04/11/2011 12:33 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2011

The Moment I Knew

I was standing with family and friends in Collioure, France, watching the most spectacular and beautiful fireworks I had ever seen when I knew my marriage was finished. It was Bastille Day, 2002. A little less than a year earlier, my family and I had moved to Paris for two years, and although neither my husband nor I went there to save our marriage, I suspect we both thought it might help keep us together. Instead, it brought home to me, at least, how very much was wrong.

Despite the difficulties of moving an entire family to a foreign country-- my lack of all but rudimentary French being primary-- the sense of adventure in all four of us was palpable. For a number of months that excitement carried me through getting my children enrolled in school, learning the metro system, battling France telecom for cell phones, figuring out where and how to shop, and immersing myself in the study of French. For a good long while I didn't even think about my marriage, when, at home in Virginia, I had thought about it a lot. A year after the birth of our first child I talked my husband into marriage counseling and with joint and individual therapy we managed to eventually have a second child and stay together another sixteen years. Despite that, for years and years the connection that had seemed profound when we first met had been fraying at the edges, and in some places seriously unraveling.

But it wasn't until I watched my husband walk more than ten paces ahead of me on the streets of the most romantic city in the world, or refuse the kiss the children prodded him toward, that I began to realize that nothing I could do, nothing I could ever do, anywhere, least of all in Paris, would make us work together as a couple. On that evening in the beautiful seaside town of Collioure, when I longed to have his arms around me and lean into him as we watched the fireworks and knew for a fact that not only would it never happen but that the act of holding me would not even occur to him, I knew I could not stay married.

I am a romantic at heart, and the romance, what little there had ever been, had long gone. I know I played a part in what happened: I know that after several years, with each time he rejected me, criticized me, ignored me or took me for granted, instead of pressing him for contact, instead of trying to talk to him about us, I began to fashion my own life: within a marriage, but without a true partner. We still talked about art and music and politics; we still raised our children together, gave elaborate dinner parties for friends and colleagues, still traveled to exotic locations, but those moments were tiny compared to the whole huge swath of emptiness I felt the rest of the time. Finally I came to the conclusion that I would rather be lonely alone than as half of a couple which everyone seemed to think was perfect, but that I knew was far from it.

That dark evening, as the fireworks lit up the sky, I spoke with a friend of a friend of my husband's. We engaged in a profound conversation about relationships; she told me how hers had failed. I took a breath and asked her how she had known it was over, and with that question, I began writing the script for my own departure, even though it would take me years still to come to the end of the story. As I oohed and ahhed with the crowd that surrounded me, I remember a stunning sense of the inevitable. Despite his proximity, I had never felt so far away from my husband.