No matter how hard I've tried to refresh my perspective, I can't seem to nudge us out of what feels like a nuptial rut. So what will happen if I enlarge the landscape by writing us a ticket out of quotidian familiarity and into a new marital geography? What will happen if I reintroduce the concept of "other" into our relationship, encourage each of us to recognize the other as an individual and to appreciate our differences?
Playing around with the conventional marriage arrangement isn't new. As long as 150 years ago, writes professor of media studies at Northwestern University Laura Kipnis in her book Against Love: a Polemic, there were mainstream discussions—town meetings—on alternative forms of marriage. More recently, Joan Anderson in her book A Year by the Sea advocated taking a yearlong "sabbatical" from marriage and described her own, which she used to reassess and refocus her relationship.
Because I didn't know if there were legal implications to taking an apartment in addition to our jointly owned home, I consulted a lawyer. She listened as I explained my situation and then stared at me, hard. "Do you want a divorce?" she said. No, I told her; I want to maintain two residences—one shared, the other mine. "Why don't you just get a divorce?" she said. Well, because...I don't want a divorce, I told her. I love my husband and don't see a reason to end our marriage. "And your husband?" she said. He's not happy about it, but we're talking about it, and he's accepting it, I told her. She shook her head. Then she said, "I've seen it all. I'll write you a move-out letter detailing your agreement." Leaving her office, I felt a little foolish. Maybe I did want a divorce but didn't know it. Maybe taking an apartment is the equivalent of taking a lover, a transitional object to get me out of the marriage and into something else. I don't think so. I envision my own place as a haven: warm, comfortable, pretty, my bed by the window, a wall of books, a cozy reading chair, an exquisite lamp, my favorite prints (gifts from my husband) on the walls. No one there—and I mean no one, in case you're thinking sex—but me.
Soon after I spoke to the lawyer, I ran into a woman I hadn't seen in years, whose son was about to start college. "What would you say if I told you that I'm taking an apartment," I said, "not leaving my marriage but adding more room to it?" "I can't believe it," she said. I thought she sounded distressed about my plan. "I was thinking just today how much I would love to do that," she said. The following week, I was introduced to a woman who shares a suburban home with her retired husband and lives half the week in an apartment in the city where she continues to work, even though she could easily commute to the suburbs. "I married at 20," this 58-year-old woman told me. "My husband was the prince on the white horse. I expected that we would live happily ever after. But you have no idea when you start out that, if you're lucky, it's going to go on and on and on and on. Who thinks about that?"
I know I didn't. I was 31 by the time I married, and if you'd asked me why I was tying the knot, I would've told you that I loved my future husband and wanted to have a baby. Beyond that, I didn't think about what it meant to secure and sign a document that bound us legally for life. I loved saying "...my husband," or hearing him say "...my wife." The sound of that made me feel grown up and secure, as if I had finally landed a spot in the major leagues of love. And marriage—even my sometimes difficult marriage—has in many ways been good for me. My husband's interests in art and in India have widened my own. Our joint incomes allowed me the gift of a flexible work schedule while raising our son. Most important, he and I have encouraged (or at least tolerated) each other's emotional growth and enjoy an appreciation of that. But now...
"It took me a while to accept that the romantic notion I had wasn't right for our marriage," said the woman who shares a suburban home with her husband and keeps an apartment in town. "I thought that if you couldn't adjust to the realities of marriage, you either lived together unhappily or you divorced. My husband and I didn't divorce; I wanted to stay with it because there was more value in it than not. But I had to come to terms with the inevitable disappointment, to appreciate the good parts of our relationship and understand the parts I couldn't change. And then I had to figure out: What am I going to do to fill in the gaps?
"I love my work, I have a phenomenal relationship with my family, my female friendships nurture me," she continued. "This is definitely the best period of my life, so far. Growing up, I had a room in my parents' house; then I lived in a house with my husband. But the apartment is mine, and I love it, love the feeling that when I walk in it looks the way it did when I left. I'm grateful that my husband is respectful and doesn't feel threatened by my independence. We do a lot together. But in a marriage, you're bound to your partner in a lot of ways you want to be and in other ways you just don't."
The thing that struck me most vividly about this woman when I met her is that her very conservative appearance belied her unconventional arrangement, and I told her so. "I'm sure there are a lot of people out there like me," she said.
"I'm writing a story about married couples who've found new ways to live together," I told my son, "who maybe don't live together all the time or are breaking with convention in some way."
"Huh," said my son. "You should talk to S's mom and dad. They're married, but his dad lives in France and visits every three months or so. And L's parents share a place in the city and the country, but his mom lives in the city mostly. Oh, and what about J's parents, who have separate apartments but visit all the time?" I had forgotten how many couples, parents of my son's friends, were already doing what I was just considering.
I asked Laura Kipnis what she knew about the various ways people were bending or stretching or building around the container of marriage. "In my book, I wanted to enumerate the virtues of experimentation instead of rigidity," she said. "I didn't offer suggestions or advice. But I got a lot of e-mails from both men and women wanting to share stories about their alternative arrangements, many suggesting a yearning for more freedom in their relationships. And many suggesting there's a lot of misery out there." Well, we know about the misery: sexless marriages, soaring divorce rates. What about the people who are making it work?
"I was 42 years old before I painted a room the color I wanted."