There’s another reason I worry about whether I’m marriage material (not being able to imagine getting married again, but not being able to imagine NOT getting married again)... and it’s not so much a dirty little secret as it is something that I just don’t talk much about. When it comes up, though, I always give an honest answer, so it’s not like I’m trying to hide anything.
Usually, the conversation goes something like this:
Her: How old were you when you got married?
Me: Um...which time?
When I was a junior in college, I went home for winter break and attended a party a couple of my high school pals were throwing. When I met C there, we sort of had this funny, almost uncomfortable connection. And because no one else at the party was older than 21, we decided we’d celebrate New Year’s Eve together. We had one good date before the big night, and fell pretty hard for each other by the time I went back to school after break.
That spring, I left the US to spend a semester in southern France. C and I kept in touch. She sent me mixtapes and magazines, and even a cassette recording of her with my youngest sister raising hell at a miniature golf course. She was just the sort of quirky, hilarious, slightly unbalanced smart girl I needed in my life. She also had a year of college on me, so when she graduated that spring, she flew out to meet me and we traveled along the Côte d'Azur for a couple of weeks. It was an amazing trip for two 21-year-olds to be on together, and it sealed something special between us.
By the time I made it home from living abroad, she’d already convinced her parents that she was going to move to Santa Cruz for my senior year of college. We wouldn’t live together, but we’d at least be in the same city. Nobody thought to ask my parents if they believed this to be a good idea (they didn’t), and I was too enamored to second-guess the wisdom of her decision.
That year was a tumultuous one for us, with me attempting to finish school, work as a cook in a surf diner, and manage a serious relationship. And though it wasn’t always perfect (we both had been raised in homes where short tempers were a normal part of the relationship experience), we found ourselves fully enmeshed together. Some might even say co-dependent.
So as my own graduation approached, we started talking about marriage, and I started to fantasize about how I’d eventually propose.
I was 22.
When I called my parents with the exciting news that C had said yes, there was a long silence at the other end of the phone.
“So what do you think?” I asked my father.
“I’m not so happy about it,” he said. I was furious. I was crushed. And, of course, the more my family pushed back against the wisdom of getting married so young, the more resolved I became to prove them wrong.
My best friends were aghast, but put on their game faces and tried to be supportive. When we moved back to Colorado to prepare for the wedding late that summer, my parents’ only move was to support my decision.
Both sets of parents had their reasons for feeling the way they did about the situation. My mom and dad had been married at 21 and 22, and had me just a few months later. They struggled as young parents, and faced deep, abiding challenges that would affect us all for years to come. In fact, their 25-year marriage was on the ropes at the time...but none of us knew that yet. The last thing they wanted was for me to trap myself into a similar situation. They also knew I was not a particularly mature young man; that I had a lot of growing up to do before I could handle a serious relationship. They asked if we could just live together first, and put off marriage for a little while. But of course the train had already left the station.
My fiancée’s parents had been disowned by their parents when they chose to get married very young, and they ended up having to leave their small town and their families behind. For them, interfering with our plan was unthinkable — there was no way they’d do anything to alienate their daughter by being unsupportive of her decision. If they had doubts about our ability to maintain a healthy marriage over the longterm, we were never privy to them. Instead, they helped plan a lavish, over-the-top wedding and reception at the nicest private club in the city.
When I picked up my best man from the airport the night before the wedding, he said, “Nobody else is going to say this, but you don’t have to go through with it. We can head back to the airport right now, and go to Vegas, have some fun, and leave this idea behind you.”
But the momentum wasn’t in our favor, and even though my doubts had finally started to surface, I couldn’t imagine disappointing C and everyone who’d come to celebrate. I was too callow to realize that I could have saved C and myself, and our families (sisters, nephews, parents), years of pain by being just a little smarter about what I was getting myself into.
The wedding was beautiful, of course. But within minutes of saying “I do,” I realized the impact of my decision. I didn’t freak out, but I did feel a shiver of doubt and regret. I buried it deep inside, where it wouldn’t get in the way of our relationship.
C and I were little kids playing house, and it didn’t take long to see the folly of our decision. Neither of us was ready for what we’d promised to each other, and though we fought gamely to keep things happy and whole, I gave into temptations and excuses to be less than a model husband after just a couple of years.
By the time I was 27, after almost four years of marriage, I was miserable, lost, and struggling. I’d floated from career to career, working my ass off to make enough money for us to live on, and feeling like I’d squandered my twenties — a time when I should have been having fun, hanging with friends, and traveling like crazy. I’d been a scientist, a chef in several kitchens, a corporate trainer, and was finally on the road toward becoming a teacher, experiencing successes in grad school like I’d never encountered before. I woke up one morning realizing I’d spent my life making decisions to please others, and rarely doing what I needed for my own mental health and overall wellbeing.
I remember asking my father if I’d always been that way, and he said, “Yes, always. Except for some rough times when you were a teenager, you’d go out of your way to make sure the people around you were happy. You’d do anything to avoid conflict, even if it was at your own expense.”
And so, with the catalyst of a new career ahead of me, some women in my life who showed genuine interest in my growth as a human being (as opposed to my poor, sweet, misguided wife, who felt so threatened by it all — and was right too feel that way), I moved out.
Although it was right thing to do, I will always regret the way I did it. I left precipitately, with almost no warning. I blindsided the most important person in my life, because I was too immature and messed up to end things properly.
I left her feeling devastated, angry, and abandoned, and it wasn’t until just a couple years ago that we were able to reconnect via email and work on forgiveness. I was finally in a place where I could fully disclose my transgressions and regrets, and she was finally able to communicate her sense of responsibility in how things had been between us. We both made a four-year mistake that had wide-ranging effects on our development and on the emotions of those who were closest to us.
I call it my starter marriage.
It took a long, long time before I was willing to suspend disbelief and get married again. It took sessions of couples counseling, lots of patience on Simone’s mom’s part, and deep soul-searching for me to come around to the idea that I could, or should, make another life-long commitment.
And even though things didn’t work out between Simone’s mom and me, I don’t regret my decision to ask her to marry me. Without that leap of faith, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn how to work on a relationship, and how to build a foundation of love and respect. Sure, it didn’t last forever, but the early years were good for both of us, and we have the gift of our daughter to show for it.
I’ve grown so much in the nine years since our divorce — I’m a better, happier, wiser person, more equipped than ever to build and maintain a healthy, honest, respectful relationship. I still make massive gaffes, poor decisions, and stupid remarks; but I’m also aware of my mistakes even as they happen, and have the humility to admit to my own dumbassness.
But...even so...I can’t imagine why anyone would want to take a chance with me, after two failed marriages. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be my third wife. It just sounds so awful, and it leaves me feeling hopeless in spite of the optimism that fills my soul when I realize how much I’ve learned and how much I could contribute.
So that leaves me only to do what I do best — enjoy my life in this very moment, with all of the fun and adventure and heartache, make the most of each day, each date, each romantic possibility, and devote myself to being the best father I can be.
The rest will happen as it happens. I’m happy now...and I’ll be happier soon.