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My husband has many admirable qualities: Chuck is artistic and reliable, sexy and kind. But being schmoozy is not one of them. Movies showing couples propped up on pillows at 1:30 a.m., chatting and chowing down on cold shrimp lo mein, make me teary because ours is not a marriage where that happens. I go to bed at nine; Chuck stays up watching Conan or reading biographies of Civil War heroes I've never heard of. When we plot out trips we'll take as empty nesters, his first pick is to explore Scotland's ancient castles; mine is to lie on a beach in Corfu. I hate architectural tours; he hates lounging in the sun. He sits for hours; I can't sit still. We are twinned but separate, the "other" to each other, strangers who met at a Washington, D.C., bar a quarter century ago, married and produced four sons in three years (one set of twins let that happen, in case you're wondering).
I am in love with my imperfect husband. We are soul mates sometimes and enemies sometimes and lovers sometimes and probably married always. Marriage is at my center, yet marriage is amorphous, not enough to fuel me and fill me. I am a whole self without Chuck, as he is without me.
Knowing intuitively that he and I would ride on parallel tracks frightened me as a bride of 33; now, two decades later, I find that same knowledge oddly soothing. Our marriage has lasted because we give each other permission to go down separate tracks with different people and solo experiences.
One of the best perks of encouraging independence is that I get to hang out with close male friends. These bonds -- passionate of mind and chaste of body -- can bring a wife fulfillment without wrecking her marriage. In fact, what I like to call "boyfriends with boundaries" can actually provide relief for harangued husbands: With other doting males filling in the gaps, their wives make fewer demands on them.
A woman who loves the company of men should be able to have more than one man love her back. Another man's unswerving affection expands our ability to love and think and be happy. The right male pal provides blind adoration and unconditional support while enhancing your best self. Unlike a husband, with whom you share a toothpaste-spattered sink, a man you don't live with finds you fresh and extraordinary. He appreciates your views, without judgment or dissent, since what you say has no direct effect on his wallet or his daily life. Your mortgage is yours, his in-laws are his. In marriage a clash of opinions can threaten each spouse's territory. An extramarital male views you through gauzy spectacles. No matter how well he thinks he knows you, it's knowledge from afar; you remain a woman of mystery. He doesn't see the shadows that emerge when you live with someone day in and day out.
I am not a fan of the vogue term emotional affair as a blanket classification for cozy mixed-gender relations. In my view all deep friendships -- between men, between women, between men and women -- are emotional affairs. We seek out people who stimulate our whole beings, and even if there is sexual chemistry, it doesn't mean the sexual act will follow. When selected wisely, trusty male pals are so precious that only a fool would ruin things by taking one to bed.
These friendships need not be decades old. I have a new best boyfriend a mere driveway away. I'm going over there now -- at Chuck's suggestion.
It's 6:45 p.m. and I've just arrived home from teaching my college journalism class. My husband sits like a petrified rock, transfixed by a clump of hockey players beating each other up on TV. Breathless, I tell him the exciting news that I may take my class to Vietnam.
He remains immobile and asks gently, "Can this wait?"
I respond not so gently. "No, it can't wait. I am not going to a Vietnamese restaurant in Washington, D.C. I may be going to Ho Chi Minh City!"
In his low, slow voice, Chuck replies, "If the Caps lose this game, the season is over. Why don't you go see Derrin?"
Derrin is our next-door neighbor, and since he moved in 16 months ago my marriage has never been better. Derrin is curious and extroverted, a divorced man of 60 with a gorgeous smile and a sweet, well-trained Portuguese water dog named Max. When my husband and sons give me the silent treatment, I look out my kitchen window into the kitchen next door and pray that I spot Derrin. When I do, I wave, call him, and invite myself over.
So here I am now, practically sprinting through Derrin's door as he pours me a glass of cabernet and stirs his homemade mushroom soup, a house specialty laden with sherry and leeks. Derrin is a master chef who follows intricate recipes from grease-spattered cookbooks. He is also the rare opponent who can beat me at Scrabble.
Perched on bar stools, Derrin and I eat, drink, and talk about Vietnam, a place that fascinates him. I feel so lucky that I live right next door to a man who piques my intellect and my palate and who is always eager to listen to my stories and share his thoughts. Of course, this kind of friendship between a man and a woman can work only if it is openly celebrated and not hidden for fear of triggering spousal ire -- and only if it is used for renewal and not as a substitute for a loving marriage. You're in the danger zone when you become overly dependent on someone you're not married to.
Chuck likes Derrin, too. They do guy stuff together, like swapping power tools. But what Chuck likes most about Derrin and my other men friends is that they make me a more cheerful, interesting person. I hear "Go visit Derrin" a lot.
But I also hear "We should go over to Derrin's." For his birthday, I asked Chuck what he would most like to do. He said, "Have Derrin cook dinner for us." So on an 11-degree night last January, Chuck and I were sitting in Derrin's kitchen sipping red wine and watching our chef roll slabs of pizza dough on his black marble counter, then top the individual pizzas with dollops of chopped vegetables and four kinds of cheese. It was an impeccable performance worthy of the Food Network. We ate like pigs and made a couple of drunken promises: never to call Domino's again and never to move from our adjacent homes so we could grow old together.
After dinner, as we walked back home, I said to Chuck, "I love Derrin." And Chuck said, "So do I." And all at once, I was filled with intense gratitude that I have both of these wonderful men in my life.
I also reminded myself that I should be grateful more often. My husband has never stood in the way of me being me. He makes me mightier while also taking care of me. He let me go back to summer camp, without him, to be a counselor at 45. He cuts our hedges with a chain saw. He celebrates my friendships -- with men as well as women. He loves me.
After 23 years of marriage I sometimes feel as if the two of us are bruised and disillusioned soldiers in a war we don't understand. Yet we're in it for the hellish, wondrous long haul. We persevere because we said we would on our wedding day and because we know nothing is perfect. Friends of mine who left long marriages to start over lead far-from-perfect lives. Their second husbands are no longer heartthrobs; they detach into TV screens, burp after meals, and pass gas just as their first husbands did.
So yes, I'll keep this flawed marriage of mine and I encourage you, reader, to do the same. Your spouse is a partner in a complicated and comforting history that took years of sweat and tears to achieve. And no close friend, male or female, can ever replace this relationship.
Excerpted from The Secret Lives of Wives, by Iris Krasnow. Copyright 2011 by Iris Krasnow. Reprinted with permission of Gotham Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), Inc., New York, New York.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2011.