When I first started writing here, I intended to write about my divorce, and all the positive changes it worked in me. The implosion of my first marriage was sufficiently stark in its details that, coupled with the fact that it unearthed me from a mountain of depression and inertia, I thought it was a story worth sharing. I still do, in a way. I did some good work on it for awhile until, about a year ago, I didn’t anymore. I tried again, in this way or that, but my mind was having none of it.
It wasn’t the right time, in part because some of the questions my divorce asked of me were still open: Would I white-knuckle love or would I trust it? Would I silently build a fence around my heart – and deny its existence even to myself – or would I be brave enough to let the mess of life come right up on the doorstep? I don’t think those questions are ever fully and completely decided – we have to answer them every day. But there did come a time when I recognized that I wasn’t answering them in a way that led me where I really wanted to go.
I remember very clearly the first time I communicated with my fiancé. One Friday in mid-May three years ago, I gathered the papers I had painstakingly drafted and revised scores of times – the ones that asked a court to dissolve the marriage I’d entered into fifteen years before – signed them, and gave them to my assistant for filing. That action would close out a very long and painful year that started as a complete shock to me, and altered me on what felt like an atomic level. My son was with his dad, and I went home late in the afternoon and fell asleep. I would sleep almost all of that weekend, but I woke up about midnight on Friday and checked my e-mail. The day before, I joined a Meetup group for backpackers, and noticed that the guy who signed up before me was undeniably cute. And when I flipped open my laptop that night, he was there in my e-mail inbox with a friendly, polite introduction. Because I was like a frightened deer during that time in my life, we would correspond online for almost two weeks before I agreed to meet him in person.
A lot of people struggle long and hard after divorce to find someone compatible, and it’s tempting to view the timing of our meeting as a kind of romantic serendipity. And maybe it was, but neither of us was exactly fairytale-ready. Our relationship would be nothing less than an exercise in growing into ourselves. For me, that would mean continuing the emotional work I started during my divorce at a level I never even knew was possible. And for his part, well – he couldn’t have imagined how radically his life and outlook would change, and how frightening and painful those changes would be at times. There are parts of that entire process than remain mysterious to me even now. How, I wonder, did we manage it without running away?
Eighteen months into our relationship, we decided to get engaged, and we’ve spent the last year coming to grips with what that means, and finishing the work we started to create a safe place to spend our lives. I don’t think our kind of relationship is very common, in part because it is so thoroughly conscious. He is a therapist, and I’m an insightful type, and we employ another therapist to help us make it that way. It’s not an easy way to live – you have to accept all sorts of things about yourself that can be uncomfortable – but it is a rewarding way. It feels much more secure than the alternative, in which everything in the relationship operates just beyond awareness, and one day you find out that reality is very different than you thought it was. So really, the conscious nature of our relationship is probably the only thing keeping me from building up those emotional fences, rail by rail.
When you’ve had a long-term marriage disintegrate, as I have, out of the clear blue sky in a humiliating, devastating way, taking that leap again is not a small matter. I’ve heard people say that women who give birth tend to forget the trauma of labor as time goes on; the edges of those memories get rounded with time, and that’s why women can be willing, and even eager, to go through it all again. That may be partly true, but I also think it’s just as frequently true that mothers are willing to subject themselves to the possibility of that pain again simply because they want a child.
So it is here. Pain that’s been allowed to have its way will pass eventually, and the memory of its acuteness mostly fades. But every so often, a song or a smell or a thought will trigger a sharper recollection, and I remember. For a few moments, I remember.
When I think about whether I’m going to white-knuckle love or whether I’m going to trust it, I know we’ve both done a lot of work to make love trustworthy. But I also know that nothing is certain. Some people in my position deal with this by assuming something close to certainty; that their partner is “different”, that it couldn’t happen again, and they are “safe” this time. My biggest problem with this is that it requires a kind of denial of the humanity of the people who have hurt you, a certain categorization of them as somehow beyond the pale of normality. And that’s not reality – people do hurtful things mostly because of their own human pain and limitations. But when you stop applying those labels that separate you from them, the world becomes very scary, because all of sudden we are all capable of inflicting pain – even a new partner.
And yet, I do know this relationship is different in ways that are important. But trust exists alongside the knowledge that I’m exposing myself to the risk of being somewhere I never want to be again, even as I know now that I could survive it. That’s all right. I can take that risk calmly both because I don’t particularly fear it, and because I know I’d live if it all came crashing down anyway. But the most important reason is that being with him is worth the risk.
We spent this weekend a couple hours north of here, in rural Indiana. His parents used to co-own a large and beautiful piece of land on Big Pine Creek in Warren County. Though their share was long ago sold to their co-owner when they moved out of state, the place remains etched in the family consciousness, especially Travis’s. Twenty years ago, before we knew much yet about the kinds of losses that can make risking love seem so dire, he was the one who planted the pine trees that now tower over the path to the house. He and his dad planted a grove of walnut trees, and built a raised deck near the water. He took me there very early in our relationship, and that’s where we spent our first night together in a tent, sleeping in the rain. Later this year, we’ll formalize all those compromises and risks when we get married there. We’ve spent a lot of time there doing the things that make up our foundation – camping, wading in creeks, hiking with the dog, watching bald eagles. I am much more place-oriented than he is, but this one forms part of his history. Getting married here reminds me that it’s not only me taking risks and entertaining vulnerability.
That’s the deal you make in a second marriage, if you’re thinking straight. First marriages come with all the fanfare and optimism. But in a subsequent marriage, your eyes are open in a way they can’t possibly be in the first. You know exactly what you’re getting into. In some ways, that makes it far more remarkable. And on that, like most other things, we’re in it together.