“It wasn’t a fight,” she says, “but it was a difficult discussion that came out of nowhere, an offhand remark on a day when your defenses are down.”
She wanted to read or take a run, to catch up on some work or put on the television. She wanted to do what she wanted to do, she explained to me, adding “that sounds very childish.”
Then she says, “I didn’t mean to pick a fight, but I guess I did.”
It only took a few minutes for a non-event to escalate into an emotional debate over their future – would they live at his place, her place, some new place for the two of them – her need for a sense of home, his interpretation of that as clinging to the past, her insistence it was about security – her security – a sense of familiarity, of safety, of control.
She’s afraid of sliding back into giving too much, and winding up empty-handed and disoriented at an age when she doubts recovery would be possible.
She tries to reason her way through what it is that frightens her, telling me it’s about survival – financially and emotionally – if something happens.
“If what happens?” I ask.
“If he leaves,” she whispers.
I tell her I understand. I offer none of the usual platitudes. I think about priorities, about her history. She’s on her own after years with kids and work, able to breathe a little at last, which enhances her appreciation for the relationship she’s in. But her history is also why she struggles with believing in it, why she worries about getting lost in it.
He’s gentle about it, but he says he wants more. Waking up together every morning.
He tells her he can rent his place and she can rent hers. They can store what they don’t need. They can merge their lives somewhere new – halfway between his office and hers. She’s resisting.
“My home is my landmark,” she says. And she reminds me of the time it took to rebuild a sense of home in a new place after divorce. The patience.
“And there’s more,” she says. “For 22 years it was about everyone else. I’m just starting to have time for me. How do I give that up? Why should I have to? He thinks it’s about my belongings, my way of doing things, my inability to compromise. I try to explain that it’s about orientation, or maybe an absence of disorientation. All those years…”
Her voice trails off.
I know her story. I know too many stories that are a variation on this theme. A dead marriage, financial worries, losing your home, children raised alone. There was fear for years and I’m surprised at her bravery in entering this relationship. I can hear her happiness along with her uncertainty. And I don’t want her to screw things up.
She’s more fragile than most people know. She’s also stronger than she knows.
“Why does it mean you give up your orientation?” I ask. “Won’t he compromise?”
“He’s not the problem,” she says. “I am. He compromises all the time. But he’s not afraid.”
And then she spells it out, clearly.
“How much do I give up? Why must I give up anything? Why do I have to agree to live every day and night with him because if I don’t, I risk losing him? Why must I share my decisions with anyone, whether it’s over what to cook or whether I’m going to eat or when we take a run or when I go to sleep? Why can’t I eat at midnight if I want and read at six in the morning before work? Why is this selfish, and if it is, why can’t I be a little selfish, finally?”
Then she adds: “I love him. I do. What’s wrong with me? I should be happy. I am happy. But why does loving someone mean you live together?”
I think of an article I read recently. It spoke to me – about expectations, about the nature of couples, about the nature of loving attentively and expansively. The writer refers to an alternative: Living Apart Together. Each partner has his own place – they’re together most of the time, but apart when they want to be.
Woody and Mia. Big and Carrie. My own situation, in a way.
I dig out Frank Bruni’s words, wondering if they will give her solace, knowing they provide no answers:
For the four and a half years that we’ve been together, we’ve been apart…
Moving in with each other: that’s supposed to be the ultimate prize, the real consummation. You co-sign a lease, put both names on the mailbox, settle on a toothpaste and the angels weep…
The couples in commuter relationships said that their conversations were less frequent but deeper. They confessed more, listened harder and experienced a greater sense of intimacy. Absence worked its aphoristic magic on the heart. Fondness bloomed, no doubt because covers didn’t get stolen and someone else’s dishes weren’t left in the sink.
I have no advice, no lucid questioning or clever responses, nothing to offer but an ear and my understanding. My empathy.
There’s something to be said for your own retreat, for pockets of time and space within which you are the sole pilot and also the passenger. In her own way, she wants to protect the relationship. And rightly, in my opinion, she wants to protect herself.
She’s able to start over emotionally. More than that? I know exactly where she’s coming from. She’s not ready. She may never be ready. But why can’t she – and he – create other options? Money is a factor, naturally, and there are practical considerations as both grow older.
But how much do we give up – women, especially? Does it depend on what’s at stake if we don’t?
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