I remember when I first learned about Woody Allen and Mia Farrow's unique love affair. They had been a couple for 11 years but never married. They shared children, but lived in separate apartments that faced each other across Central Park. He on the East Side and she on the West; they'd wave towels out their windows as they talked over the phone.
It was weird. Cool, but weird.
Then the other shoe dropped. It was weird all right. The couple had stopped having sex, Allen had taken up with Farrow's adopted daughter, and accusations of child abuse and molestation were flying. Suddenly, all those raised eyebrows about their unorthodox relationship seemed justified.
My boyfriend of four years and I are no Woody and Mia -- we're just a couple of average divorcees living in the heartland. But we get our fair share of wide-eyed, questioning looks when we describe our arrangement.
Bryan and I don't want to get married, ever. "That's how you feel now," people say. "Things change." Things do change when people get married, often for the worse.
Then there's our schedule. We see each other every Tuesday and Saturday. People ask what happens if we want to see each other on a Thursday or Friday. I tell them this is all we can manage right now without overburdening our exes and neglecting our children.
Then they ask if our kids get along. I tell them our kids barely know each other. That's what really throws them.
The assumption is that divorced people need to introduce their children early on and forge a positive relationship, so that when it's time to get married, the two families are as happy and harmonious as the Brady Bunch.
But we're never going to get married.
So twice a week we get together and enjoy the best parts of a relationship without ever having to confront the problems that inevitably arise when a couple shares a home, a bank account and children. It has none of the drudgery of the nightly routine. There's no negotiating about who will relax with the dishes and who will wrestle the kids to bed. Gone is the invisible scorecard of disappointments and slights.
Instead we embrace and talk and look at each other with an intensity that can only come with a certain amount of deprivation. We know we have limited time and we need to make the most of it. Why would I trade that feeling of euphoria for the inevitable malaise of marriage?
But about a year into the relationship I started having doubts. As my hero Carrie Bradshaw might have put it: "I had to wonder ... did the love between Bryan and me depend on not seeing each other too often? Would our relationship fall apart if he stuck around on Sunday morning instead of leaving after breakfast?"
I began asking Bryan all those questions that exposed my deep-seated insecurities about our arrangement. "Don't you want to see me more often?" I asked. "Why don't we spend more time with each other's families?" I wondered aloud. And then one Sunday morning came the real doozy: "What is this? What are we doing?" I'll never forget the look on his face, a look that went from surprise to confusion to disappointment in the span of seconds. We both knew exactly what we were doing. We were breaking the rules and building a relationship without caring what anyone else thought. We had an understanding, a tacit agreement, and I had broken it.
But I couldn't help questioning the validity of what we had. Perhaps our love really did amount to something less than all those couples who were married or living together and sharing the triumphs and tribulations of everyday life. It was as if other couples had reached the summit of Mt. Everest the proper way, through hard work and braving the elements, and were therefore better able to rejoice in their accomplishment and more deserving of the incredible view. Bryan and I, on the other hand, had been airlifted to the top. Yes, the view was the same, but our journey there was manufactured.
Everything about our culture seems to center around marriage. It's the happy ending to almost
every book, movie and TV show--including the bold, brash, rule-breaking "Sex and the City." For six seasons those women dated, drank and did it, all in a quest for love and happily ever after. In the final episode they found it, even Carrie, whose on-again-off-again boyfriend Big tracked her down in Paris to declare his everlasting love. When they embraced on that Parisian bridge, when Big told Carrie she was "the one," I cried. I cried because I believed in their happily ever after. And I cried because I knew Big wasn't about to tell Carrie that they should keep their separate apartments and just get together every Tuesday and Saturday. They weren't going to settle for anything less than marriage.
Carrie was famous for her constant questioning, for beginning every column with: "I had to wonder." But with marriage, the questions could finally stop.
Marriage is the ultimate answer to all those nagging questions. "Don't you want to see me more often?" "Yes, I want to see you every single day!" "Don't you want to spend more time with my family?" "Of course, I want to BE your family!" "What is this? What are we doing?" "We're getting married and living happily ever after!"
It's all so perfect. Until, of course, you get divorced. Divorced people understand that marriage is no guarantee of anything. Until, of course, they forget.
Many divorced people forget the fragility of marital bliss and remarry with the same certainty and optimism they had the first time. I didn't want to forget, and my decision not to remarry was my way of ensuring I never would. But that didn't mean I was immune to the pressures of society constantly telling me that marriage was the one thing that would make my life complete.
I needed to just accept that I was being radical -- constructing a relationship that threw convention to the wind. But it was hard. I was no Mia Farrow -- the bohemian actress once married to Frank Sinatra and Andre Previn -- living on the Upper West Side with her cats, canaries and chinchillas and caring for a brood of kids adopted from all corners of the world. I was just a single mom of two living on a suburban block in a mid-sized Midwestern town. There was nothing radical about me.
I first thought my relationship with Bryan was the perfect formula. Then it felt like a sham. Now I see it's just the best we can do -- for now. Yes, there are moments of loneliness, reminders of all that I don't have. But there are many more moments of profound contentment and joy, and the feeling that I might have hit on a formula that is -- if not perfect -- pretty great.
I believe there's nothing wrong with us preserving our relationship by blocking out the very things that had led to the demise of our previous marriages and were straining the unions of so many people we knew. And there's nothing wrong with not wanting our time together to become routine. We want this to last. And if it does, maybe someday the planets will align to allow us a little more time and flexibility -- perhaps a Thursday or a Friday or two.