couple sleeping apart
Photo: Paul Costello
Breathing room? Laurie Winer has it in spades—and she's married. An eight-month-a-year wife ponders aloneness, togetherness, and the annual arrival of a mysteriously enticing stranger: her husband.
My husband is packing to leave. He teaches fall semesters at the University of Iowa and vacates our Los Angeles home every August. And so, every-other-weekend connubial visits notwithstanding, Tom and I live apart four months of the year. This, I find, is a perch from which to ponder solitary pleasures versus wedded bliss.

I always liked living alone, despite the obvious drawbacks, slights, and thoughtless insults heaped on unattached women past, say, 31. I got married at 35, and I can tell you, it's no fun at all being on the wrong side of the cultural conspiracy through which society attempts to ensure that the race is propagated by always asking the single woman at a wedding how old she is and when she's finally going to get married.

On the other hand, single women get to live alone. That's nothing to sneeze at.

Living alone. For me that means: I don't do anyone's laundry or dishes. I don't worry about when he's getting home. I don't worry about when I'm getting home. No one eats my leftover Indian food. No one erases my phone messages and forgets to tell me who called. I don't have to wait at the door when it's time to go out while he searches for his glasses. I don't have to consider the question "Have you seen my glasses?" at absurdly short intervals. I don't leave for the restaurant at the last possible second and then have to valet park. No one is aware that I'm playing computer hearts for two hours on a Thursday. And when I slip into bed, wearing my softest and least sexy flannel nightgown, I make out with my cat, Hobbes, and watch Comedy Central till I fall asleep.

Which is a more natural state? Being with someone every day? Or being alone? If we had the money, would we all "live close by and visit often," as Katharine Hepburn described her ideal marriage? Keep a place to retreat, a place not to be tangled up in someone else's consciousness, needs, moods, and daily emotional upkeep? Of course, that didn't work out very well for Woody and Mia.

I like our arrangement in part because it's a constant reminder that nothing's permanent. When people get used to a living situation, we trick ourselves into thinking it's always going to be that way. Sticking to the same routine year-round allows us to wear those filters that prevent us from dwelling on death, dismemberment, abandonment—all the things in life that don't happen, until one day they do. But for Tom and me, the changes in our living arrangement are just bracing enough—a little death. We take each other for granted less easily.

Except when we don't. I'm supposed to be writing an essay about how Tom's annual absence adds excitement to our marriage, but as I watch him pack, all I can think is that it adds neurosis. Because when I see the man I'm living with dump his entire sock drawer into a battered black suitcase, I feel anxious and insecure. No matter what the facts may be, it certainly looks like someone's leaving me. So it's a fraught scenario, watching Tom prepare to leave. The two of us tend to be morose at these times, but we don't fight. That happens when we get back together. We call these reentry fights, which can be counted on as surely as you can count on anything else in marriage.

Next: Why change is good for any couple
Reentry fights are interesting. They're like a reenactment of the power struggle most couples encounter on the first day they find that they're not tearing each other's clothes off the minute they see each other. Suddenly, her expectation to be served coffee in bed is not quite as adorable as it was only yesterday. How much leniency is she going to show toward his brattiness, irritability, or eccentricity? How much will he show toward her? Lines get drawn through fighting.

These fights occur again on a larger canvas when a couple moves in together (Is he going to forget that it's garbage night every Wednesday for the rest of our lives?). Then there's the huge one on the honeymoon, when you look at each other dumbfounded, the way Ben and Elaine did on the bus at the end of The Graduate, and someone picks a fight. Then, though, most couples tend to settle in for the long haul, choosing their battles and compromises as they go along, often with remarkable patience. This balancing act gets thrown out of whack when you're apart for a while and you get used to a certain amount of freedom, and maybe you worry that the other person has also gotten used to a certain amount of freedom. A partner tasting freedom = reentry fights. And they can be nasty.

After the fighting, there's the good part: the frisson created by absence, the thrill of sleeping with someone who's slightly unfamiliar (and not too unfamiliar). You get to reintroduce yourself. Because whatever's transpired day-to-day that has changed you in tiny ways—the infinitesimal shifts that you don't notice when you live with someone—well, you notice those things, or you feel them, when you haven't seen someone for two weeks. The way when you have dinner with a friend and she looks much more exhausted than she did the last time you saw her, and you talk about what's happened between then and now. You see your spouse more clearly with a little distance. Being apart and then together is a reminder that time is passing, that you'd better take note of it. And that's always a good, if bittersweet, thing. Suddenly the need to attend to another person's oddities doesn't seem as onerous as it did when you were alone. It seems almost noble, part of the human tradition.

All told, I have to say our arrangement works out well for us. I think it may be hardest on Hobbes. Every December, on the night that Tom arrives home for good (and I don't know how the cat knows it isn't just a visit, but he knows), Hobbes relieves himself with malice of forethought on the bedroom floor. Change is good for couples. But it's hard on a cat.

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