightning, fires raging across his skin. A man and a woman plunge from the figure.
Unsettled, I depart for the festival.
The next few days are magic. A bevy of playful adventures with friends, sweet connections, and beach bonfires. On the final day, after most of the others have packed up, I look upon the last night fading from the snowcapped mountains overhead.
Mya puts her arms softly around my waist. I'm gripped once again by an unbidden ache of sorrow. "I don't know why, but I feel like I will say goodbye to Katherine soon."
A few days later, Cam is at my house for a backyard BBQ for the yoga studio members. He's awkward in his small talk. I let them host and mostly stay out of the way. The next morning, Katherine is visibly shaken and asks me to accompany her outside on the grass.
We sit in the afternoon sun. I don't realize I'm holding my breath.
Finally, she says: "I'm pregnant."
My mind races. She and I hadn't been intimate in weeks. There was only one other possibility.
"With Cam," she finishes.
Cue: dagger plunge directly into my heart. Cue: An impossible mixture of utter devastation and shining joy at the possibility of her being a mother. Something she's wanted for so long.
"FUCK!" I scream, louder than I've ever been. I can't look at her, I stare at the grass, as if I could stare hard enough so she would take back her words. I don't believe it. It's not possible. And yet.
The Tower is burning.
San Francisco -- self portrait.
8.2013 -- Myth Of The One
In the days that follow, I'm not ready to collapse into existing expectations about what is to come. I ask her: what do you actually want? Was this an accident? Do you still want to be with me? Do you want the three of us to co-parent?
Amid ongoing tears and the wreckage of our old life, she confesses her terrible dilemma: I don't think I can love more than one man. Therefore, I choose him.
Soon we are sitting across the table from my parents, married 30-plus years, who look to us with cautious optimism. I'd already warned the news wasn't what they might be expecting. In truth, to them and most of our friends, Katherine and I were the perfect couple. Loving, productive and stable, we never quarreled. Ever.
I break the news. "Katherine and I are separating." My mother immediately bursts into tears. My father leaps into fix-it mode, suggesting the merits of marriage counseling. "We're certain," I confirm. They did not know about our open relationship, and I feel it is too much to reveal the pregnancy now.
Plus, I can't admit the secret shame that I had screwed things up. I had ruined my marriage.
"I'm sorry," my mother wept. "I'm sorry your marriage didn't work."
I spent the rest of the month on the road, returning only to pack my share of the belongings. No battle. No lawyers. Katherine finds the paperwork online and we fill it out on the kitchen table. We agree to split the mortgage equity. I will take the vehicle, the blender, and the Nintendo Wii. She will retain "the rest of the household contents."
I spend the afternoon carrying my things out the front door and packing them in the car. It's both freeing and sorrowful when I realize my life now fits into a 2002 Subaru hatchback. My plan is to catch a ferry to Victoria, where my friend has already set up a desk in her office. I had found a temporary apartment just outside downtown, close to Mya, whose long-term partnership had also ended for reasons that remain their own.
For one last time, I sit alone on the backyard patio of the house that no longer bears my name. I light the cigarette I had taken from Katherine's secret stash (I rarely smoke) and watch it curl into the amber dusk.
A few hours before, she had revealed how she had begun drifting from our marriage the first time I'd confessed about kissing the other women, almost a year earlier. "You never told me," I pleaded. "How could I have saved us?"
I believed wholeheartedly the myth of the One. The belief that human happiness means finding your other half, pledging them your heart and soul, and committing until death do you part.
She was my One. Yet I struggled for years to reconcile my desire for others with the inherited story of traditional monogamous marriage. The hidden cost of monogamy, when culturally reinforced as the only acceptable ideal, is the unquestioned coupling of sexual fidelity with "real" partnership. Anything falling outside these norms is, at best, labelled an unwillingness to commit, at worst, condemned for hedonistic promiscuity.
Herein lies the scorpion's tale of the myth of the One:
You are only the One if you are the ONLY One. If your partner desires others, then you are not worthy of being the One. You are not enough.
Charles Eisenstein, author of The Ascent of Humanity, believes modern culture rests upon a foundational Story of Separation. The product of post-modernity and callous economic theory, the story goes thus: "What you are is an independent being in an indifferent universe, driven to maximize your own self-interest." From this perspective, it's get what you can, while you can, baby.
Finding a life partner to navigate these treacherous seas becomes not just a romantic ideal, but a necessity. Without that, a precarious and lonely future awaits. Behind the staggering divorce rates and bitter arguments that often follow suit, a conditioned betrayal lies unspoken: you promised you were my One. You lied.
Make no mistake -- one person can never be another's everything. It's too much for them to bear. But that doesn't stop many of us from trying and blaming ourselves for the almost certainty of failure.
For Katherine, I had vowed to keep our course steady. When I had decided to rock the boat, she had wisely fled to the nearest, safest ship.
I stubbed out my cigarette before it burned my fingers and headed toward the car.
Ganges Harbour, Salt Spring Island
9.2013 -- Ending
Early September, we agree to journey to our friends' tiny cabin on Salt Spring Island. I ask Katherine to gather an assortment of things that constitute the record of our relationship: anniversary cards, small gifts, faded photographs. I ask her to bring incense, our wedding vows, and her wedding ring.
As the late summer sunshine shatters the window, we construct an altar of our collection, a throne befitting 10 years together. After a silence, we sit cross-legged from each other and face the precipice. Her eyes quiver and my heart leaps into my throat. What a mysterious life. I wonder. How has it come to this?
It is easy to love the beginning of things. It is easy to love them in bloom, when their colours are bursting, fragrance cast to the wind. Yet how hard to love the end of things -- to love their inevitable decay, as blossoms wither and drift once again toward the dark earth.
I unroll the paper containing our vows, left virtually untouched since our wedding. I remember the gathering of family and friends, the silver laughter, and the way her father walked her down the aisle. I remember her aching smile, and how she knew that life could not possibly be sweeter than this.... moment.
I read our vows aloud. Halfway through the first line, I'm shaking. By the end of the second, tears stream down my face and I struggle to continue. Katherine reaches over and finds the next line, slowly, though her cheeks are a river.
"I'm sorry your marriage didn't work." My mother's words echo in my mind.
When a marriage dissolves, can it only be seen as a failure? Can a relationship also succeed not because it lasts forever, but how it ends?
Life does not feed life. Only death can do that. Perhaps this was the cost for her fertility. Perhaps love demanded the death of us.
The vows complete and Katherine folds the paper. We look to each other. I grip my wedding ring and slide it from my finger, feeling the sorrowful weight. She does the same, and we arrange both rings on the altar.
We each take one piece of paper and my pen hovers. I don't know what to call this process. Breakup seems harsh and somehow violent. Separation feels generic and falsely benign. I arrive at... Divergence. For a time, we journeyed together. And now, we would follow our own divergent paths again, not knowing what the future might bring, but willing to know the death of what we were.
We proceed to write each other new vows for this next chapter.
A lifetime passes before we end our ceremony and pack up the altar. The day is now a golden evening, and we head for a forested walk along the ocean. I reach out and hold her hand, not to confuse what we had just accomplished, but somehow, to honor the sweetness of what remained.
Our shadows mingle on the path and I pull out my phone to catch the photo. "No one will ever understand us." I write, and post the image to Facebook.
Post-ceremony, Salt Spring Island.
2.2014 -- Meeting The Child
Katherine and I speak every few weeks over winter, trading phone calls punctuated with long silences. As the child grew in her womb, so did my disbelief at what my life had become. She confesses to waking late nights wracked by sobs, stricken with grief. The man in her bed struggles with how to support, but knows he can do little. They rearrange the home and prepare for the baby. They hire a doula and construct the container for a water birth in their living room.
In early February, 9 months from conception, I'm on the ferry heading back to Vancouver for a business meeting. I receive a text from Katherine: "Leila was born this morning at 7:30am. 7 pounds. I did it without drugs, at home. We are well."
For a moment, I had been a man driving on the highway, lost in motion. For a moment, I had forgotten. Pain stabs my heart, and I text back "So this is love. The willingness to be broken, again and again." Then I add "Sending blessings upon your new life."
Katherine is quick to recover. Three days later and she's invited me for coffee near her yoga studio situated in the town where we first met 10 years earlier. This place had become her place. I head to the meeting unsure how to feel. I search my memory for cues from television shows and Hollywood movies. Eventually, I settle on low-grade anxiety.
It's a warm blue-sky day. The street is buzzing with midday shoppers. We spy each other approaching from across the street, a bundle strapped to her chest. Immediately, she bursts out crying, and doesn't stop even when we stand a few feet apart.
She slowly unwraps the bundle and I see the peaceful face of a newborn girl, pink and sleeping. I touch her impossibly tiny fingers.
We sit. She tells me about the birth. The beauty and the pain. An acquaintance walks by with her dog and, ignorant of our separation, compliments us on the birth of our new child. We both smile awkwardly, sadly, and the woman continues likely confused.
I ask Katherine about our dog, Tobi, and how she's adjusting to the new baby. She asks me about my life in a new city.
Soon after, I recognize her partner walking down the street. He doesn't look up, perhaps sensing we are in his vision. I look to Katherine, who glances furtively back at me. I pause... then shout his name and wave him over to us.
He draws up slowly, uncertain what to expect. In that moment, I don't know either. The hurt animal in me wants to strike him square in the jaw, spouting rage and obscenities. The quiet peacemaker in me wants to remain detached, equanimous.
I stand up, and say "Congratulations on your new child, Cameron" and embrace him.
"Thank you," he says with noticeable relief. The moment is over and he continues onward. After he's gone, Katherine whispers her gratitude.
We finish our coffees and are soon delivered back to our separate lives.
5.2015 -- A Quiet Love
The divorce paperwork crawls over the next year. Eventually, we find ourselves in a nondescript notary's office on a hot summer's morning. They aren't ready for our appointment, so we grab lunch at a nearby restaurant. I order a pint. She gets a double gin and tonic.
We catch up on life. Our regular phone talks have dwindled, so we have more to say this time in person. We tacitly avoid the matter at hand. Half an hour later, glasses drained, we head back to the office.
The notary greets us pleasantly. He walks us through the paperwork and points to the signature lines. Katherine and I sign efficiently. The notary shakes our hands and pronounces us officially divorced.
We say our goodbyes and I don't know when I shall see her next.
At home, into the quiet evening, I craft a poem:
Today we signed the paperwork.
What began as a public celebration, ended at an indistinct office with fluorescent lights.
Make no mistake. The end of a marriage is a death.
And must be grieved in a manner befitting the gift of a decade together.
Yet what lies after heartbreak?
Perhaps our remaining challenge is to find the label that adequately conveys what we have become.
We are still searching.
In the meantime, there is soft friendship.
And a quiet love, beneath all.
Our final photo together.
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A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.