Me: I think we should separate for a while. I don’t know how to make you happy anymore.
Him: And where the fuck will you go if we separate?
Me: We can figure that out together.
Him: Get out. Get the fuck out of my house.
So I went home and stayed with my parents for a week. It was actually a really nice week, I didn’t spend my time trying to make a miser happy. I prepared meals for myself and then enjoyed eating them. I slept when and for how long I wanted. I took baths without locking the bathroom door. I told my parents stories about my marriage that made them weep. I was sad to make them sad. I was happy to be believed.
When I finally began to consider telling my own parents about my increasingly cruel and despondent partner, I worried that he had also prepped them for my meltdown. There was plenty of time and space for them to communicate without my knowing about it. My husband had proven himself adept at spinning the story before I even know one existed. And I just couldn’t handle a lecture from my own parents like the one I’d received from my mother-in-law. I considered them all I had, and I didn’t want to add any information to the situation that would counter that.
I told my dad first, very measured, that I was afraid I had made a mistake in getting married. We were at our favorite steakhouse, our first one-on-one meal since before the wedding, and I was getting worse at hiding my emotions. I stoically but tearfully described everything that had been bothering me since the wedding. I had spent most of the day studying the notes I’d been taking, so I was ready and armed with truth. I spoke with the cadence and measure of an attorney, backing up every claim with some vague sense of proof.
My dad set down his fork, set down his knife, looked at me, and said. “Leave him.”
And that’s when I finally realized that I was right to want to leave him, I was stupid to try to stay with him, and it may in fact be dangerous. Leaving was hard, right, and noble. And it was going to be awful.
There’s a caveat for the poor treatment I was receiving from my husband. Whenever his or my parents were around, he turned into the best, most attentive, loving, supportive husband I’d ever even heard of.
He’d deep clean the apartment before they came over, prepare drinks and food, create a special playlist, wear his best casual attire, use pet names and inside jokes from when we were dating to keep up the happy married couple façade. And to be honest, I loved it. It felt truly like a recall to the man I loved, the man who proposed, the man I pictured a whole life loving. I began to invite our parents over more often. I asked them to stay later. My dad even started to notice and wondered why his usually-independent fiercely-private daughter was suddenly inviting them over every weekend, offering to make up the guest room, and becoming noticeably sad when they were unable to come over.
My husband acted completely dumbfounded when I asked him about it. I asked, quite simply, if he enjoyed having our parents over. He responded with a quiet anger, “Of course I don’t.” But he never discouraged inviting them. I think he did enjoy having them there. He seemed to love playing the part of the husband he’d always pictured himself becoming. That’s when I began to realize that as disappointed as I was in the husband my boyfriend had become, my husband was mostly disappointed in the man he’d become.
Usually not a drinker, he would indulge in cocktails when our parents were over under the guise of loosening up and playing the host. He’d become fun-tipsy while they were over, joking, suggesting we play games, grilling, talking about future plans we’d never discussed privately. And when our parents would leave, he’d transition into full-on rage drinking, screaming at me for allowing him to become this man, sad drinking crying at me that he knew he wasn’t the husband I’d wanted, and passing out on the sofa.
He was usually a little better for a day or two after a parental visit, as though he’d seen the version of himself he liked and wanted to try to keep it up. But a small inconvenience would usually send him spiraling back into bad-husband territory.
The first person I told about our marriage issues, besides Robin, was his mother. I didn’t mean to, she texted me one day because she was in the neighborhood and wondered if I’d like to meet her for a glass of wine. She told me that she thought I’d been withdrawn lately, I seemed sad, and she wanted to make sure things were ok. Between tears of joy for finally being asked and tears of fear for the words pouring out of me, I told her everything. I told her about my husband’s dissatisfaction with our beautiful expensive wedding, his loathsome honeymoon behavior, my dislocated shoulder, and his performative love during parental visits. She listened quietly, in deep thought, with a look of sympathy on her face.
“You should be grateful to have a husband who cares so much, young lady” she chastised me. “He’s told me how you’ve been behaving, making him sleep on the sofa, spending all of his money on weekend trips that you demand he plans, and inviting your parents over every time he wants some alone time with his wife.”
She was clearly the wrong person to tell. And my husband had clearly anticipated me breaking eventually.
I didn’t know what to do, who to talk to, how to begin to even admit that this marriage was a bad idea. From the moment we crawled into our camper to snuggle in as a married couple and he asked, “So is our entire life going to be camp themed?” I knew that my husband was a different man than my boyfriend had been.
I called my college-friend, Robin Graine, to ask her advice. We’d lost touch since college, but she’d gone on to become a divorce lawyer in Fairfax, VA. I thought that she was distant enough from my life and my loved ones to be objective, but close enough to offer some advice free of retainer. We met for happy hour at a wine bar close to where she lived after I reached out via Facebook Messenger. Under the guise of “let’s catch up” she let me know right away that I wasn’t the first person to suddenly want to “catch up” while having pretty significant marriage issues.
She was amazingly helpful though. Her advice was to begin documenting, stay patient, and be mindful of my personal safety. “If he hurt you once, even on accident, and suffered no consequences” she asked, “what’s to stop him from hurting you again?” A question I never ever expected to ponder about him.
And so I started keeping a note in my phone documenting every time he insulted, ignored, or threatened me. And I was amazed to see, in writing, how often it was happening. Had I been ignoring it the entire time we were dating? Was I blinded by the prospect of this lovely man as a husband? Or did he change when we wed? Or do I change when we wed?
I had never felt so alone in my entire life as I did as a married woman.
The night of our first wedding anniversary ended with me at the nearby Emergency Room with a dislocated shoulder. I so confidently told them that I had slipped getting out of the shower that I almost believed myself. Truthfully, it went a little something like this:
Me: Did you forget our anniversary?
Him: Oh. When was that?
Me: It’s now. Today.
Him: Ok. Happy anniversary.
Me: I’m going to take a bath.
Him, twenty minutes later: Are you pouting? What’s wrong with you? Why are you pouting and giving me the silent treatment?
Me: I’m just taking a bath, trying to relax.
Him: Get out.
When I refused to get out, he grabbed my right arm and tried to yank me out. I actually felt my shoulder pop out of its joint, when I screamed in pain he threw me to the floor and used the most stereotypical Lifetime movie battered woman terrible man line I’ve ever heard.
Him: See what you make me do when you behave like this?!
While dating we had always prided ourselves on being unique, special, we weren’t like other couples, we took each other seriously, we were respectful of one another’s privacy, what we lacked in passion we made up for in practical companionship. He had never once given me any indication that he would treat a wife this way – I’d not have married him if I’d expected this.
While I was in the waiting room at the Emergency Room, alone, I couldn’t decide what to do next. My parents had spent so much money on our wedding one year prior, I couldn’t throw all of that money, hope, and joy away because of one unfortunate event – one miscalculation of strength – one moment of weakness. And I hadn’t told anybody in my life about how he’d been treating me all year because I didn’t want sad sympathy eyes. I didn’t want to admit a mistake. I wanted to work on it, fix it, force happiness.
I learned that night and over the next year that it’s easier, and far less painful, to pop a shoulder back into place than it is to pop love back into a relationship.
And the first year went much like that: he would abandon me to make plans for our present and future, and then scoff at the plans I’d made. I would gently suggest, “Maybe you can decide where we go/eat/travel so I can take a little break and not feel like a tour guide?” And he’d simply reassure me that he always likes what I plan, that I’m just better at it, and that he doesn’t want to be a disappointment. His potential disappointment clearly trumped my actual disappointment.
I planned a honeymoon glamping. I wanted the vibe of camping without the work. It was beautiful, we stayed at a mid-range spot a few miles from Glacier National Park. I had assumed we would spend most mornings hiking and exploring, most afternoons taking advantage of the spa treatments, and most nights planning our future together. So I was surprised when he brought his computer along and spent most of every day “catching up on work that had gotten away from [him] during all the wedding planning.” Every time I would suggest a hike he’d tell me to go for it. Every time I’d suggest a spa treatment, he’d ask judgingly “can we afford that?” It was like, my boyfriend died at our wedding and replaced him with a husband who hated me.
Every trip I could actually convince him to take was like this. And he turned down most of my ideas. Each time he wanted to go out for dinner, he’d “defer to me” to decide where to go and then gently deride my decision for the cost of the meal. We had never had financial issues while we were dating, I made a fair wage, he did too, and I didn’t understand why the combining of our finances suddenly made us cash poor.
I tried so many things and nothing worked. When I tried new date ideas, he called them too expensive. When I tried to rearrange our apartment for a fresh start, he called me a control freak. When I tried to change up our sex life, he accused me of cheating. There was nothing I could do that wasn’t met with derision.
On our first anniversary, I hoped he had planned something. He never mentioned it, I assumed it was going to be a surprise. I woke up, went to work, came home, no word. I received a text from him at 6:30 asking me what I was planning to prepare for dinner so that he could decide if he wanted to eat on his own on his way home from the gym.
We had a perfectly adequate wedding. When he proposed, I was so excited to be marrying this man who had been so good to me for two years. He proposed at the campsite where we spent our first weekend away together and he had put so much thought into it.
He had candles, new camp gear that he’d had set up while we were en route, flowers, and Sade playing. We pulled up and I knew, immediately, that my life was about to change. And it didn’t make me feel sick or scared. I was just entirely thoroughly happy.
He built the fire while I paced nervously. When he noticed my pacing he put my out of my misery, looked over, already on his knee with a hand full of kindling, and yelled across the site, “You’ll marry me?” and I said “Of course,” walked over, kneeled beside him, and helped with the fire.
As I worked to plan the wedding, he worked to plan our life together. He was busy merging bank accounts, planning life insurance, getting the paperwork in order to merge two thirty-year old lives. I was busy picking floral arrangements, playlists, dining menus, and guest lodging. His disinterest in planning the wedding was excused by his taking the lead in the marriage logistics. He handled the marriage; I handled the wedding. It was perfect.
I decided to go vaguely camp theme with the wedding. We had an outdoor venue, the tables were set with simple rustic floral arrangements and hemp runners. Twinkling string lights danced above us as dusk fell, we had three campfires burning, everywhere was a dance floor, and for the guests who wanted it, we had tents set up for their lodging. Instead of cake, we had smores. And for him and I, we slept in a camper parked on the lot surrounded by tents full of the people we loved most in the world.
I had told him my camp plans and he approved but mostly stayed out of the details. The first indication that our marriage wasn’t going to be as perfect as I’d hoped was during the wedding: he hated everything and barely tried to hide it. He thought the food we served was tacky. He thought the twinkly lights made it look like a dorm room. He was annoyed that his suit smelled of smoke. He didn’t want to sleep in the camper. And he called my dress “simple” and I knew he meant that in a bad way. In every picture of us, all I can see is his disappointment in our wedding and my fear of what that meant for our marriage. I can barely look at those photos without feeling a welling up for resentment for his abandonment.