True commitment doesn’t require a ring and a set of legal documents, says Traci Foust.
For 16 years my mother was romantically involved with a married man. Frank was good to our family. He loved our mother. We all knew about his “situation.” Sometimes Frank gave us birthday cards with 50-dollar bills inside them. Sometimes he was the reason our mother cried in her bed at night when she thought we couldn’t hear her.
“Are you and Frank ever going to be married?” This was my sister, my brother and me. Though we never saw their relationship as gross or even confusing, every now and again we all wondered if a deal like that was, at some point, supposed to be closed.
“These are modern times,” my mother would say. “You don’t have to marry someone you love.”
Growing up, my idea of marriage was a sort of peripheral astronaut. Quite an achievement if you could get to it, though just as nice from a distance. Almost every adult in my family was divorced or going through one. My maternal grandma once told me a funny story about running off to Palm Springs to marry her third husband then changing her mind halfway through Barstow. “You can’t be someone’s wife just because he looks good in his Navy uniform,” she said. Then she shrugged and added a side note that was to become the proverbial period at the end of my own careless decisions. “Well…hell, I guess you could.”
People got married but didn’t stay that way, yet nothing about being from a “broken home” seemed broken to me. At 10 years old I got to experience the grown up hysteria of helping to plan my father’s second wedding. Then again when I was 13. Step sisters shared their secrets with me on pot and birth control, and brothers who weren’t my blood kissed me in dreams. Holidays were double celebrations of food and family and the kind of presents someone gives when they’re trying to buy your approval.
It was never an effort to imagine my pretend self as somebody’s wife. Easier still was the eventual me— participating in a kind of rite of girl passage, crying through lists of pros and cons with supportive girlfriends, aunts, and cousins at the kitchen table, all cigarettes and wet mascara.
In high school I gravitated toward boys from single-parent homes and pretended to understand when they said they never wanted to be married. “I’m not ending up like my parents.”
“No doubt,” I’d say, and secretly think how stupid. Divorce was just a part of life. The sign-here-and-here-initial-there formality of picking yourself up and getting on with it.
Yet with all the flippancy that saturated my expertise of marriage, I was absolutely certain of one thing: I did not possess the strength and fragility of my mother. I could never imagine myself loving a man who was incapable of loving only me.
I was 35 when I signed my third set of divorce papers. My boyfriend Max and I had already been living together for almost a year when it was time to check that familiar box next to irreconcilable differences. I would be lying if I told you it was a sad day, or even a weird day.
I remember the strange look on Max’s face when I tried to be cheeky about Fail No.3. “I’m never getting married again,” I blurted out. “I’m good at weddings. It’s the other stuff I have trouble with.”
But that isn’t entirely true. I thrived in the predictable freedom of grocery lists, stacks of crisp laundry, the satisfying click of a television turned off when two people decided the day requires nothing more of them.
When I was 14 my mother sent me to a summer finishing school. For all her contemporary ideals she still believed a girl should not be turned out into the world without the proper knowledge of casseroles and tea towels. In a course titled “Your Family,” I learned all about the power of coupons, how to take a temperature, and the best quick-fix dinner ideas for those unexpected guests a husband may bring home from the office. As disgustingly archaic as it is to interrupt an young girl’s summer with a crock pot, I was completely on board with all of it.
Of course everything I learned at that school would prove valuable for my single mother days, but the curriculum was not about teaching girls how to be single. This was California in the ’80s. Most everyone in my class already knew from their own mothers what that was like. So when I told Max that I never wanted to be married again, it felt like one of those things you want to erase immediately, a ha-ha nudge you have to work back into the act. “Just wanted to see what you would say.”
Max and I have been together for almost eight years. By all accounts of milestone marks we’ve made it through those delicate risks of assurance and uncertainty—past the Chandelier Swing Year of UTIs and calling late into work; the Setting Up House Year where the new excitement of “mine is yours” quietly shifts into an unspoken question mark; the Exit Door years of hard words and threats that would work themselves out through days of not speaking then talking through the night. Recently, the Itch Year came and went with a serious thought of separation, therapy, and a stack of new rules that may always look better from the highlighted paragraphs of our self-help books.
But in between all this, while we wounded and healed and wounded again, came the unremarkable miracles of couplehood. We eased each other over the frightening paths of new careers, and watched our bodies change under the plaster of age that seems to instantly thicken after 40. We danced at our neighbor’s wedding, exhaled at my sister’s deathbed. We sat on our back porch in the beautiful fade of too much alcohol and not enough words.
Our unmarried time together as Traci and Max has taught me the different ways in which commitment speaks. Like bringing home the special hot sauce for our Wednesday night tacos, and picking up a prescription at 2am for a tooth infection that somehow we could both feel.
These are the we are here together things. The comfort and support that, for me, just wouldn’t be the same shared from the distance of separate houses. But there are bigger things too, the times when immediate stability stretches past the boundaries of a non-marriage. Two years ago Max sold his beloved motorcycle to help pay for my physical therapy from an old gymnastics injury. Over this past summer he spent every weekend for two months converting a backyard of burnt crabgrass into our vegetable garden. All without the legalities of becoming Mr. and Mrs.
It still remains that when I think of marriage I instantly think of divorce. Not the rosey in and easy out of which I was raised, but rather the bitter realization of my own inability to stay married. Sure, I’m not the same person I was when said “I do” at 20, or 27, or 31, but devotion under pressure requires the kind of empathic intelligence some people can only acquire through the unlearning of themselves. I’d like to think that’s what my marriages and divorces have taught me. I would also like to think I no longer have to learn these things under the strains of leaving and being left.
Am I still sorry I told Max I never want to be married? When I wonder about this I think of what my mother said whenever us kids would unsure her footing as the girlfriend of an unavailable man. “You don’t have to marry someone you love.” Of course now I know she probably said this because she didn’t have a choice. But I do have a choice. And for now, I’m choosing to believe she was right.
Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD (Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently working on her second memoir, Love and Xanax. Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.