Robert Olen Butler
Photo: Courtesy of Robert Olen Butler
In Robert Olen Butler's quiet, moving novel A Small Hotel, a husband and wife offer their respective reflections on their marriage—on the day they are scheduled to be divorced. Here, he shares his vision of long-term love in his own life.
1. Love and will: My parents met when he was 14 and she was 16. Both of them had lost a parent very early and had not experienced much love growing up. They were determined—and it was an act of wills for both of them—not to pass that on. They were married for 71 years. Never a day went by in our household when the word "love" was not used frequently. I'm deeply grateful to both of them. I feel like I was given the capacity to love from them.

2. How I know when I'm in love: I want to read to a woman at night.

3. One thing I've learned: The absence of expressed love is often as harmful as not loving.

4. Another thing I've learned: Takers do not turn into givers.

5. Love and growing up: What ennobles us humans is that we can act against our own impulses when we know they're wrong. We can do the thing we don't want to do out of love for another person.

6. Beware the armadillo: I live in an old antebellum plantation home with a writing cottage out back. Underneath it, we have this wonderful armadillo. I call him Armando. I get up before dawn every morning and he's usually out there. He is very tame, and he'll even brush my shins going by. But the truth is, he's an armadillo. And that's one of the things to watch when you're alone for too long. There's a very real danger of displacing all your impulses to love onto creatures other than people and flying off into a solitude that's daunting and difficult to return from.

7. When to give up—and when not to: Lasting relationships really depend on the ways in which the world changes us as individuals. If the two people in the relationship change in quite different ways, the fullness of their rapport may get diluted. And then some really serious decisions have to be made. Do you stay committed to each other even if you're no longer whole together? I have been married and unmarried four times, but, with the exception of the first one (which ended via a Dear John letter while I was still in Vietnam), each of them lasted quite a while: 14, 8 1/2 and 13 years. Despite my so-called failures, I still believe in a love that will last for decades. And I'm still looking for it.

8. Love and will (again): I've met my fifth wife four times in the past two years. Each time, I'm convinced this particular woman is the one for me. But I'm wrong. My impulse is to jump into marriage. I've done it before. I do not want to do it again. If you can identify where your hurt lies—and stop yourself from revisiting it—then there's got to be a chance at a new kind of relationship. Right now, I'm relying on my will to keep from making the same mistake.

9. What we're all looking for: Nurturing. This doesn't mean we need someone to massage our feet. Taking care of each other, when it comes to cooking or birthday presents, is sweet. But the real nurturing is, When I ache, can I speak? When I speak, will you hear? The answer to that question, for both parties, must be absolutely yes.

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