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The Odd Contradictions Of Marriage

Can two people really expect to stay together for a lifetime?

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photo of author Kristan Higgins and her dog, photo of novel look on the bright side
Lydia Leclair
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I once interviewed a very successful, uber-sophisticated author, and the topic of marriage came up. “I don’t think people are meant to be married for life,” she said, her manner both cavalier and convincing. “We change. Our needs are different. It’s naïve to think the same person would be right for a lifetime.”

“Mmm,” said I, immediately conjuring my beloved grandparents, who were happily married for 67 years. “Well, till death do us part, right? That’s the dream.” The author gazed at me, pityingly, kindly. “Aren’t you adorable,” she murmured. Many years later, however, I’m still with my original husband. We are solidly, happily married, more than any other couple we know. I adore him.

This is not to say I don’t contemplate spousal murder from time to time. Every time he gives me the You’re wrong look, I feel the urge to smother him. His insuppressible urge to correct every tiny detail — “It’s not a nail. It’s a brad,” he’ll say, as if that matters to anyone but him and Norm Abrams. He thinks his memory is as carved in stone as the Ten Commandments, making me always wrong. If I tell him something doesn’t work — the car door lock, the air conditioner — he immediately assumes it’s operator error, only believing me when it fails for him. I find myself listening to Dateline’s podcast more and more, storing away ideas and learning from the mistakes of other spouses. You know. Just in case.

According to Google, half of all marriages end in divorce or separation. I don’t anticipate that for my husband and me, but … well … there is the fantasy of being a noble widow. Oh, come on. He’s had the same idea. Not too long ago, he lovingly said, “I hope you die first, honey, because you’d be too sad without me.”

“Are you kidding?” I said (also lovingly). “I’ve been planning for widowhood since before we met. You die first. I’ll be fine.” After all, my husband is a firefighter and plays with power tools in his spare time.

Since then, we’ve had an ongoing discussion of all the fun things we’ll do when the other dies first. I plan to paint our kitchen cabinets yellow and buy delicate, flowery china, since he won’t be around to break it. He’ll keep the TV permanently tuned to This Old House at a volume that would hurt my ears, were I still alive. He’ll visit the national parks of Florida since during my life, I refused to go, dreading both alligators and mosquitoes.

In reality, we know life will be very sad without the other (aside from my yellow cabinets, which will be quite cheery). But I think it’s normal to fantasize about life alone when most of your adult life has been spent with another person, every day, week after month after year after decade.

I channel this in my novel, Look On the Bright Side. Sixty-something, long-married Ellie discovers messages on her husband’s iPad to another woman. Her rock-solid marriage abruptly cracks. Suddenly, all those little things she’s put up with for 40 years don’t seem so little anymore. Instead, they’ve become messages of disrespect and entitlement, of taking her for granted.

And so, she leaves. She moves in with a friend and contemplates a different kind of life. What would it be like to not be half of a couple? In a way, it’s thrilling to contemplate. We know our spouses better than they know themselves. Life without them, in whatever way that happened, would be new. And that’s what’s sacrificed in a long marriage. We trade in the thrill of freshness for the comfort of familiarity. Like the branches of two trees planted next to each other, our lives become so entwined that’s it hard to remember who we are on our own. If you cut down one, what happens to the other? Would it thrive, or wither?

I had a dream recently, in which my dear husband had indeed died, and I stood in our kitchen, looking out at the woods. The future stretched out in front of me like a barren desert I’d have to cross myself. I missed him so much that I woke up crying. It was a good reminder to appreciate what we have — love, security, comfort — and not to spend too much time dwelling on what we don’t. Even if yellow cabinets would look gorgeous in our kitchen.

 How long have YOU been married? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships