The Starter Wife
Thirty years ago today I married my third husband. I was his first wife. He wanted the whole wedding, with a big party and the church and a tuxedo. I agreed, but only because it was his first go-round. Frankly I was a little embarrassed inviting people to yet another celebration of forever love. I knew damn well love, at least for me, didn’t seem to last forever. And there were already red flags flying, long before the wedding day dawned.
We’d broken up when he decided we should postpone the wedding after we set the date and everyone had been invited. Then we got back together, but only because I made him choose, all or nothing. Marriage or break up for good. I was a single mom, in the middle of a custody war with no end in sight. I had to be tough. He chose me, but sometimes he’d say “everyone has a starter wife, right?” I wasn’t sure he was joking.
On our wedding day, someone set a video camera up by the keg of beer on the patio. This would become our wedding video. When we got back from our honeymoon (not all hearts and flowers) and watched the video from our wedding day, I heard Al’s friends making bets on how long the marriage would last. Not long, was the general consensus. Less than a year.
Things were rocky as a landslide those first months, that first year. We had completely different ideas about how marriage worked and neither one of us was very good at compromise. There were lots of tears and hurt feelings. He flung the word divorce around so liberally I once went into the boys’ bedroom to find them filling their little gym bags, the ones they used when they switched houses to their dads’ place.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“We’re packing. Al says we’re getting a divorce.”
I told them Al didn’t mean it, we were not getting a divorce, grown ups sometimes said things they didn’t mean when they were upset. The boys calmed down and unpacked their toys and pajamas. But they looked sad. Which broke my heart. Maybe I should get a divorce. Maybe Al really didn’t want to be married to me and maybe I had been a fool to think I could fall in love again and finally make it work. So many more red flags had popped up since we’d said “I do.”
There was the way he never told me when he made plans with his guy friends, just went out. On Friday night. To the bar. And plenty of other nights, too. No discussion, just “see ya.” Or the times I’d try to do something nice for him, like throwing him a birthday party or buying him a little gift, and he’d always say “how much is this going to cost me?” Then there was the way he flung around the D word. The way he’d been so mean on our honeymoon, falling asleep on the road to Hana so I had to drive down that mountain myself, terrified the whole time. Not my idea of a romantic hero. Not at all.
Even on our wedding day, he spent more time drinking with his friends than by my side. He’d walked in on me smoking a cigarette and yelled at me in front of a bunch of wedding guests. Remembering all these raging red flags, I began to worry big time. Not so much about what this would do to my ongoing custody case, but what it would do to my own heart, and the hearts of those two little boys I loved so much. I’d been through a no-big-deal divorce at 18, from my high school sweetheart, and then I’d been through the wrecking ball with my second husband, the father of my sons. I wasn’t sure how we’d survive another divorce. I wasn’t sure I had a choice.
But I was strong back then, so much stronger than I am now. The years have made me soft, but back then I had time on my side. I believed that many good things were in my family’s future. What I didn’t know is if that family would hold three or four people. My mother seemed to think divorce was in the cards for Al and me. I had told her a little bit about our problems and she said “I never thought it would work.” I’m not sure there was anybody who believed we could make it work. Not my ex, not my kids, not my family, not our friends, and apparently not even Al.
I waited until the kids were with their dad and then I sat down on the sofa in the living room and had the talk with Al. I told him that I was done fighting for our love. It was pretty clear to me that he didn’t really love me and that this marriage had been a big mistake. I told him about the little scene in the boys’ bedroom. I don’t think I even had any tears left. Our relationship had started out so beautifully, as so many love stories do, but it had turned uglier and uglier and I truly believed it was past saving. Al agreed. We would divorce, less than a year after we married.
I got up off the sofa. I had no place to go, but I knew how to find an apartment. I’d done it plenty of times. Now it was my turn to pack. I guessed I really had been the starter wife he said I was after all. And good luck to the next one. I was heading down the hallway, ready to pack my own bags, when Al called me back into the living room. By this point, I wasn’t angry; neither one of us had even raised our voices during the entire discussion. All the tears and arguments were over.
I turned around to look at him sitting there, feeling so sad, because I still loved him, even though our marriage was impossible to fix. I was a born loser in love. Three times married, three times failed. He sat there on the sofa looking at me. “What?” I said, simply defeated. Nothing else he said could make me feel lower than I already did in that moment.
“I still love you,” he said.
That was thirty years ago. Somehow the starter wife became the only wife, with hard work, determination, abiding love, and many highs and lows in a very long, mostly happy marriage.