I was married once and divorced twice.
My first marriage was prompted by a visit to Mexico with an old boyfriend – we were about twenty-three years old at the time, two years out of college. Even though we had already been living together for a couple of years, once we crossed the border, we had to sleep in separate houses. It was the proper thing to do.
According to my relatives in Mexico, “though shall not live together if unmarried” was the eleventh commandment. One of my grandmothers tried to help and urged us to get married right away – she knew a Catholic priest in town that could unite people in holy matrimony in emergency situations.
I might have argued that I was a modern American girl, entitled to choose my own lifestyle, and that playing by the rules of traditional, Mexican culture for a few days couldn’t hurt me. But in our circle of friends in the United States, all young professionals, it seemed that everyone was already living the white picket fence life, with shiny wedding rings, nice cars, mortgages, and babies.
He was running marathons, and I was acting in an avant garde theater group. We rented a “vintage” apartment near downtown and drove really old cars. Clearly, we were bohemians and degenerates! What kind of twenty-three years old live like that?
We didn’t wind up getting married on that occasion, but my boyfriend did propose the night before our return flight, and we got married almost a year later, back in Texas. It was a fairy tale wedding with about a hundred guests, on a scenic hill overlooking a lake. My parents helped pay for the wedding. We went to Nova Scotia for our honeymoon, and then we bought a house in the suburbs with heart-wallpapered kitchen.
Within a year, I was feeling trapped and depressed. Although he is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, we were on different paths and still had a lot to learn about ourselves and each other. I wanted to have adventures around the world, and he wanted to start investing in our retirement – the adventures would have to wait until then.
We were married for a year and a half when I decided to move out, and we separated. The divorce took ten months to finalize – there were no lawyers, fees, or angry exchanges, as we took the free, do-it-yourself route. He was a computer engineer. He accepted the divorce as the next logical step in the unfair equation of life. We sat down at the kitchen table with a spreadsheet and split our assets – 2/3 his and 1/3 mine, being the lesser-income earner.
Maybe my parents were right when I had announced one day at dinner, the summer after I’d graduated from college, that I’d be moving to Texas to live with my college boyfriend. They politely suggested that perhaps I was rushing into things. Couldn’t I move there and rent my own place? No! I was twenty-one, and I knew everything.
Before I entered into my next long-term relationship, I survived a self-destructive rebound affair and a series of terrible dating experiments. There was the gassy vegetarian who owned only one book and had a three-legged cat. The narcissistic poet who couldn’t stand the fact that I wasn’t impressed. The elusive musician who was handsome, mysterious, and inexplicably made me cry in his absence. The comic book illustrator with the very nice house who felt he was nicer than the other men in my life and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t my number one choice.
I ended up with the elusive musician, and during the first several months we dated, I broke up with him twice because I was convinced he was an incorrigible bachelor. He owned only one comfortable chair (which I never got to sit in) and had a twin-sized mattress on his bedroom floor.
Six months after we started dating, he had thrown me out of his apartment in a fit of rage in the middle of the night because I’d brought Penny, my “ankle-biter” Chihuahua, which annoyed him to no end. I broke up with him a third time. But somehow, we ended up back together, thanks to friends who thought they were doing the right thing, and he moved into my house a year later. I also re-homed the Chihuahua, in hopes that would prevent any future conflict.
The first several years were somewhat normal. We both had full time jobs. We even got two dogs – Changa and Tonka – bigger dogs who seemed to please him. We had frequent dinner gatherings and festive parties.
Less than three years after he moved in, he was laid off from his job, and within a short time after, his car went into a permanent state of disrepair on the driveway. I spent the next five years financially supporting the both of us, working sometimes up to 5o or 60 hours a week, and doing almost all of the cleaning and cooking in my spare time. Although he did do all the yard work, it certainly didn’t take up 40 hours of time during the week.
But even after the Chihuahua incident, there were still the anger explosions that would come and go – a major one at least once year, with smaller ones in between. And frequent periods of retreat and silence, leaving me in a state of loneliness and anxiety to wonder what had gone wrong.
A dish rack full of glasses thrown across the house. Holes punched in doors and walls. Yelling in public at restaurant hosts for long waits or at fellow musicians for gigs that had gone awry. Yelling at me for missing the freeway exit when I was tasked with giving directions, or for leaving a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, even though he’d been home all day while I’d been at work. A smashed cell phone (that I’d paid for and later replaced) during a vacation. That glaring look that made me feel as if I were a complete bother in his life.
One tax season, after we’d been living together for about five years, it occurred to me that I’d be able to get a larger refund if we filed jointly, which meant that we’d have to declare common law marriage. We’d already fulfilled one of the three requirements stated by Texas law, which was co-habitation for at least six months. The other two were having any kind of legal binding document stating we were married, such as a tax return, and publicly holding ourselves forth as husband and wife.
When I told him about my idea, he casually agreed. I might as well have been suggesting pizza for dinner.
In retrospect, I’m not sure we truly ever fulfilled the third requirement, as none of our friends ever knew about our married status. The only times I ever heard him refer to me as his wife were when he’d be on the phone with some kind of customer service representative.
So that year we filed our taxes jointly was probably the first sign I’d started to lose my mind.
By the time summer of 2014 came around, I thought I was going crazy. I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown and emotional meltdown. The human spirit can endure a lot, but it can only endure so much. I’d learned to suppress my feelings around him because any time I’d be experiencing sadness, stress, or anxiety, he’d say, “What’s wrong with you?” with an emphasis on the “you.” I never knew what would set him off into fits or rage or periods of silence. I also learned to walk around eggshells. I became smaller and quieter until I wasn’t sure I really existed.
After a while, I believed there really must be something wrong with me. Why was I such a “sadsack” and “defeatist”? Why couldn’t I just suck up the fact that it was my lot in life to be working 50-60 hours a week to make our household float, while he got to play guitar and go on musical tours with his friends? If I wanted to be a writer, it was my problem for not trying harder in my spare time.
In the late summer of 2014, I decided to end the relationship, the never formally announced common law marriage. Lawyer friends suggested that a legal divorce was necessary to protect myself. There was no telling how much worse his anger would get once I initiated the breakup.
And it got worse – more objects thrown, more yelling. Abusive insults. My fear became more intense. I simply didn’t feel safe, and I needed to trust my instincts. I’d been ignoring them for far too long. Even though I had never been physically hurt, I was broken down spiritually and emotionally.
What made it all even harder was that very few people understood how difficult it was for me all those years. It’s not like I ever got a black eye, so what was the big deal? He was a nice guy, sure, moody sometimes, but maybe I was overreacting? Everyone goes through hard times. Surely, we’d get through this hard time like everyone else.
The thing they didn’t get is that you can only get through hard times together if you’ve built a solid foundation of mutual respect, trust, and caring. I never felt respected or cared for. I don’t remember a single compliment about how nice I looked or the things I did. I got flowers once. Not a single love note or shoulder massage after a hard day. Trust wasn’t even on the radar – I was too exhausted from working so hard to pay the bills to even worry about whether we trusted each other.
I take full responsibility for it. From the beginning, I ignored all the red flags. I didn’t confront the issues early on, when I should have, because I was too determined to “make it work” – except I wasn’t putting in any work, hoping that the universe would somehow bring a happy ending.
But I was like a moth drawn to the flame, and I did grow to care about him, even if it meant burning my own wings. He, too, was a hurt soul, just like me, with deep wounds that ran far back to times before we knew each other. Maybe his wings had been burned a long time ago, and we’d become two wingless moths, barely fluttering our ghost wings in the fading light of the dying embers. I’d simply become too tired to continue to help him.
The details of the divorce are for another chapter – ultimately, it was far from friendly and we are no longer on speaking terms. He kept the dog, Lola, who I still painfully miss. I kept the house, which I’d purchased when I was still single. As there had been no wedding, my parents helped me pay for the divorce instead.
For the longest time after my first divorce, I was ashamed to admit it. I mean, what kind of woman in her late twenties calls herself a divorcée? That couldn’t be me – those were women in their forties or fifties who’d already sent their kids off to college – imagery of cheating husbands in red sports cars and stay-at-home moms who snuck off with the milkmen. So, for the longest time, I simply referred to the first divorce as a breakup.
Going through it again in my late thirties, I guess I’m not so self-conscious. It helps that the statistics are on my side – allegedly nearly half of marriages end in divorce in the United States. So I’m not alone. And thanks to Facebook, I’ve seen it happen in circles close to me. But still, I feel it, even if subtle, that stigma attached to being divorced – especially twice.
On the other hand, I feel that common law marriage was invented by lawyers who just wanted a bigger piece of the divorce pie. So really, is it fair to say I was divorced a second time, when the marriage was questionable? No ceremony, no formal announcement, no presents, no verbal exchange of commitment, not even a trip to Las Vegas?
If there is ever to be a third marriage (or second, depending on how you look at it) in my life, I’m thinking, to be on the safe side, there are three things I won’t get involved: Catholic guilt, the IRS, or my parents. Although I love my parents, they’ve already funded a wedding and a divorce – I can’t imagine what they could possibly fund next.
I don’t think I’ll tempt fate on that one.