The House That Was Supposed to Save Our Marriage
We had a tendency to outgrow things.
Nineteen years ago I moved in with my first husband. It was partly out of necessity. I had just quit teaching without any inkling of an idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.
My sister had gotten engaged and moved out of our apartment a few months earlier. My parents had been kind enough to subsidize her half of the place until the lease ended. I had nowhere to go. So, after six months of dating, I moved in with my boyfriend.
His house was just 1,000 sq. ft. and in need of renovation. The carpet was so old that you couldn’t vacuum it and be able to breathe afterward. The dishwasher rolled out from the laundry room and the huge back yard was mostly dirt. The bathroom was so small that if you wanted to change your mind, you had to step out into the hallway. We lasted a year in that house together.
Our first house we bought as a couple was 1,655 square feet and was to be the foundation where we’d grow our life. It was where we got married, where we had our daughter and where things started to fall apart a little.
Our first two years were spent happy. We had friends over for backyard parties. We had family at the holidays. We laughed when we bought the ridiculous oversized chair that made him look small, even at 6'4". The house was dated but warm and we spent our free time making it ours.
After that, my husband became a first responder and worked third shift. He’d leave for work after dinner and come home as I was getting up in the morning. His days off were the middle of the week. We had little time together. It started us on our path of being two married people that lived separately.
Our house was older and noisy. The wood cabinets were heavy and banged when you closed them. On weekends, I was so afraid of making noise that could wake him up that I took to leaving the cabinets open. I’d close them after he got up.
I still leave them open even now and this habit was completely lost on me until a friend noticed I did it.
“You can tell you were married to a cop,” she told me. Her husband was a detention officer. “I leave my cabinets open, too.”
After I had my daughter, keeping a baby quiet during the day so he could sleep became increasingly harder. I’d do whatever I could to get out of the house so she wouldn’t disturb him. It didn’t always have favorable results.
One Saturday, I went to the big box hardware store to buy some plants for the yard. My daughter did not want to go in the cart. I was tired. I was frustrated. I just wanted to be home. I started to break down.
A kind, older woman walked by and saw me melting down in the parking lot with a squirming one year old in my arms. She stopped.
“Let me hold her for you. Take a minute.” I was desperate. I handed my baby over to a complete stranger and sat down on the bumper of my car and let the tears pass.
While I gathered myself together. She cooed at my daughter, smiling in a calm manner I couldn’t muster and managed to get that baby into the cart. She hugged me and said, “You’ll be okay. You’re doing good, mama.” It still remains one of the single most genuine acts of kindness I have ever experienced.
It was that afternoon that I realized something had to give. I couldn’t live like this anymore. I missed my husband. I missed enjoying time together. We needed more space.
I rationalized that a new, bigger house would allow for him to stay asleep upstairs while I could attend to a toddler downstairs. He’d never hear us.
We sold our home in three hours for more than twice what we paid for it and took all that money and poured it into a house twice the size.
It was my dream home. Everything I ever wanted. Gourmet kitchen with a double oven and granite counters. Heated pool and spa. Outdoor fireplace. Four bedrooms so our little family could grow.
I threw myself into creating and decorating the house. The months before we moved were spent picked out new furniture, making curtains, choosing bedding and everything else I could possibly use as a distraction from the fact that our marriage was struggling under the weight of changes in jobs and changes in us.
Our first Christmas there was what I always wanted. It was a Norman Rockwell painting of a staircase with a wood banister decorated with huge swags of lit garland. It was picture perfect except for one thing: I was miserable.
I had envisioned a life with friends on my street and kids’ play dates and backyard barbecues. What I ended up with was a home in a construction zone and neighbors that would sit in the garage adjacent to my daughter’s bedroom and drink, smoke and curse all night.
The only person I managed to meet in my neighborhood was a woman I knew in high school. She was popular back then. I didn’t like her then and I certainly wasn’t going to start now.
With my husband still working third shift, our marriage had become an Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” scene peppered with communication via Post-it notes. Doctor’s appointment at 3. We need orange juice. The guy is coming to fix the ceiling tomorrow at 1.
My husband had changed precincts and saw the horrible acts of human beings every day. When you see nothing but the worst of people, it changes you. He had a hard time processing what he dealt with and seeking help would potentially been seen as a sign of weakness in an officer. He couldn’t have that if he ever wanted to make sergeant.
I never felt more alone. I pushed myself further into isolation by slipping into a depression that led me to disconnect with people. My life wasn’t this happy Hallmark card and admitting it to people was too hard. I didn’t want to own the fact that I couldn’t make this work. There were days I could hardly get out of bed.
I started seeing a therapist on my own. It was cathartic and it felt so good to be able to speak freely without the judgment I feared. During one of our sessions there was a long silence. She looked at me and said, “You didn’t come here to fix your marriage. You came here for permission to end it.” She was right.
We had put concrete and wood and stucco and stone together in effort to build a foundation that would hold some kind of salvation. It didn’t. Within 18 months of moving into that home, a “For Sale” was in the yard and divorce papers were drawn up.
We called it quits before it got bad. Before we resented each other. Before my daughter saw us unhappy. Before we passed the point of being friends because that’s how we started and how we planned to stay.
We never saw a second Christmas in that house. My husband moved out shortly before. I tried to recreate that happy, Norman Rockwell scene but the night I hung the garland on the stairs was the night that I came home to 1,600 square feet of furniture in a 3,200 square feet home. My daughter wasn’t there to greet me, just my loyal yellow lab.
I got half the garland on the banister and let the rest just hang there off the stairs. The glass of wine I was drinking I threw against the wall, shattering the glass into tiny shards and leaving a huge red stain on the freshly painted wall.
You can build a house and make it look pretty. You can decorate the outside, plant flowers and they grow. But, if the foundation of the house is cracked, the walls won’t hold. Our walls didn’t hold. Like the two houses we outgrew, we outgrew each other.
We had sense enough to salvage a friendship that allows us to do the best we can for our daughter. She has no memory of her dad and I ever being together. She’s amused at how different her parents are and it boggles her mind that we were ever married.
We tried. We did the best we could until you looked past the decorations and curtains. The new dishes and the Pottery Barn furniture. Some things can’t be saved. Not by a house, not by therapy, not by anything.