We were on a date, driving our minivan around town, trying to agree on somewhere to eat, and kept getting distracted by discussing all those things that we never get to talk about when the kids are around. I was driving, and Mel was on her phone, scrolling through Facebook as we chatted. She held up her phone as I was stopped at a light to show me a Facebook memory that came up on her feed. It was an article I wrote three years earlier for the New York Times titled “I Think About Divorce a Lot, But Not Because I Want One.”
In it, I discussed that my parents went through multiple marriages, my father was married four times, and my mother was on her third marriage. Divorce really pushed me from one home to another as a child. It caused me to choose allegiances when I wanted unity, and then as a married adult, it made me worry that divorce is some natural trajectory in marriage, same as buying a minivan or easing into cargo shorts and work polos. I used to see it as almost an inevitable life happening, even though I was happy and content in a healthy marriage.
I pulled away from the stoplight as Mel asked me if I still thought a lot about divorce.
I got quiet.
Mel and I had been married for almost 13 years at this point, and I’d say for the first 12 years one of my biggest fears was that eventually Mel would walk out on me. Something would happen, some bump in the road or someone a little better looking, a little more charming, would come along. Or perhaps I’d find out that for the past decade or so I’d unwittingly been neglecting my marriage, and it was just a matter of time before Mel sat me down in the living room and said, “I just can’t do this anymore.”
“For a long time,” I said, “there was this deep fear that if I didn’t care for our marriage, buy you flowers, tell you I loved you every day, listened to you, pitched in around the house, all of the things that make a marriage work, that you’d divorce me.”
I thought about what I said, and it felt like my primary motivator for caring and loving my wife was the fear of divorce, which I will admit, from looking at my parents’ relationships, fear of divorce is a very really fear. But right then, I wondered if fear of divorce was actually all that wonderful of a motivator.
We were parked outside a small Italian restaurant now, not to far from our home with the engine running.
“Do you still feel that way?” she asked. “Because I don’t. I don’t really worry about divorce anymore. I do things for you because I love you.” She went on, telling me that there was a time that she worried about divorce, but now she just loves me, and that’s her motivator.
I’ll be honest — what she said gave me pause.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be concerned with the state of your marriage. Divorce is very real. But as Mel told me that she didn’t worry about divorce, and that her reasoning for being in love with me was about love and not fear, I started to think about the last time I bought her flowers. It had nothing to do with a concern that she was going to leave me if I didn’t perform my “manly duties,” and everything to do with the fact that I just knew she’d like them. I wanted her to have them because I wanted to bring her a little joy.
And suddenly it seemed like we’d moved into some new stage in our lives, where it wasn’t about fear of divorce and more about the fact that this person I was with was my life partner. I’d accepted it, fully, to the core of my being, and I couldn’t think about being with anyone else anymore. It wasn’t about fear of divorce, but compassion and love for someone whose company I deeply enjoyed and whose companionship I truly valued.
And listen, I know that there are people reading this right now who are going to dive into the comments section with, “You can’t stop worrying about it, or you’ll end up divorced.” And for the longest time, I agreed with that statement. I also think that there is a time and a place for fear of divorce in marriage. Perhaps if my parents had been a little more fearful of divorce, they would have put more thought into their relationships and also put more thought into working through them during the rough patches.
I also know, however, that there are going to be just as many commenters who will discuss how they have reached this stage and been there for many years. It’s a natural progression for many of us married folks.
With all the discussion of divorce online, I think it’s good to hear that there is a stage in marriage that isn’t about fear of divorce, and I think that Mel and I have started to slide into it. It’s a place where we do things for each other not because we are fearful, but because we simply love each other. We understand each other. We care for each other.
This isn’t to say that we don’t argue from time to time. We do. But it’s never an ultimatum argument anymore. It’s more of a “you are frustrating me, but this is how we fix it” argument. There is always a resolution in sight. This stage came after the early marriage late-night fights over doing the dishes or whose turn it was to get up with the kids. It came after the insecurities over weight gain, and fear that you might lose your job and then lose everything. It’s a stage that happens to two people who have finally started to grow together and understand each other, truly love one another, and can’t picture their lives without the other anymore.
Mel and I walked into the restaurant. We were holding hands, like we always do when there aren’t children’s hands to hold. We sat down at the table, and I finally answered her original question. “I don’t think about divorce anymore.” I said, “I just think about you. It’s a pretty good feeling.”
Mel smiled. And then we bantered over what toppings to get on the pizza we were going to split, because even during this phase, you still argue about what to eat.
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