Everyone has their advice, but for the person wrestling with this question, there's no answer that doesn't make your hands sweat, heart race, and leave a permanent lump in your throat -- particularly when there are two young kids at home who adore the person you're considering leaving. I'm not a psychiatrist, a therapist or social worker, but my husband and I have sat on the couches of more couples counselors than I can recall -- summarizing our pain points while the other stares off at an inspirational stone etched with the words "Let Go" or picks endlessly at a sofa seam. My resentment/disappointment/anger stems mainly from being the sole financial provider, a position I've never wanted nor been comfortable with. His couch song portrays me as a less-than-devout cheerleader whose negativity prevents him from lift off. And yes, after 27 years, my pom pom lies on the ground, shredded and covered in mud.
BUT, when the other person has never been unfaithful, never laid a hand on you in anger and been a warm, wonderful father to young sons, you stay in a relationship well beyond its expiration date, or at least I have. You count and recount the reasons to stay because the pain of ripping that band aid clean off seems like more hurt than you and your family can take.
My husband and I met when I was 22 at a late-night booze fest in midtown NYC, thrown by a Grateful Dead-loving, hard partying work friend. The host's ground floor two-bedroom apartment was shared by several roommates, as was standard in the late 80s as it is now. Back then most of my school friends were in town. While we all had jobs, it felt very much like going to an office had replaced going to class. The small town commons area where we traipsed from bar to bar, ending up at the town bagelry each night, replaced by skyscrapers and Papaya Kings. Different locales, but the same ease of being with friends eager to laugh and with whom a nighttime walk to the deli held the promise of an impromptu dance routine, piggyback race, or therapy session.
While college night outs were usually spent flirting with and occasionally hooking up with current crushes, my mindset shifted immediately after graduation. Now, when I went out, I donned my favorite purple cowl neck sweater, slightly faded jeans and dangly purple leaf earrings as a means to attract the man I would potentially marry. Or at least the man I'd spend the next few years in a relationship with. I've always been in a rush, no matter what the activity. I want to get to the end first.
After 'priming' with Buffalo wings and a Cape Code, my Tudor City studio apartment roommate par excellence, Wendy, and I made our way a couple blocks downtown to my work friend's party. We knew no one, so quickly headed toward the kitchen where a mish mosh of imported and domestic bottled beers, sodas and juices sat unattended on a beige linoleum fold-out bridge table.
"Great. Just beer," I said to Wendy. "Try the lemon vodka," offered a tall, handsome, café mocha-skinned black man deftly squeezing by us, eager to rejoin a conversation he'd been having with a smiling, young brunette in a flouncy, flowered dress. What struck me most about him as I watched him chat up flouncy dress was his complete lack of fidgeting and how comfortable he seemed in his body.
Lemon Vodka and I have been through many highs and lows in the 27 years since meeting later that night, including early on when my father refused to speak to me because of his race, moving to the suburbs, the birth of two beautiful boys, his father's death, working together, not working together, money struggles, life.
I had a college psych professor who said marrying before 30 was always a no no. In your twenties you don't know what you want or need in a spouse. You'll grow in opposite directions. I knew that was sound advice, which is why it's the one thing I remember from that class. But because I was never comfortable in ambiguity, I didn't follow it for a second.
At 22, I wasn't looking for someone who'd drive my mom to the airport in a driving snowstorm after she'd taken care of our newborn for two weeks. I wasn't looking for someone who'd mow the lawn or thought financially supporting a family was a big part of his future responsibility. I was NOT looking for someone to take care of me. The daughter of a working mom and the feminist 70s, I figured we'd each contribute what we could. I was looking for and found a handsome man who loved me very much. Box checked. Next?
But that rushed decision at 22, years of growth in diverse directions, and decades of diminished self-esteem have led me to a place I wish I'd foreseen: contemplating separation after 27 years of building a life together.
When do you know it's time to leave? Still no clue. Reading those words makes a black tide of loneliness and sorrow rise up and weigh on me like nothing before. But at 49, I am discovering the importance of pausing and baby steps. Life, while short, is not a sprint to the finish.