En español | Regardless of current statistics on the increasing numbers of failed long-term marriages, I want to believe that for every couple who says “I do,” there is still such a thing as “until death do us part.”
But I should know better.
Two decades ago, my own 25-year marriage ended. At the time, I considered it one of the worst tragedies of my life. I couldn’t figure out how my husband and I got to the point where divorce was the only alternative. How does a marriage that’s lasted so long end up failing? Over the years, I’ve been able to get some perspective on how to answer that question — at least for me. Here’s what I’ve realized.
See also: How Could They Break Up Now?
1. Marriages don’t end overnight, they die little by little. Vince and I met in Los Angeles while we were attending college. After our first date we could barely stand to be apart. After three months we eloped. I was 19 and he was 25. I was giddy with happiness. Ten years and three children later, we had settled into the comfortable routine of being a couple. The passion didn’t burn as bright, but it still burned. We made a good team as we handled all the ups and downs of our lives. By our 15th anniversary, we were more like business partners running a family. As I look back now, I can see that our lives had gotten more and more separated. Vince was starting a new business; I was concentrating on my journalism career. We weren’t running our lives in concert; we were running them on parallel paths. This was the beginning of the end of our marriage. If we had known, we might have been able to do something about it.
2. Marrying young isn’t always the best decision, but who knew? Vince and I had so much in common when we first met. We were both studying journalism. He was going to school on the GI Bill after serving as a Marine for four years. I was a freshman going to school at night and working during the day. We wanted the same things: careers, a home of our own and children. We loved art and purchased our first original painting on layaway shortly before we were married in 1966. We both instantly fell in love with the first house that we bought. We seemed to agree on everything. A year after we were married, I got a job as women’s editor at a small local newspaper, The Montebello News; he started working for the big daily, The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Even my mother, who had been opposed to us marrying from the start, had to agree that things were going well.
But the years brought on subtle changes. As we grew older (or should I say up?), our relationship hit some snags. Vince always made the major decisions for our family, and I was happy, at least in the beginning, with this arrangement. But then I started questioning him. We’d argue about the most mundane things. I didn’t like some of his friends; he didn’t like some of mine. So we saw them separately. I wanted to travel; he didn’t. So I started taking vacations without him. He was always working; I wanted him to spend more time with the kids. He said he was too busy. Brick upon brick we were building a wall between us. And we slowly grew apart. I now understand how it happens. It wasn’t the fault of either one of us, but we both suffered the consequences of letting it happen.
3. Finally calling it quits isn’t the end of the world, even though it feels like it. It took me almost two years of emotional upheaval before I made my final decision. I filed for divorce shortly before Thanksgiving, Vince’s favorite holiday. He was adamant about not wanting a divorce and I’m sure he believed I’d never make the first move. But he kept making promises he didn’t keep. There was a woman who kept coming back into his life despite his vows to never see her again. Finally, I saw the futility of it all. I was tired of living a soap opera.
That Thanksgiving was the first holiday we spent apart since we first met. I cooked all day preparing a feast for my kids and closest friends. Vince wasn’t invited. He later told me he drove by the house several times and that was when he finally realized that our life together was really over. He said he cried for the first time. I had been crying for months.
4. There can be a “happily ever after,” but it takes some work. The death of a marriage, especially one that is seemingly loving, is like the death of a dear relative. There’s deep mourning at first, but the grief lessens over the years. For a long time after Vince and I divorced, I kept thinking about what could have been — what we might have done to make things turn out differently. I missed being married. I missed being able to say “our” and “we” instead of “I” and “me.” I missed the social entrée that being part of a couple allows. But most of all, I missed the man I married. That person was gone.
Just after our divorce was finalized, I went to a counselor to help me cope with the sadness. After several sessions, she (a wise woman who had raised eight children, divorced a philandering husband and returned to school to become a psychologist) told me that I would one day look back on my marriage not as a failure, but as a wonderful life experience that netted me three beautiful children and a whole lot of wisdom. It took me a couple of years to realize how right she was. Stay positive, she said. I did and it led me to a new life full of happiness and contentment. But sometimes when I see an older couple glowing in the warmth of their many years together, I still feel a little sad for what might have been.