The Last Couple Standing
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The Last Couple Standing

Why do some marriages survive while others perish? Lately, as all my closest friends seem to be splitting up, my husband and I have been asking ourselves this upsetting question.

Falling Apart

I might have been okay if I hadn't seen the baby crib. It was in the garage, disassembled atop the pile of "what nobody bought in the tag sale." I spied it as I stood in the driveway of Tom and Penny's home for the last time. Their house was sold, they were half packed and about to navigate the scary ice floes of separation -- with two wide-eyed daughters bobbing between them. For work reasons they were moving to a very distant city, where they planned to live apart but near each other and form yet another of today's "alternative" family constellations. I hugged Tom goodbye, then clung fiercely to Penny, the saddest of us all.

The loss was breathtaking. We had toasted one another's weddings. Our children dunked themselves, shrieking, in the chilly pond as the men tossed towels and encouragements and Penny and I gossiped through a heady blue cloud of barbecue smoke. In those Days of Heaven they were the couple closest to my husband, Mark, and me in temperament and circumstance. So when they came apart after 20 years, we watched their free fall with horror and pain.

However did we get here -- the last fading afternoon in this pretty place? Mark was away on business, so I had driven out alone to say goodbye. We soldiered through a sad, strained lunch. And just as I thought I had a grip on myself, there was that crib -- our crib. Another couple had given it to Mark and me after their children had grown out of it; we tucked our two into it, then passed it to Tom and Penny, who kissed two more fuzzy heads bobbing above the rails. Once the repository of dreams, the crib was as forlorn an object as a lost teddy bear on the roadside. I had a strong, if irrational urge to tie it on top of my car and save it from the garbage truck's splintering jaws. Of the three couples who used it, we are the only one left standing. Tom, the one who wanted out of the marriage, turned back toward the house first. Penny was a pale, thin pillar of devastation, unable even to wave as I pulled out of the driveway. From the dashboard CD deck Yo-Yo Ma's cello played a gorgeous elegy as I drove past trees just beginning to yellow into fall. Within seconds I was crying harder than I had about anything since my father died. I had to pull over; I could not see the road.

Just who was I crying for? For Tom and Penny and the girls, surely. But as traffic whizzed by I realized I was giving way to a more selfish grief that had been building as six couples we had long counted among our nearest and dearest fell apart within a few years of one another. And one by one their dissolutions undid that ad hoc adult family circle that had nourished us for so long.

These were the people you first raise hell with, then raise kids, roof beams, and retirement plans. We took the scary fences together -- that first postpartum diaper, a midnight croup attack, kindergarten jitters, failing elder parents, lost jobs -- and pulled one another out of the thorny hedges from time to time. Headed toward the far turn, had Mark and I outdistanced the field? And if so, why did it feel so lousy?

So Many Questions

It has been hard to get a handle on this free-floating grief. We miss it all so much -- the sprawling dinners at our table, the evenings out with the big kids babysitting the littles. And oh, do we miss the talk. It took us a while to realize that the support we have long taken as a right of adult life is in fact a privilege. It's been hard even to talk about it between ourselves. Beneath any discussion of a solid union gone bad is that small prick of fear: If it happened to them, could it happen

A few weeks after Tom and Penny had gone, Mark and I celebrated 20 years together with a few stolen days on an island off New England. On a long morning's hike we thrashed through a bog lit with fall glory, stood there alone and wondered aloud:

Where'd they all go? And why? Why is a roaring love so vulnerable to time? We started blaming the larger world, of course. The day earlier we had dragged ourselves onto the ferry, winded from business crises and college-tuition sticker shock. Twenty-first-century life is hard on marriages, long or new. And we ticked off plenty of plausible pathologies: staying in miserable jobs for health coverage, forgoing retirement plans or remortgaging a future owing to soaring college costs. Who hasn't been pinched by downsized dreams? Sneer if you must at all those midlife crisis cliches, but in long, loving marriages, the big chill does seem to descend when middle age and compromise coalesce. Whether you're talking about marriage, a career, or family life, asking the Cosmic Question -- Is this as good as it gets? -- is a calculated risk. The answer may be tougher to stare down than crow's-feet in the bathroom mirror. Flight is not a surprising impulse.

One sure thing we have learned amid all these ruptures: You can't Monday-morning-quarterback a broken marriage. These are all good people with the best of intentions, and only they have the knowledge and right to analyze their implosions. If there were growing fault lines, we didn't see them -- or didn't want to. In five of six cases, the men were the ones who left, while the women declared themselves still in love. The sixth, a mutual parting, was civil. There were no children; the spaniels lope easily between exes in a shared-custody arrangement.

Among the husbands there were a few affairs -- each of them explained away as a mere symptom of larger issues within the marriages. (One of the husbands later married his much-younger symptom.) All the standard exit clauses were invoked -- "I'm just not happy," "we've grown apart," and my personal favorite, "I just need to blow up my life and start again." But such cliches are born of sad, enduring truths. They're blunted by overuse, maybe, but still deeply felt -- and capable of inflicting unspeakable pain.

The Aftermath

What do you do when you love everyone involved? Whom do you succor first at a train wreck? Usually the worst wounded, of course. And how do you negotiate the aftermath? Where there was bad behavior, we try not to judge. Where support is needed -- generally among the women and children -- we try to give it. And in our own family we hold on tight.

As thoroughly modern kids, our son and daughter, ages 18 and 16, are conversant with the newer forms of busted, blended, two-mommy or -daddy and bicoastal families. They can easily keep pace with their pals' "Thursdays through Sundays at Dad's" type arrangements. But when divorce hit closer to home, they weren't so blase. "Why? What happened?" they demanded to know. "Why won't you tell us?"

We have yet to find a graceful, reasoned way to depict friends' smashups. Pick your cliche; we've tried them all: They just came apart. Things weren't working out. They had come to different places in life. The inadequacy of our explanations has been obvious. By the third or fourth divorce, any snappish moment between Mom and Daddy-o, albeit over the likes of the whereabouts of a garden spade, raises an alarm: "Stop it, you two. Stop it right now!" Their undisguised worry makes us wince.

For clueless adults I wish there were an etiquette guide for Carrying On. Once the initial Days of Anguish have passed -- the tearful phone calls, the husband/husband, wife/wife dinners -- there is no beaten path back to equilibrium. Though we try to stay cordial with all parties, we've found that post-divorce friendships are often a function of proximity. Two couples' splits were so thorough and distancing that no one sees either party. In opting out of the marriages, most of the men effectively walked out of our lives, one to a new bicoastal marriage that keeps him breathless, another to new and distant jobs and liaisons. We miss them all and wish them well.

Like any nuclear family reconfigured by divorce, our extended clan has learned to adapt. In place of the lazy-day family picnics and brunches, there are long mom walks, ladies' nights, and dinners with odd numbers of guests. No one loses a place at our table.

We have also learned to respect the resiliency of children. The most heartening moment was when Rob and Dorrie's son and daughter, who were devastated by their parents' bruising divorce, rallied their teenaged friends to throw their mom a surprise birthday party. Dorrie walked in on the arm of her proud, handsome son to guests from both sides of the wedding aisle, her children's friends -- even her ex-mother-in-law. The message was bright as all those darn birthday candles: We love you, we're here.

It's a long, hard journey to those redemptive moments; Penny is still at the outset walking on glass. There has been no communication from Tom, but Penny and I talk and e-mail across the miles. Sometimes we talk turkey -- the marriage -- but much is just catching up on kids, jobs, friends. Yet I realize that even my burbles about day-to-day family doings can sting. After my recent dispatch about dual-career travails here, Penny wrote back, "I really loved working and pulling together. That's a great part of marriage -- having someone on your side."

Bingo. That's the ultimate blessing of the time-tested union -- and the howling loss of the broken one. Walk it all with me. Know me, love me, mourn me like no other. Make that part of life altogether unconditional and everything else -- from gas prices to orthodontia, terrible twos to HMOs -- can be tamed. Or at least held at bay.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2008.