On the Path to Empathy, Some Forks in the Road

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Modern Love

A few months before our 11th anniversary, my wife, Kristen, marched into the bathroom I was in and told me that our marriage was over. If you’d read the hope-filled Modern Love essay I’d published five years earlier, you might have been as surprised as I was to hear this.

More jarring still was how casually she said it. I’d often feared there might be a last straw, a breaking point, but in my head the breakup scene was always far more dramatic. After hours of yelling and slamming fists against walls, we’d face each other, eyes teary and sincere, and admit that ending the marriage was the right thing to do.

In reality there were no theatrics, no crying, just me examining a disappointing hole in my favorite underpants.

“So, that’s it?” I asked. “We’re not married anymore?”

“Nope,” Kristen said, relaxing her posture.

“So, what? We’re separating?”

“Not exactly. More like, detaching.”


Kristen nodded. “We’ll call it (un)married.”

And then, as abruptly as she’d started the conversation, she walked out of the room, leaving me with my underpants and a million unanswered questions.

Over the next two years, the practical parts of this setup became clear. Would we continue to live together? Yes. Could I now ignore housework? No. Raise the kids together? Yes. Remain faithful to each other? Certainly, and we’d continue to honor the terms of our mutual Permissible Philandering agreement involving Lenny Kravitz (for Kristen) and Scarlett Johansson (for me).

The most serious change, and the most difficult for me to grasp, was learning to release the expectation that, as spouses, we should be responsible for the other’s happiness. This was Kristen’s idea. “Imagine if we weren’t constantly looking to each other for a sense of validation,” she said. “Imagine if I could just accept you for who you are and not want to fix all the things you do that annoy me. That would feel a whole lot like love.”

I wasn’t buying it. Releasing Kristen from my dependency meant that I would have only myself to blame whenever I felt unhappy. Worse, it would mean I would have to become someone I enjoy spending time with, which seemed an impossible proposition.

Besides, I already had someone I enjoyed spending time with, someone named Kristen. Why would I want to cozy up with the one person who was an expert in making my life miserable? I already knew that guy. Therapists — a whole team — couldn’t help that guy.

Kristen quickly made detaching look easy. Buoyed by coffee and long chats with friends, she floated around the house singing songs, writing little love notes to herself and refusing to engage in arguments, which was infuriating.

Call me competitive, but I couldn’t stand on the sidelines while Kristen made all this progress. Aping some of her interests, I dabbled in Buddhism for a few months, and when that didn’t pan out I turned to crystals. From there, it was on to chakra cleanses, energy cures and a regrettable essential-oils phase. Even my shaman knew what a waste of time all of this was, so I packed up my incense and plotted my next move.

Thinking a few solid friendships might be the key, I took to searching for soul buddies with all the fastidiousness of a bargain shopper combing the sale racks at Macy’s. The few candidates I found — a comedian, a handful of autism experts and a dog — wanted nothing to do with me within weeks of meeting. I was too much for them, too enthusiastic about the friendship, even for the dog.

Ever the optimist (and realist), Kristen encouraged me to spend time on my more solitary hobbies — mountain biking and preserving the bones of animals — but I just wasn’t interested. I couldn’t shake the notion that if I could be happy on my own, then what was the point of staying together? Wasn’t the point of marriage to offload the entire burden of one’s happiness to one’s partner?

Things finally clicked for me last fall on a trip to San Diego to celebrate Kristen’s 40th birthday. We were sitting on the beach, watching a pair of harbor seals slapping and barking at each other, and using this time to discuss the whole (un)married concept. Many of my questions from that first conversation two years earlier remained unanswered, including the most urgent: Why bother with marriage at all?

“Dave, it’s so simple,” Kristen said, smiling and squinting into the afternoon sun. “I don’t need anyone to show up and play the role of Husband. I don’t need you to be a Buddhist or to have a host of new friends I’ve never met. All I’ve ever wanted is for you to be in my life, as my favorite enhancement. It makes me happy.”

“An enhancement,” I said.

“My favorite enhancement.”

She wiggled her toes into the sand as I looked beyond the roughhousing seals at the waves breaking along the shore.

“I can do that,” I said, though a part of me still pined for that codependent relationship I’d thought I’d signed up for 13 years earlier.

A hundred feet away, a photographer snapped photos of a young, happy-looking couple, and I briefly fantasized about drowning them in a lagoon.

The visual made me laugh and so I shared it with Kristen, who also got the joke. “Finally,” she said, taking my hand, “an engagement card I’d hang on my fridge.”

And there it was. In our laughter, I heard the inseparable friendship of us being (un)married.

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