Almost every day for the past 23 years, I've awakened in the dark. The deep dark, and I don't like it. Because my husband is an irritable sleeper, he can't sleep with any light coming through the shades. The exclusion of light isn't a preference but a necessity. To share a bed with my husband, I've had to give up something I love, and I want it back. I've decided that for at least part of the time, I'm going to sleep somewhere else.
You think giving up the connubial bed after 23 years isn't big and scary? Okay then, there's more: I'm taking a small apartment. It's just a room, really, but it's for me alone. At a time when I thought I would be hunkering down with my husband, I find I now want to open up our relationship to include...what? Deeper intimacy between us, and at the same time, more freedom. A stronger commitment to each other, and at the same time, a larger arena in which to practice it. A richer connection, and at the same time, a private space for myself. What kind of freedom, larger arena, richer connection? I'm not sure. But I want more intimacy, trust, recognition, even—postmenopausally—sex. Will changing the structure, testing the boundaries of my marriage get me what I want? I am so not sure.
Nothing about our marriage has been what I thought it was going in. When I met him, I thought my husband was a smart, up-front, upstanding entrepreneur. He was, but it turned out he was also—oops—soon to become addicted to barbiturates. Whereas I thought we would be raising a family together, he was often absent, busy with work while I cared for our child. Our marriage has been challenging, and I've been feeling my way all along—like many people, I'll bet—without a template.
Our son, who will be 21 by the time you read this, is our joy and our finest accomplishment. But since we launched him and there is no longer the daily pace, steady as a heartbeat, of home life with a child, I've been struck by an arrhythmia of questions: What is now keeping my husband and me together, and what is the quality of that attachment and commitment? Is the framework strong enough to support an exploration of us as individuals and as a twosome? And back to waking in the dark in that connubial bed: Must compromise, if it's no longer necessary or practical to preserve the family unit, be part of the equation in a marriage? Not sure, not sure, not sure, not sure.
What are the other compromises I'm questioning? I'm shy about telling you, because I'm afraid it sounds as if I'm looking a gift horse—my decent, basically good enough marriage—in the mouth. Maybe I am. But here goes: I want a physical space where I can see myself reflected without the influence (both aesthetically pleasing and overpowering) of my husband. I also want to create a distance between my husband and me specifically for the purpose of coming together with the intention of...being together. In the course of our long marriage, we have both quit seeing each other, have become, like the furniture in our apartment, part of the seemingly immutable landscape of our married life. I don't want to rearrange that furniture, or reupholster it. Nor do I want to replace it with different, newer, or fancier stuff. I just want to remember why I chose it in the first place.
"I'm taking an apartment...not leaving my marriage, but adding more room to it."
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."
Roger and Maria Housden are, in their own words, flying by the seat of their pants. They've been married four years, but for the last year, he's been living in Greenwich Village and she's been living about 35 minutes away in New Jersey to be closer to her children by a previous marriage. Three or four nights a week, in one of their places or the other, they have nuptial visits. "Aside from the obvious challenges—like the fear one steps into when you and your spouse are living separate lives by design—the benefits really surprised me," said Maria. "I shared a room with my sisters, and then with a roommate in college, and then with my first husband. I was 42 years old before I painted a room the color I wanted.
"But the unexpected joy of our choice has been that I get to see who my husband is without my influence or blending with him; we can recognize and celebrate each other's distinctions." Roger is 18 years Maria's senior. They both see their living arrangement as a metaphor for their intention as a couple, which is to foster an environment, a context, between the two of them that can allow them, each in their own way, to stretch in areas they might not have alone. Without getting into the specifics of what that means for this particular couple—Roger made a reference to poet Robert Bly's idea of the "third body" in a relationship, which, I took to mean, is the product of both individual's selves—I appreciated their commitment to finding what's comfortable for them. Maria put it poignantly. "It's inspiring to be with someone else who is hungry for who he is becoming," she said, "to live in a marriage that supports that idea."
"Yeah, but I have so many questions about how to do that," I said.
"Marriage isn't an answer," said Roger.
"It's a riddle," said Maria, "a mystery about two people coming together." Right, I thought. And maybe also about living apart.
It turns out that among the masters of supple, long-term, enduring attachments are gay men and women. "The successful gay relationships I've seen are better than successful heterosexual relationships," says Judith Stacey, PhD, professor of sociology at New York University and senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families. That's partly because gay couples—without the social scripts, rules, and conventions that bind heterosexuals—can negotiate more honestly and openly about what works for them in a relationship. According to Stacey, a lower percentage of homosexuals have long-term relationships than heterosexuals because there's little institutional support, but those who do navigate them more creatively. Their relationships are, in a way, custom-made. "Our scripts for marriage are limited and trap people when they don't have the courage or the creativity or the resources to be able to imagine and implement an alternative," said Stacey. "If you want to do something differently, you're automatically swimming upstream."
I'm wondering whether swimming upstream is necessarily a bad thing in a marriage. When you've been with someone day in and day out for more than 20 years, might choosing not to be carried along by the current be revitalizing? Depending on the terms of your relationship, swimming upstream could mean anything from simply asking, Why are we together? to claiming a room of your own (or a chair or a weekly night out) to taking separate vacations to living apart some of the time or even all the time. It might mean not cooking dinner every night or alternating you, then him, every other night.
The notion of the married couple as an isolated nuclear family is distinctly Western, and only a couple of hundred years old, according to Roger Lancaster, PhD, director of the Cultural Studies Program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. But it has had hearty social and governmental support, which has undoubtedly fed our reluctance to think about it as a more flexible institution. That, in turn, has had the unfortunate consequence of making us feel that there's something wrong with us if we don't happily participate in our conventional system of modern love, says Lancaster. He believes that our ideal places too many demands on that relationship, and that creativity is vital to any kind of livable domestic arrangement.
I hope I prove him right.
More from the O relationship vault: Hang up the gloves!