I recently finished a novel in which the narrator noted several times that she loved her ex-husband more once they divorced than she did while they were married. She also checked herself, reflecting on how it’s easier to love when love is a concept instead of a daily reality. Or maybe, she posited, space and distance is the place in which love is possible with some particular people. The novel, “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout, is not about divorce, or marriage, and so the narrator didn’t go much further with this thinking.
I have, though.
I don’t think I learned to truly love my husband (my ex-husband), until after we were no longer married to each other, after he’d remarried and I had moved on, and our lives together ceased to be about managing a household or a once-was household and instead became a friendship based on a shared history, common interests and our daughter. It is easier to feel consistently good about each other when the expectations in your relationship are uncomplicated. You’ll enjoy their company when you’re together, however often or infrequently that may be. You’ll set your own priorities in life and it doesn’t matter if they are or aren’t the same. You won’t have sex (or think you’re supposed to have sex) with each other.
This is why you have so many more friends than you do romantic partners, and likely more romantic partners than spouses.
I have wondered, given the nature of many relationships and my own (perhaps somewhat uncommon but increasingly less so) experience with a loving divorce, if our culture’s ideas about marriage are actually sometimes bad for children. I know many will debate that vehemently, and they may be right. But I myself became a better mother after I was no longer a wife. And, though he is still a husband (albeit to someone else), my ex is a better father, too. Perhaps this would have happened inevitably, as we grew up along with our child. (We were so young when she was born, clueless really, but courageous.) I can’t know for certain. I do think that all of us – my ex-husband, his smart wife, her son, my generous friends, our forgiving parents – are a kind of family. The expectations for how we work are of our own making, and therefore they are appropriate for us as well as attainable.
It isn’t just divorce that can be managed creatively, for good.
A close friend of my great aunt and uncle who is almost 80 told me during the reception after my grandmother’s funeral last fall that her family in North Carolina occasionally pressures her to move closer to them. She told me she understood their concerns – that she would grow elderly and weak, and there’d be no one nearby who was obligated to look after her. But this friend has been in my family’s life for more than 50 years. She loves the people she is related to. She loves us, too. She is happy where she lives, and no matter where she dies, she won’t be alone.
Several years ago I began riding my bicycle every weekend with a friend to whom I have become very close. We talk about work, our parents, friends, the news, books we’re reading and TV series we’re watching. Our rides are hours long; we talk more than we don’t talk, and we are also comfortable with silence. I try to explain to him things I can’t explain to other people. Sometimes I think he does likewise. This friend and I usually conclude our rides with lunch somewhere, and waiters assume we are a couple instead of a couple of friends who like to ride bikes together. If it’s a sit-down restaurant, they generally hand him the tab. It can be exhausting to challenge people’s expectations. Easier to just take turns picking up the tab.
I met this friend’s wife around the same time I met him, and for the longest time I had no idea they were married to each other. I met her at church. I met him at a bar. I don’t know why I didn’t realize they were married, and to each other. They have the same fairly odd last name. Maybe it is because her parents are Asian and his are Canadian and I have latent cultural biases that prevented me from registering them as a couple. More likely, I think it is because they don’t have children and are often apart. Anyway, the two of them are a tremendously well adjusted and happily married. I think they surprise some people.
In college I was briefly in love (perhaps infatuated) with a woman, and for a short while I thought I might be a lesbian, though I kept the thought to myself. Years later, I wrote off the experience as a one-time thing, and years after that, I decided it didn’t matter one way or another. There are many ways to love and be loved, as well as many people to love.
My hope (or prayer – sometimes I pray, though I am not certain of a higher power beyond human beings’ own propensity to create both good and evil in the world), is that when my daughter is an adult, she not only feels free to make her own unique choices about marriage, friendship and family, but that the choices she’s allotted are endless and she takes note of it. Lack of imagination, especially with regard to what might make us love wholly and feel wholly loved, is a tremendous shame.