My So-Called Marriage

For a long time after my parents' divorce, I wondered what my mother did with her wedding ring. One day it just vanished from her finger. I suppose she might have tossed it into a dresser drawer or donated it to the Salvation Army. She might have thrown it into the sea. I took my own wedding ring off shortly after my husband and I separated, in 1997, but it was a while before I lost that reflexive pang of alarm at the sight of the naked finger.

The young married women in the new anthology "Young Wives' Tales" are not worried about rings. They're too busy altering the label of wife to fit -- snipping, tucking, letting hems out, embroidering here, embellishing there. Marilyn Yalom discovered the same radical transformations in "A History of the Wife," in which she charts the evolution of the American wife through the centuries, concluding with a chapter titled "Toward the New Wife."

I like all these daring young wives on their matrimonial trapezes. I wish I'd known some of them when I was married because, presented with the raw material of wifehood, I ended up with a Frankensteinian creation I hardly recognize in hindsight.

We were married in the dog days of August. The ceremony took place outside on a narrow wooden footbridge that spanned a creek at an old resort. We liked the symbolism of crossing from one life to the next -- we didn't consider that bridges buckle in high winds and wash out in floods. And surely we should have known better than to get married at a place called White Sulphur Springs, consigning us to a perpetual, sulfurous August of the soul.

There are artifacts. A receipt for $45 from the county clerk's office for the marriage license. A crumpled note left that day for a visiting friend: Out getting marriage license, back soon. PS: Please don't let cat out.

We decided that we would not have one of those artificially festive affairs intended to appease family and friends. Our wedding would be intimate, poetic, unique. We talked a lot about the wedding, but the conversations never included our hopes and expectations for the marriage itself. We invited four of our closest friends; we crossed our bridge, we made our toasts. Then the best man tied a can onto the back of the car, and we drove away, wedlocked.

My passage into married life, however, did not go smoothly. Almost instantly, I began to mutate into the version of wife most alien to my personality -- a retro-wife. I planted flowers. I took an inordinate interest in window coverings. I cleaned house madly; people often commented on how spotless our house was. And I hardly ever wrote.

Who was this creature? She was certainly not my mother, a self-reliant woman who had raised three kids while holding down a full-time job. I was living the wrong life, with the wrong person, but I didn't know that yet. My unconscious knew it though and tried to tell me with an insistent parade of nighttime images. I dreamed my wedding band was made of glass, that it fell down a mine shaft, that it was too big and kept slipping off my finger. In the most preposterous, and obvious, dream of all, I was at a theater where a terrible play was being performed. The actors, one of whom was my husband, kept flubbing their lines, so impulsively I decided to rescue them. I threw on an ill-fitting wedding gown, tossed a veil over my head, grabbed a bunch of flowers from a nearby vase and leapt onstage. Quick thinking! someone yelled, and the audience cheered.

My husband did his best to pretend that all was well. He cleaned out the rain gutters. He bought a weedeater. He did all of this with self-conscious awareness of his new role, or what he thought his new role should be. He was as confused as I was. Neither of us knew -- how could we? -- that you had to consciously reinvent these roles or you would wind up wearing the threadbare hand-me-downs of previous generations.

I began to read all the 19th-century novels I had never had the time or the inclination to read before. Most featured women suffocating in meaningless marriages. "Why should one fall into marriage so quickly, as into an abyss suddenly yawning before one's feet?" Guy De Maupassant asked, in his short story "A Woman's Life." I wept when Anna Karenina threw herself under the train, when Jane Eyre left Rochester (and when she returned to him) and when I encountered this passage in George Eliot's "The Mill on the Floss":

A married woman could be distinguished from a single by a glance at her facial expression. Marriage scored on their faces a kind of preoccupied, faded lack-lustre air as though they were constantly being plagued by some problem. And they were.
Single unhappiness, clearly, was still full of possibilities, whereas married unhappiness was another animal altogether, a hydra with nine tormented and tangled heads. The town we lived in made matters worse. It was a provincial rural community where a woman was either a lady or a gal, unless she was married, in which case she was a wife. That had become my definition; I was less myself than I was my husband's wife. So we moved. We took a vacation. We went to couples therapy, but what was wrong with the marriage couldn't be fixed because nothing was broken; there was simply an absence, a lack.

My husband, one of the nicest of men, was my close friend, but as partners we failed to challenge or to animate one another. Our mutual feelings of vague disappointment and puzzled loneliness were glossed over by our easy camaraderie. We could always make each other laugh -- we still can. But there were too many things we didn't talk about, depths we never ventured into. Our relationship was like an ocean liner designed to cross the seas so smoothly its passengers hardly feel the swells heaving against the sides of the ship.

One day in early spring during the fourth year of our marriage, I went for a walk around the neighborhood. I felt as if I had been parted from someone dear to me, and wondered where she had gone. I sat down on a patch of grass in a park, closed my eyes and prayed for a sign. I heard a loud rumbling followed by a mechanical cough. The sound came closer, the ground vibrated. I opened my eyes in time to see an Edsel rounding the corner. As good a sign as any, I figured.

Our breakup was civilized. There were no arguments, no recriminations. I moved out, into a place of my own. We both conspired to pretend it was a trial separation. Three months, we said. We looked each other in the eye and knew it was a sham, but it helped to preserve a sense of security we still seemed to need.

"Maybe we should buy that book," my husband said, about four months into our three-month separation. He was talking about "Do Your Own Divorce" (an oft-overlooked reference work in today's dialogue on modern marriage). Ours, we joked weakly, would be a great divorce. We were determined to remain friends, and it was partly that stubborn determination that saw us through a legal process designed to make couples into adversaries, if they aren't already.

As part of the process, my husband and I had to declare all our possessions. We had arrived at a border. On one side was the safe land of marriage, where everyone drives with both hands on the wheel at 10 and 2. On the other side was the foreign country of divorce, where bandits lurk by the roadside, waiting to ambush hapless travelers. I had heard about divorcing couples hiding assets, emptying bank accounts and other bad behavior. But I can't judge them, because I know now that any separation, no matter how amicable, can bring out one's most childish fears -- where there were two there will now be one. And this was where my Inner Wife started showing the whites of her eyes.

I cast a longing eye upon the marital Maytags, which we had agreed my husband would keep. They seemed like symbols of the stable, financially secure life I was giving up, for, like many women, marriage had significantly upped my standard of living and divorce would substantially lower it. I am ashamed to admit it, but of the many internal battles I waged during the last year of our marriage, no small number involved an inventory of the things I would no longer be able to afford once I was divorced: vacations, health insurance, long-distance phone bills. The fact that I had not been able to afford these things before I was married seemed insignificant. I'm used to them, the Inner Wife whined. But after a while, I recognized that it was a smokescreen for the thing that really scared me -- the painstaking work of reclaiming my life.

The legal term for divorce is "marital dissolution." Dissolution: (1) The undoing or breaking of a bond; (2) A solid dispersed into a gas. When marital status is terminated, you are never merely single again -- you are unmarried. The judgment paper stated that our divorce was final on Dec. 21, the winter solstice. The day passed like any other day, and we were divorced. Our marriage had become a vapor. The Inner Wife disappeared in a billow of smoke.

There is nothing wrong with being a wife, of course. "To be a wife may no longer be a badge of honor, but it is far from a badge of woe," Marilyn Yalom observes. The point is that there is no longer a paradigm for wifehood; upon marriage each woman strikes out into unexplored territory, and the experience can be unnerving or it can be exhilarating (depending on what you've got packed in your suitcase). "To be a wife today when there are few prescriptions or proscriptions is a truly creative endeavor," Yalom says.

Jill Corral and Lisa Miya-Jervis, the editors of "Young Wives' Tales," also hope to reconfigure the image of the American wife. "The word 'married' still conjures up outmoded and inadequate images in too many people's minds," they write in their introduction to "Young Wives' Tales" which, I notice, is happily subtitled "New Adventures in Love and Partnership." The essays are honest and brave; the women's voices full of confidence and sass. They are thinking. They are having the essential conversation.

Not long after our divorce, my ex-husband and I had dinner. I went to the apartment we had shared, where he still lives, and knocked on the front door. He opened the door and looked at me standing on the welcome mat I had bought when we moved in. "Does it feel weird to knock on your own door?" he asked. "Yes," I said, "it's weird." We grinned at each other sheepishly.

We are friends again; friends with a complicated history, but still, friends. We are not to blame for our bad marriages, Emerson said: "In the worst-assorted connections there is ever some mixture of true marriage."

"So, what was that?" I asked, sitting across the table from him at a restaurant we used to go to when we were married. He knew exactly what I was talking about. "It was a love affair, a nice affair that shouldn't have turned into a marriage," he said, and I had to agree.

I keep my wedding band at the bottom of my jewelry box. Every now and then I slip it on my finger. It looks strange there, as if it belongs to a woman I don't know anymore, someone I see only occasionally, in a photograph or a dream.

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