We adults were enjoying a quiet moment in the dining room, talking about the latest family news, when SI interrupted us. She was curious about the final details of my sister’s breakup. This is her first experience with the idea of adult couples consciously un-coupling, and I could see she was struggling to understand why on earth it could possibly happen.
“Don’t they want to get married?”
“No, sweetie. Not everybody gets married like that.”
“But why don’t they want to get married?”
The last thing I wanted to do was hash over the details of my sister’s breakup, which was amicable and probably a long time coming, with a five and a half year old, so I tried to sum it up as simply as possible.
“They didn’t make each other happy.”
The thing about SI is that she gives you this look, this deep, soulful, empathic look, and you know she understands so much, but that she doesn’t quite know how to process all that information. She understands that grownups who are together for a long time, who are a couple for a long time, love each other. And love, as her parents have led her to understand it, is forever.
As my children have had to learn about death, I have struggled to impart one key bit of information to them. Love doesn’t end with the end of life. I tell them when Mommy or Daddy or Grandmommy or anyone they loves dies, the love we have for them doesn’t die with us. It lives forever. Over dozens of dinners, my grinning children have laughingly asked, “Mommy? Will you love me when you’re dead?” to which I always answer, “Of course. I’ll love you forever and ever and ever.”
In this context, a breakup is pretty unthinkable.
“Did they love each other?”
“Yes sweetie, they did. And they still do. But they didn’t make each other happy. And that’s okay. Sometimes people change. Sometimes, people grow up, and they want different things. Sometimes friends aren’t friends anymore, and sometimes people who love each other don’t spend the rest of their lives together.”
“But…” She struggled with the big concepts taking root in her brain. “But… but what about you and Daddy?”
“We’re not breaking up,” M said.
I nodded. “No, me and Daddy make each other very happy, all the time. And someday, when you grow up, if you want to get married, you should make sure that the person you want to marry is somebody who always makes you happy. Or almost always makes you happy. That’s why people get get married, because they’ve found somebody who makes them so happy, and they love that person.”
Grandmommy chimed in, “Most of the time.”
You can see where my need to be brutally honest with children comes from, I’m sure.
“Most of the time?” SI asked.
“Well, sometimes,” I faltered as I dug up words that would sum up people’s many reasons for marriage, “sometimes people get married to somebody who doesn’t make them happy.”
“Why would you marry somebody if they don’t make you happy?”
For a second, my mother and my husband and I stared at each other. Why WOULD you?
“Because, sweetheart, sometimes people are more scared of being alone than they are of being sad.”
The words hung in the air a moment while SI mulled them over. While all of us mulled them over. M chuckled, “Deep, Panda Bear.” SI gave me a squeeze, and ran off to continue playing with her sisters, and we adults resumed our quiet moment around the table.
Why would you marry someone if they don’t make you happy?
I think we’ve all asked this of ourselves at one time or another. Most of us have made marriage pacts, contemplated the pros and cons of staying with a partner we weren’t necessarily positive about. Wondered whether a breakup was worth the trouble.
Most of my friends have learned only to call me for relationship advice when they want those brutal truths. When they want somebody who says, “If they’re not making you happy, and they don’t WANT to make you happy, it’s time to move on.” I’ve joked many times about starting a relationship advice column. But it really does come down to fear, a lot of times.
Fear that maybe this is your last chance at happiness. Fear that maybe this is you only chance at marriage. Fear that you might be old and alone one day, with a list of regrets and nobody to share them with. Fear that your biological clock is ticking.
But that fear of loneliness.. that’s a big one. We need each other, as humans. We so desperately need each other. We need love. We need understanding. We need somebody to stand by us and hold our hands sometimes.
It doesn’t have to be romantic love. It can be a sister, it can be a friend, it can be a parent. But we have this idea about marriage being forever. The kind of forever I tell my kids my love for them is. That’s the kind of forever love we all want, to comfort us when we feel alone in the universe. We want it to be reciprocal. We want to love somebody who loves us, and share that love as it’s happening, together.
In Wild, Cheryl Strayed talks about how the great love of her life was her mother, and that’s valid. In Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett writes about her love with her friend, Lucy Grealy, and that’s valid. But we don’t usually make a big deal out of that commitment. We don’t have BFF ceremonies, where friends cut a cake together and publicly vow to always be a shoulder on which the other can cry, to always be a partner in crime.
As for me and M, we have each other. Best friends, spouses, advocates, co-parents, back up, everything and anything.
Saturday is the seventh anniversary of the day we stood on a rooftop and vowed, not to love each other forever, but to take care of each other. For a wedding ceremony, there was very little talk of “forever.” M was nine months past his initial diagnosis of grade four brain cancer, and nobody knew how much time he had.
But nobody knows how much time anyone has, do they?
So we stood on a rooftop and we vowed to love each other the best way we could. To encourage each other, to support each other, to help each other when we needed help and maybe didn’t even know it.
OftenI find myself compelled to propose to him again, because I know no better way to express this feeling. This feeling that he makes me so happy, and I love him so much, I want to cut a cake and take our vows all over again. I think he accepts that for our tenth anniversary I’m going to throw a whole party where we can renew our vows properly- but I would do it every year.
Every year, I would choose to be with him.
But it is so much more complicated than being happy. His cancer doesn’t make me happy, and the fact is that it’s a part of him. It’s non-negotiable. It’s there forever, in a way even I won’t be. And no matter what that means for the decades to come, it will not undo my love. I know that even if we died tomorrow, my love would last forever and ever and ever. It’s something unique I’ve added to the universe, that’s flying out in the ether, immeasurable but absolute. My love exists, unquantifiably, and nothing can destroy its having been.
I don’t know why some people stay married, or get married in the first place. But I know why I am.
Seven years, on Saturday. Seven of the best years I’ve ever lived.
I am so grateful to have more years in which to love, and be happy.
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