The Day I Decided To Stay In My Marriage

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
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It had been a tough year.

After 22 years together and 17 years of marriage, my husband and I no longer resembled the fresh-faced newlyweds who practically skipped up the aisle, beaming with excitement and nerves. We no longer looked like the young couples I’d see in the grocery store, arguing over who was going to cook dinner and who got to pick out the dessert. And we certainly didn’t resemble the couple who used to burst through the door at the end of our workdays, eager to tell each other every minute detail of our hectic jobs.

Years of sleep deprivation, job stress, and resentment had built up and started to creep into our everyday lives. Little annoyances were stored up and stockpiled until the inevitable explosion left us hurt and angry for days, sometimes weeks, afterward. We were cordial in front of the kids, but the underlying tension could be cut with a razor-sharp knife. Sometimes, glimpses of our former selves would emerge and remind us of who we used to be, who we were before kids, a mortgage, and a dog changed us forever. But those glimpses only served to make us wistful for the days when our relationship didn’t seem so forced.

Then came the day when our resentment boiled to a breaking point, the day I screamed the words I’d always avoided during arguments because they are too damning to ever take back. The day when I announced we were broken beyond repair and that I couldn’t see a way out of the anger and the hurt. We wandered around for days afterward, unsure if we’d be able to put our lives and our hearts back together.

And though we ultimately decided to work together to find ourselves again, I was left to wonder how it would all work out. Could we put the shattered pieces of our hearts back together in a way that would make us stronger? Though I was dubious that we’d be able to find our way back to the couple who was kind and loving to each other, I was willing to try.

A few months later, as I reached up to my closet shelf to grab a sweater to wear on the walk to the bus stop, the enormity of the last few months hit me hard. I looked around at my shoes scattered on the floor and the forgotten pile of laundry. I gazed over to my handbags and my thrift-shop-find wicker table that housed my perfume tray. In that harried moment, early in the morning as I was trying to herd two kids off to school, something in my head made me stop in my tracks.

It had been a hard year for my husband and me, and as I held the sweater in my hand, I brought it to my nose and took a deep inhale. I smelled the dryer sheets I had bought in a rush the week before, and I could smell the perfume still left over from when I wore the sweater a few days ago. I could smell my life, right there in my hands. And suddenly and without explanation, in that moment, I knew my husband and I were going to make it through our marital struggles.

The sweater itself wasn’t expensive nor did it have any meaning attached to my husband. The moment that stopped me in my tracks was no different than any other of a thousand moments in my life as a mother and wife. I absentmindedly enter my closet every day, and until that moment, I had never attached much meaning to my clothing or my accessories to my every day life.

But as I inhaled the familiar scent in that scratchy wool sweater, the reality of losing my marriage came crashing down around me. The enormity of dismantling my life, of having to pack the sweater in my hands in a box alongside my dresses and shoes, became blatantly obvious to me. I stood motionless and really thought about what my life would look like if my husband and I gave up.

I looked around my closet and saw the dress I was wearing when his blue eyes sparkled as he toasted me on my 40th birthday.

I saw the sweater I was wearing on the frigid fall day we went to the park and played Frisbee with the kids until our hands were frozen and our cheeks were pink.

I saw the black dress I was wearing as my husband practically carried me up the aisle after my father’s funeral.

I saw the shoes I was wearing when he and my kids secretly conspired to “re-propose” to me after I’d lost my wedding rings.

I saw the gown I wore for a work function, the one that, when my husband saw me descend the stairs, he said, “I’ve never seen you more beautiful” even though I was carrying 20 extra pounds and he could see my gray hair glinting in the light.

I saw the sweatpants that I crawl into every night as I sit next to him on the couch, dozing over House Hunters and feeling his hands gently resting on my feet.

I saw my whole life in my closet.

A life I didn’t want to pack away.

A life that we’d painstakingly created over 20 years and that was filled with millions of memories that deserved to be cherished and protected.

I heard the kids shuffling and bickering as they hustled out the door and snapped out of my reverie. As I pulled the wool sweater over my head and felt the warmth cover my body, I smiled and turned out the light, knowing that on the days when our struggles get too hard to bear, I now had a good excuse to hide in my closet.

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