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The loneliness of marriage

December 6, 2012

Last summer, a friend of mine from boarding school came over for lunch.  I hadn’t seen him in two years, since his wedding.  He and his wife have produced a baby, whose career I’ve eagerly followed on Facebook; when my friend arrived, my children politely exclaimed over the (very cute, fuzzy-headed, grinning) pictures on his phone.  “I can’t believe your kids are so gigantic,” he said, once they’d wandered off to recommence making a shambles elsewhere in the house.  “How old are they now?”  Sixteen and ten, I said, and my friend and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.  We were both fourteen when we met. “But we were much more sophisticated and mature, really, I mean, there’s no comparison, is there?” I asked, and my friend shook his head vehemently.  Something has happened to the youth of today, we agreed–or at least to my youth of today, who can barely manage to butter his own toast.

We ate and drank and gossiped and caught up on each others’ news.  It’s awfully odd to look at someone and see your fourteen-year-old self reflected in his gaze.  It’s even odder to look at someone who’s now in his forties and see right down the years to his adolescent self.  His true self, I’d even wager (though if my goofy, innocent, clumsy sixteen-year-old son is fully self-actualized, then god help him.) What is it about friends from long ago?  I feel as if I know the people I went to high school and college with in some deep and irreversible way, in a way that transcends or even belies whatever they (or I) have done with our lives since.  The friends you make as a teenager imprint on your psyche, and you imprint on theirs.  This is why you hear so many stories about people who suddenly marry their tenth grade flame after attending a high-school reunion; it’s as if all the years between now and then don’t count, or don’t count as much.

My boarding school friend and I have a long history together.  His parents and my father used to live in the same city, so even after graduation (boarding school friends, like college friends, tend to scatter to the four corners of the earth whenever school’s out) we’d see each other during vacations.  He visited me at my college; I visited him at his.  The summer I was nineteen I worked as an au pair; my employers were awful, and after my friend (who was on his way to Italy) passed through Paris and saw how bad things were, he called me from a pay phone every day.  “Quit yet?” he’d ask. Not yet, I’d mumble. “Okay, I’ll check back tomorrow,” he’d say, and hang up.  Eventually I got fired (hooray!) and hopped the first train south to meet him.  We spent the next few weeks hitchhiking all over Tuscany, sleeping on the ground outside, washing up in public fountains, trying to spend about fifteen dollars each a day (it was almost feasible) since I had zero money and he had only budgeted for one person.

Several years later we both ended up in graduate school on the west coast.  By then I was living with my future husband, but his long hours at the lab meant that I was often at loose ends.  I spent a lot of time with my boarding school friend, who would pick me up and take me places he liked.  He’d surf while I read on the beach, or we’d hike, or eat a specifically chosen picnic in a place he’d carefully picked beforehand.  (Though we were boyfriend and girlfriend for a few weeks in eleventh grade, we were only ever friends thereafter.  Still, our outings felt the way I imagine dates with a motivated and ardent suitor might feel.  This friend is not the kind of person who ever shows up without a plan. I’ve probably had more adventures with him than with anyone else in the world besides my ex-husband.)

Once in college he drove six hours south in his ancient car to get me for the weekend.  The plan was for him to spend the night, and then we’d  drive back up to his school and see Ray Charles–we saw Ray Charles whenever we could–together.  On the way down he found out that if turned his car off it wouldn’t restart, so instead of spending the night with me and then driving up together the next morning, he left the engine running while I threw some things in a duffel bag, and we drove straight back that night.  We filled the tank with the motor on.  At one point–I was driving–a bunch of wires under the dashboard actually caught on fire.  We rolled down the windows and tried to wave the smoke out, laughing and choking, expecting the engine to explode at any moment.  We even got pulled over–by now it was three in the morning–and had to explain to the baffled policeman that we couldn’t turn off the ignition, because if we did we’d be stuck there all night.  (He let us off without even a warning.)  At five thirty we pulled into the driveway of my friend’s apartment building, killed the engine, which never started again, and went out to dinner.  (You can get a full dinner at five thirty in the morning in Montreal, which is where he went to college. I am still astonished by that fact.)

We borrowed someone else’s car to go to the concert, and I went to a day or two of my friend’s classes, and we rode together on one bike (he pedaled; I balanced) up Mount Royal and down. Then I got the flu and languished in his apartment for another week before flying home.  It was just another visit as far as we were concerned.  Somehow, this kind of thing seemed to happen to us all the time.

On and on, our friendship has persisted.  He knows my mother and my siblings and at least a couple of my stepfathers.  He knows my father and my stepmother and my brother and sisters on that side of the family. He knows my ex-husband, my ex-husband’s family, my friends from graduate school, my friends from college.  He knows my kids.  And I know his parents and stepparents and brothers and sisters and so forth  (his family tree is as luxuriantly grafted due to divorce and remarriage as mine), as well as his former girlfriends, friends from college, graduate school, friends from work and friends from all the different places he has lived over the years.

At one of the darkest points in our marriage, my husband and I drove down to stay in a hotel–a rare extravagance–in the city my boarding school friend lives in.  It was our wedding anniversary, the last one, and the only one we ever made a fuss over.  We both knew we were going to get divorced.  My husband was taciturn and miserable the whole time, while I overcompensated by talking too much.  My friend, whom I’d briefed in advance, was as kind and accommodating as could be.  By now he’d switched from journalism to urban planning, and he drove us to see a couple of the projects he was working on.  He took us to lunch.  He told us where to eat dinner.  He told story after story–he’s the master of the shaggy-dog tale–pretending not to notice that my husband was on another planet altogether, staring morosely into space, sunk in our private misery.  At the end of the weekend, he patted me on the shoulder and shook hands with my husband and drove away.  I fought the urge to run after his car.

A year later he married his beautiful girlfriend.  By then I was separated, and I went to the wedding alone.

It’s odd to be the unique example of marital failure among your old friends, and even odder to show up, like a malevolent witch, at someone’s wedding.  However, there was also something lovely about being with friends who knew me even before I knew my husband, and everyone was kind.  I was still actutely self-conscious about being alone.  I shared a hotel room, in order to save money, with a friend of the bride whom I’d never met, and she came back to the room long after I did the night of the reception, drunk and weeping, and woke me up to tell me how worried she was that no man would ever love her the way my friend seemed to love his brand new wife, and that she’d never get married or have children.  I didn’t know what to say; I hardly knew her.  In the end I think the fact that I had been married (but seemed to have fucked it all up somehow) infuriated her;  next morning, I packed quietly while she slept off her hangover, left her a bland note of farewell, and slipped out of the room.  My old friends and I all had breakfast together, and then  I drove home to collect my children from their father’s house.

And the lunch we had last summer was the first time I’d seen my friend since his wedding. Since he got married, he more or less dropped off the planet.

This is the case more often than not, am I right? Married people do not socialize with the unmarried. Married people socialize two-by-two, in lockstep. The exception is (and I have always hated the whole idea of this, not just the condescending appellation) a sanctioned “girls night out” during which married women drink and gossip about their husbands. (I said I hated it. I didn’t say I never did it.) But married people do not, in general, stay close to friends of the opposite sex, whether the friend in question is married or single, it seems to me. (I imagine a divorced woman, or a single one, is more threatening in the abstract than a married one, but even when I was still emphatically wed I lost male friends the minute they tied the knot.)

My marriage, then, seems to have been a rare thing. I was permitted to stay friends with my male friends, even if they were single, even if they were old boyfriends.

Note that I am not saying this is necessarily a recipe for happiness. (We all know how my marriage ended, after all.) However, I do find it vexing. I’m tempted to call my friend from boarding school, whom I miss, and say, Hey, fuckwit, I was friends with you when I was married and you weren’t,  remember? How come everything’s different now that you’re the married one?

However,  I won’t. For one thing, like my other married friends, he only calls me when his wife is out of town or when he’s alone in the car. This makes me think  I probably shouldn’t just randomly ring him up. But I’ll be in his city later this month. I’d like to see him. I wonder how it can be arranged without the appearance of impropriety, or any sneakiness on his part. I like his wife, for what it’s worth. I like the wives of all my married male former friends.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2012 12:42 pm

    As a nearly 44-year-old never married I agree with your annoyance. The only times those ties ever stay close is when the woman trusts the man completely, utterly, without even a tiny crack of wonder. That, it turns out, is wildly rare.

  2. Laura permalink
    December 6, 2012 12:46 pm

    I know exactly what you mean, although I’m lucky that my best male friend from high school now has a (second) wife who welcomes me as enthusiastically as he does.

    I’ve been the single female for most of the past 20 years, and now that I’m not, I have discovered that it is hard to make new male friends – unless they are already friends of my partner, or the new friendship also involves my partner (and the new friend’s partner, if applicable). I did not anticipate that all new one-on-one friendships would now be with women. I hope I can solve this problem!

  3. December 6, 2012 2:48 pm

    Call him. Tell him you’re visiting and you’d love (a) to see them both for dinner, and (b) some alone catching up time with him. Can it just be as simple as that? who knows, but at least try. Surely there’s no impropriety in calling an old friend? Bring a gift for the baby and his wife will love you. Offer to babysit and she’ll love you FOREVER…

  4. Was Living Down Under permalink
    December 6, 2012 4:32 pm

    Great post. I love hearing stories of friendships that have stuck through the ages.

    It’s sad but true isn’t it that male friends seem to drop off the face of the earth once they’re married. I have to say that my marriage, like yours, must be a rare thing. I am “permitted” to have male friends (ex-boyfriends even) who aren’t necessarily friends with my partner. Sometimes he comes along, other times it’s just me. Having said that, my new friendships over the past few years have mostly been with women. Might be coz of the children though I think there’s more to it than that. I’d probably need a blog post of my own to figure out why…

    Call him. You can’t not. Do as RL said. If you meet up with both of them and get to know her (and vice versa), he’d be more likely to not fall off the face of the earth.

  5. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    December 6, 2012 5:23 pm

    You guys are right, and of course I will get in touch. I mean, he gets in touch when he’s in town, but it’s just the fact that it’s so fraught that irks me. I wanted to come down WITH MY BOYFRIEND and visit, and he hemmed and hawed and said his wife didn’t really like having houseguests and suggested a hotel, which we can’t afford, and which is completely unlike our “everyone who can fit on the floor is welcome” history thus far. I dont’ mean it to sound as if I’m blaming his wife, in other words. I think he himself projects this weirdness about it. Does that make sense to anyone at all? Men are awfully odd about friendships once they are married, or even romantically attached….

  6. SarahB permalink
    December 6, 2012 8:11 pm

    He’s a relative newlywed, and he has a baby. That’s a lot of change in a very short period of time. All his energy is going there. I think it’s ok to chalk a lot of it up to adjustment. The times when you and he spent a lot of time together were times you were both freer…even when you were married, you and your friend were in the same location and you had extra free time. Your lives may just not be structured so well to spend much time together now. I have a toddler, and it’s hard for me to see local friends as much as I would like.

    That said, I totally hear you on the “male friends are not the same” bit. I wouldn’t say any of my male friendships are the same since I (or they) got married, and though it saddens me in some ways, I think it’s also normal and ok. The boundaries and time and energy priorities have all shifted.

  7. December 7, 2012 5:59 am

    Do you think he was in love with you all this time? In that light, calling you, having you in his house with wife and baby etc may suddenly seem odd to him.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      December 7, 2012 10:21 am

      I doubt it. Though I know he is the type to overthink EVERYTHING, so he has perhaps created a whole tangled mess in his head where the reality is much simpler. It’s entirely possible that he has manufactured the idea that he is only allowed to call me at certain times, etc etc etc. However, I do think that many people come to marriage thinking that the whole rest of their life must now change, radically. That they must be, or become, or at least behave as if they were, totally different people. This can include relegating past attachments to the bottom drawer. It doesn’t seem very farsighted, but there’s this idea that marriage is both an end point and the beginning of the rest of your (very different) life…

  8. Bea permalink
    December 7, 2012 8:18 am

    could we just leave it well said at “Men are awfully odd”? I have a very longstanding friendship with a lovely man who’s wife was my friend first. They have separated, tried again, now divorced. Through all of this things were well until he began dating. Now, he seems not to “need” me unless he’s between lovers; we stop going out for drinks, taking bike rides etc. Finally I pointed this out and told him how hurtful it was and that I missed my pal. I genuinely think that even in platonic male/female relationships men slide women friends into some other category than their bro friendships. He keeps waterpolo and fishing buddies. it did improve once I pointed it out and said “ouch”. Dorks, the whole gender.

  9. Was Living Down Under permalink
    December 7, 2012 10:40 am

    “there’s this idea that marriage is both an end point and the beginning of the rest of your (very different) life…”
    That speaks to our culture doesn’t it? Marriage isn’t seen as an extension of friendship – it’s touted as a prison sentence. Isn’t that why people have bachelor(ette) parties?

    He is probably over thinking it – he’s not sure how to behave around you and his wife – sounds weird to say it but sometimes people like to keep friends separate. He’ll get over it. You just need to butt in there and get to know her and him with her. Once he sees how cool you are, he’ll be cool too. I’d be interested to know how it all unfolds – if you want to share 🙂

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      December 7, 2012 10:43 am

      It’s funny, and rather ghastly, what we as a culture expect and demand of marriage.

  10. December 7, 2012 1:03 pm

    I love this post. I have always managed to maintain friendships with members of the opposite sex, but I have friends for whom that has always been impossible. I find it fascinating. (I even wrote a novel about it that I will make you read one day!)

    I say call him. The new marriage and the new baby thing is overwhelming for anyone of either sex, but I’m sure he’d love to hear from you. I think as long as you don’t make the rest of his family feel left out or ignored a visit would be fine.

  11. Kim permalink
    December 7, 2012 4:15 pm

    I say follow his lead because you care about him, even if that means not calling him for mow.

  12. December 7, 2012 11:25 pm

    That’s a beautiful story of friendship, with an incredibly frustrating end. The only thing you can do is be honest when you see him. That way you’ll at least find out if it’s her insecurity or your friend’s misplaced cautiousness. And then it’s his call to address it, and up to you to respect that. Also, I think “hey, fuckwit!” is an entirely appropriate way to greet anyone you’ve managed to maintain a relationship with since the age of 14 (because frankly, we were all fuckwits at 14). I also think sending him a link to this post would be enlightening for him.

  13. Anne permalink
    December 9, 2012 12:33 am

    Argh…I know exactly what you mean. I remained friends with my ex-fiance for 9 years–until he got engaged. Then, he told me, during one of our phone conversations, that I should only call him during the day (ie, at work, when his fiancee wasn’t around). I have not heard from him once since his wedding a few months ago, even though they recently MOVED ACROSS THE COUNTRY and now reside 1 hour away from me (I found this out through his Facebook page, pathetically enough). Now, if I WAS single, I could maybe understand this a bit better, but I have been, and am, married for the past 8 years, have two children, and until they moved here, lived 2000 miles away from them How much less of a threat could I possibly be? I find it both mind-boggling and extremely sad.

  14. anonymous permalink
    December 9, 2012 6:51 pm

    Kind of seems like the new baby has more to do with this than anything else? What a life changer that is! I’d cut him some slack for that, but I’d also talk honestly with him about how you feel, because what’s the point of the oldest and dearest friend if you can’t do that??

  15. December 10, 2012 1:56 am

    Kim’s advice is the best. Give the poor man some time to enjoy his new wife and baby. I even need to do this with my female friends – I mean some wives and husbands can be very needy and anti-social. I bet his wife is a bit threterned by your brain, personality, experience, and wisdom. You have us for the time being…

  16. That foghorn! permalink
    January 8, 2013 9:37 am

    If he hemmed and hawed the last time you proposed a visit WITH your boyfriend, then I think you have your answer. I don’t think you need to do any more head scratching about whether you are blaming his wife or he is — that was him talking. To me it seems clear that he (or his wife, or both, it doesn’t really matter which) has moved on past the “everyone who can fit on the floor is welcome” phase of his life, which seems reasonable now that he is married and has a baby.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      January 12, 2013 12:20 am

      This is very true. I got sick and canceled the trip, but I do think you are correct–some people are “everyone who can fit on the floor is welcome” people, and some are not. And some people are and then they change. It’s not the end of the world in any case, and it doesn’t matter who’s putting the kibosh on the slumber party…you are totally correct. (But I’m still a little bummed about it.)

  17. Sarah permalink
    March 16, 2013 7:46 am

    “It’s funny, and rather ghastly, what we as a culture expect and demand of marriage.” How true.

    For the record I have three kinds of male friends, although married: one stayed friend with me in exactly the same way. It took hiw wife a bit to get used to but him being a very old fashion husband, shall we say (feel free to use asshole if you prefer) means that she had no choice. I like her very much. me and him have known eachother since birth. My second friend, friend since primary school, is a lot more awkward. Possibly because she is not so keen on me, and viceversa although I try not to show it but things are sensed. It grates a bit but I kind of understand. The third, met in my early twenties, meets with me in secret from his wife once a month, for a very innocent dinner. I am not totally confortable with it but then think, it is their problem.
    My husband uses this as a proof that he is a modern man, failing to see that uttering “which other hisband LETS their wives have male friends!” does not strengthen his argument one bit (understatement of the year!). But, doormat as I have become, compromise my friendship was never an option for me (I wish I maintained this approach in regards to many other issues but that’s another story). however, patriarchal and idiotic his point is, it is true that it does reflect what you said. A man known that to be respectful to his wife he cannot possibly keep a close relationship with another woman (i.e. the sin of be seen laughing with someone else but the wife).

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