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(Im)perfect Couples

What Happens When the Marriage You Admire Ends in Divorce?

Earlier this summer, several strangers told me their secrets. I was volunteering for an art event in Brooklyn called Sanatorium. Almost like a pop-up clinic, Sanatorium offered a series of interactive "therapies" for visitors: Goodoo dolls (to send good juju to a loved one), Epitaphs (an inscription for the life you wanted to lead), and The Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes, where I had been stationed.

For this exhibit, the artist had built an intricate, table-sized museum model, with various rooms, each representing different aspects of our lives: childhood, career, relationships and the future. Participants would fill the rooms with small objects, meant to symbolize their experiences.

I was fascinated by the way people curated their "life museums" and moved by the tales they told. When one man placed a ceramic turtle in the room representing his first son's birth, he turned to his wife and reminded her of a forgotten memory: Shortly after their son was born, they had witnessed a group of young turtles set out for sea. The image had taken on a magical resonance in his mind, symbolic of the start of their new family. After the story ended, the wife put her hands on her husband's face, reached up and kissed him. "I can't believe you remembered the turtles," she said.

If I could have taken a snapshot of that moment, then I would have placed it in my own hypothetical life museum, in the room that represented my unfulfilled desires. As a single woman in her 30s, I saw this moment as so symbolic of the partner and family I still hope to attain. My secret fear, though, is that time is running out, and that a moment like theirs will never be mine.

The Museum of Hypothetical Lifetimes had a room for this fear, too: the "secret room," a semicircle with no entrances, placed in the middle of the museum. The artist conceived of this room as a space to represent some secret to which other people are not privy. But as the volunteer at this "therapy," I suddenly found myself inside these secret rooms with strangers. One woman in her 40s chose a clock, telling me that she secretly regretted the time lost in her professional career after having children. A college student, who apologetically admitted that she's "obsessed with physical appearances," chose a tube of black lipstick, representing her secret desire to be a pole dancer. The woman whose husband had remembered the sea turtles placed a plastic soldier in the room. "This represents our fights," she told her husband, "the ones we don't want anyone to see." ...Read More

Hearing these secrets reminded me that, despite our overexposed world of tweets and status updates and reality show confessionals, there are aspects of our lives that we don't want to share, that we purposefully keep hidden. We often hide our desires, our regrets, our conflicts, our shame. And from the outside looking in, we sometimes forget that every life and every relationship has secret rooms we don't know about.

This lesson was one I began to learn much more painfully and personally earlier this year, when I unexpectedly found myself in the secret room of my college friends' deteriorating marriage. Karen and Tim* lived abroad with their two children; I hadn't seen them in almost two years and finally planned a trip to visit. A week before my departure, I received an email from them, with the ominous subject line: "Some news before you get here." The email itself was a study in ambiguity, no sentence saying directly what would become clear by the end: Though they would continue to live together for now, Karen and Tim were separating, and they thought I should.

I was shocked. The distance of several thousand miles and an ocean had obscured any problems. I was devastated for them and for their children; I distrusted their judgment; I worried the decision had been made in a vacuum. I wanted to know more but didn't want to overstep the bounds of privacy.

When I arrived at their home a week later, after a 14-hour flight across the Atlantic, we sat at the dining room table in uncomfortable silence, knowing we had to acknowledge the news, but not knowing how to begin. "I can't stand this," Karen finally cried. "Just ask what you want to ask."

So I did. And as the story of the end of their marriage unfolded—communication problems, differing perceptions of each other as partners and parents, diverging values and ambitions, recriminations and criticisms—the finality of their separation became clear. I was surprised by the depth of their unhappiness, and by their seeming incompatibility after a decade of marriage.

My primary concern was for my friends and their children, but I began to realize that the darkness I'd found in their secret room was casting shadows on my own beliefs about marriage. As a single woman, I like to tally up the number of marriages I truly admire. I can count on one hand the number of partnerships that have achieved, in my mind, that rare balance of friendship, attraction, esteem and shared beliefs. Karen and Tim had seemed to have one of those marriages.

I thought they had imaginatively confronted the challenges of modern relationships: They had overthrown traditional gender roles—Karen was the main breadwinner, Tim the loving caregiver of their two boys—and they had chosen, by living abroad, an unconventional path. These difficult choices, happily made by all appearances, had seemed to me a testament to their love for each other, their faith in each other, and their shared values about how to live and how to raise their children.

Where there are three marriages I admire, there are many more I judge: high school friends who fell into marriage with irresponsible husbands after getting pregnant; college friends who seem to be living inside suburban sitcoms, with relationship dynamics—wives haranguing husbands to do chores, husbands making jokes about PMS to explain their wives' moods—scripted by Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus; other friends who are committed to partners who seem too humorless, too judgmental or too destructive to be a good match.

But sitting around that dining table, I was reminded of the limitations of my external perspective. There's a lot I don't know about the marriages, both the ones I admire and the ones I criticize. As I lay in bed that first night—sharing a room with Karen, now that she and Tim slept apart—I felt deeply naïve, and startled by how little my views seemed to be grounded in reality. And I felt embarrassed, because my naïve ideals seemed to be stand-ins for real experience. I'm not just single—I'm perpetually single. After a couple short-lived relationships in my 20s, I've been alone longer than I want to admit—just a few flings here and there and one too many first dates.

I want marriages I can believe in, marriages I can root for, marriages I can look up to, because I still want to find a partner, get married and have children. So I study my friends' relationships like blueprints, hoping I can use them as models for how to build a life with someone else. When one of the marriages I admire turns out to be nothing like I imagined it—as it did with Karen and Tim—the flimsiness of my own beliefs about marriage and partnerships becomes apparent, and the prospect of ever finding the right relationship seems improbable.

Pamela Paul recently noted in The New York Times that many divorced women feel their married friends viewed their divorces as a kind of virus they could catch. "Several divorced women suggested that the news of their marital unraveling seemed to unnerve other couples in their social circles," Paul writes, "prompting unease about their own marriages."

For single women, a divorce often creates a different kind of anxiety, particularly when it reveals that a purportedly strong marriage is something else altogether. We fear that a good marriage, an ideal marriage, is next to impossible. A Census Bureau report issued in May noted that the proportion of women ages 25 to 29 who have never married has risen from 27 percent to 47 in the last two decades. Most of these women, we imagine, are establishing their careers, taking time to find themselves or trying out different relationships. They're also watching their friends make and end long-term commitments, and if they're like me, then they're racking up a scorecard of imperfect marriages and unhappy divorces, with a couple of exemplary partnerships keeping hope alive.

But this perspective is flawed in a couple ways. As my friend often reminds me when I make broad judgments about a public figure involved in some new sex scandal or messy divorce, we often assume we know a lot more about other people's personal lives that we actually do. We don't have access to the backroom bargains and negotiations in their marriages, to the fights no one sees, or to the reconciliations that have kept them together until now.

Finding myself in the midst of my friends' separation, and watching the participants at Sanatorium, I was reminded of something very simple: Everyone keeps secrets. We keep secrets from our friends, from our partners, from ourselves. In relationships, people make choices that the rest of us might not be able to see. And in the private space of a relationship, we learn something about ourselves: the compromises we're willing to make—adapting to another person's quirks, forgiving another person's flaws, giving up certain beliefs to make room for others, being sexually adventurous—and the compromises we won't make.

In my desire to build a relationship model by accepting the best of my friends' marriages and discarding the worst, I made at least two false assumptions. First, I thought that my perspective on these marriages wasn't limited—that I had enough information to make judgments about whether their marriages really did or didn't work. Second, I believed that their choices were transferable to me. Over the years, I've tried to create a perfect model in my mind, thinking I'd then find the right person to fit into that ideal relationship. In reality, there are no shortcuts. No easy, step-by-step examples. In fact, that would defeat the purpose. Because it's in the imperfect, uncertain and ever-changing spaces you inhabit with another person where you discover what you want, what you need and who you are.

Whether or not I'll find a relationship that feels right is an open question—but it's a question that can't be answered by sitting alone in a room with no entrances, the walls papered with fantasy relationship blueprints. It can only be answered out in the imperfect, messy, uncertain world. So what does that mean for me? It means pushing through the discouraging aspects of online dating; going on more second dates; asking my friends to set me up; calling back the guy from the bar, and the one who I decided would be bad for me before I even got to know him. I want to discover the person I'm willing to be when I'm confronted with the unknown, and with all the secrets I can't yet see.

*Names have been changed

  • We often know less about other people's relationships than we think.

    PhotoAlto/Eric Audras
(Im)perfect Couples
What Happens When the Marriage You Admire Ends in Divorce?
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