The Last Couple Standing
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 to...us?
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.