“Project: Happily Ever After” is Alisa Bowman’s brutally honest and humorous account of how she went from being a “divorce daydreamer” to renewing her wedding vows — and all of the steps in between. Here's an excerpt
Once Upon a Time
I knew something was terribly wrong with my marriage when I planned my husband’s funeral. I did it in late 2006 and early 2007, between Mark’s fortieth and forty-first birthdays. At least 210 times that year, I fantasized about the day Röbi, one of Mark’s closest friends, arrived at my door. His voice trembled as he said, “You’d better sit down. I’ve got bad news. There’s no good way to tell you. Mark dropped dead of a heart attack 5 minutes ago. They tried everything. He’s gone. I’m sorry.” Röbi drove me to the hospital morgue. After viewing the body, I phoned Mark’s parents.
I made the arrangements.
Mark would be cremated. His ashes would go into an urn until our daughter, Kaarina, was old enough to choose a location to scatter them. The funeral? No, it would not be held at a church or a funeral home, but rather at The Farmhouse, his favorite restaurant and the place where we’d first met. The mourners would enjoy Magic Hat #9, Stone, and Flemish sour, a few of Mark’s favorite brands and varieties of beer. Chef Michael would make my husband’s favorite foods, including the butternut squash soup, crusty rolls, and braised lamb. For dessert, there would be hand-stretched strudel. He loved that.
A cinematographer would record the event, filming friends and family as they told stories about Mark. Röbi, for instance, might talk about Mark’s love of his bicycle. Taylor would say something interesting about Mark and his bike shop. Maybe Wood would come up with a drinking story. Ken might talk about their many road trips to Formula One races in Montreal. Jeff might mention something about rock climbing or kayaking. Chris could tell a story about Mark and his motorcycle. This film I would store away, somewhere secure, perhaps in the very safe where I kept our life insurance documents and passports. There it would stay until Kaarina was old enough to want to know more about Daddy. Then I would pull it out and let her watch it.
I always got stuck on the eulogy. What could I say? What should I say? It was appropriate to say something positive, of course, but I could only think of the negative. Perhaps I wouldn’t say anything. Some widows are too distraught to talk, right? Wouldn’t the other mourners notice my dry eyes, though? Wouldn’t they think something was odd about my facial expression? Wouldn’t the most perceptive among them think, “She’s relieved”?
Mark, in reality, was much more likely to die of old age than of a heart attack. Heart disease did not run in his family. His grandmother had lived well into her nineties. Yet staying married until old age felt unbearable, and the alternative, divorce, was terrifying.
The D word — I didn’t like to say that out loud. Would I be the first to break my family’s tradition of staying married regardless of marital disharmony? My paternal grandparents had been married for more than sixty years. My maternal grandparents, despite how much they’d tormented one another, would probably have reached such a milestone, too, had my grandfather not died in his fifties. My parents had been together more than forty years, and so had Mark’s.
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Unlike the death fantasy, my divorce scenario was not artificial. It was a plan of escape. Mark and I would amicably share custody of our daughter. He would agree to take his 401(k), and I’d take mine. We’d split the other investments down the middle. He’d keep the waterbed. I’d take the queen we used in the guest room. He’d want the La-Z-Boy. I’d take the rocker. He’d get the leather sofas. I’d take the dining room set and the artwork. He could have the grill.
I’d take the dog, but, if needed, we could work out a custody arrangement. We both loved that dog.
I told myself that I would stay in the marriage until I found myself thinking about divorce every single day. I’d stay until the thought of losing half of our retirement savings to him felt less depressing than the thought of staying married to a man who didn’t seem to love me. I’d stay until the idea of our two-and-a-half-year-old growing up in a broken home seemed healthier than the idea of her being raised by two parents who never smiled when they talked to one another, if they talked to one another at all. I’d stay until the notion of telling my parents that we were splitting seemed less uncomfortable than the notion of navigating family gatherings with him by my side.
It was Mother’s Day of 2007 that changed everything.
That evening I traveled to New York City to have dinner with Deb, a close friend who was in town for a conference. I’d met Deb, a tall curly-haired brunette, years ago at a book club. We earned our livings as freelance medical writers. We were both workaholics, and over the years, we’d created an informal freelance writing support group. She and I were the only members. We took turns telling work stories that, after a couple glasses of wine, took on dramatic plot twists, lots of animated arm movements, and an incredible amount of laughter. No matter how bedraggled I felt walking into a restaurant for a dinner with Deb, I always felt happier and lighter when I left.
Deb was one of those people who could look at my face and read my thoughts. She would hear me say, “Everything’s great. Everything’s fine,” and then say, “Cut the crap. Tell me the truth.” She would listen to me vent for as long as it took for me to run out of steam, and then would ask me a single question that rendered me speechless. Deb had moved from just 20 minutes away from my house in Pennsylvania to Virginia a year earlier. I missed her dearly.
As we waited for our table, we sat at the bar and sipped cabernet. Once at our table, we each ordered a flight of wine and a cheese plate. As we drained our glasses and neared the end of the cheese, we decided to get a bottle. Deb wrote a wine blog and had written a wine book. She was undecided between two wines. She reached into her purse, pulled out her cell, and dialed Keith, her husband, who knew even more about wine than she.
I listened to her talk. I watched her move her hands and smile. I thought about my marriage. I thought about my cell phone, the one that hadn’t moved from my purse since my arrival hours before. I hadn’t called my husband to tell him I had arrived safely. I had not checked to see how he was doing. I had not thought of him once.
Deb was telling Keith about the conference, about the hotel, and about the restaurant. They spoke as if they hadn’t seen one another in weeks. They spoke as if they had so much to tell one another that they could easily talk all night, fall asleep, wake the next morning, and still find more to say.
I would not call Mark. Not now. Not later. Not the following day. I wouldn’t because I feared I would hear a voice that was unhappy to hear mine. He would sound harried, as if he had one hundred and fifty more important things to do than to talk to me. I wanted what Deb and Keith had, but I wasn’t at all confident that I could ever have it with Mark.
More in books
Deb closed her phone. She’d made a decision. She ordered. The wine arrived. Near the end of the bottle, she asked, “How’s Mark?” and, in my drunkenness, I related the 7 million reasons why I was unhappily married. She listened.
“Our marriage is dead,” I complained. “We have nothing to say to one another.”
“Whenever I call him, he sounds unhappy to hear from me, as if I’m bothering him. I think he secretly hates me.”
“He never helps with the parenting. He’s never home. It’s like I’m a single mother. I earn nearly all the money. I do all of the housework and 90 percent of the parenting. I’m exhausted. I can’t go on much longer. I want to feel loved, and I don’t think he loves me anymore.”
“Why are you still together?” she asked.
“I’m only staying with him for Kaarina’s sake,” I said. “There’s nothing left between us. If we didn’t have her, we’d have nothing in common.”
“You shouldn’t stay together for your daughter,” Deb said. “If you got divorced, she would be fine. My son was fine after my first husband and I split up. Lots of kids do just fine after divorce. You’ll do more damage to her by staying in a loveless marriage than you will by getting out of one.”
I asked, “How did you know it was time to give up?”
“I knew it was time when I suggested we try marital counseling and he wouldn’t go. I’d run out of options,” she said. “Have you tried everything? Have you tried marital counseling?”
There, the question that would leave me speechless. No, we hadn’t tried that. Instead of marital counseling, I’d tried crying. I’d tried yelling things like, “Our marriage is in the toilet!” I’d tried saying things like, “I’m miserable in this marriage!” I had once mildly suggested that we try counseling, but I’d said it more as a threat (“We need marital counseling!”) than a suggestion. He’d replied, “If you really think we should try it, I guess I can make time for it.” Neither of us had made time for it. I had a business card for a counselor. Had I not made the call because I secretly wanted my marriage to fail?
“You need to try everything,” she told me as we paid the bill. “Promise me you will try everything. He probably just needs you to tell him what you want. Men are clueless. Never forget that.”
The next morning, I woke with a wicked headache, a dry mouth, and a heart filled with hope. I was going to fix my marriage. I could do this. I really could. Deb was right.
Later that evening, I sat next to Mark. He was in his usual spot on the La-Z-Boy. The remote was nearby. His muddy green eyes were mesmerized with the motorcycle race unfolding in front of him on the TV. I looked at his thin blond hair, the creases on his sun-baked face, and the slight downturn of his lips.
What had happened to the carefree, grinning guy who’d once found himself hopelessly besotted with me? Where had he gone? Who was this stranger who now shared my bed? What had become of us?
I turned off the TV. I held my hands in my lap. I looked at him, and I said, “We’ve got problems. We haven’t had sex in months. I think about either divorcing or killing you several times a day, sometimes several times an hour. I’m worried that, if we don’t focus on fixing things, one of us is going to have an affair, and, I’m worried that the one of us most likely to have the affair is me.”
I shed no tears. I made eye contact almost the whole time. I didn’t raise my voice.
His features softened. The hardness I’d gotten so used to seeing was no longer there. He looked at me tenderly.
“You’re having an affair?” he asked, his voice pinched, an octave higher than usual.
“No, I’m worried that I might. I feel sexy. I notice men looking at me. I want to feel loved, and I don’t feel loved by you. I worry that, given the opportunity and a moment of weakness, I might turn to someone else to feel loved.”
He asked, “Are you really that disappointed? Are things that bad?”
“Yes, I am. Yes, they are,” I replied. “Don’t you think so?”
“Things are hard right now. We just moved. Moving to a new home is stressful, but things will get better. Kaarina’s getting older. Things will get easier. You’ll see.”
“No, Mark, they won’t, not unless we make them better,” I said. “If we don’t work on things now, we’re going to end up getting a divorce.”
“What do you want?” he asked.
What I really wanted, I did not want to say. I wanted to be married to another man. I wanted to be married to someone who came home from work by 6 p.m., and who came home happy to see his wife and daughter. I wanted to be married to someone who, when he got home, played with his daughter or offered to cook dinner rather than sit in front of Speed TV or get lost in cycling news sites on the Internet. I wanted a man I craved to touch, and who craved to touch me. I wanted someone who noticed that the trash was overflowing and who took it out before the dog got into it and dragged it through the house. I wanted a husband who listened to me when I cried, got angry, or told him I was disappointed with his behavior or our marriage. I didn’t want one who, instead, sometimes suggested that I was hormonal and that the mood would pass. I wanted a man who looked at me with love in his eyes and who seemed happy to have me in his life. I didn’t want a man who acted as if I was his greatest life complication, the weight tied to his ankles that was dragging him deeper into the ocean.
Could he become the man I wanted? I wasn’t sure he even wanted to.
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After a long silence, I said, “I want to find things to talk about over dinner. I don’t want to eat in silence. I want you to look at me with love in your eyes. I want to have a sex life again. I want to hold hands. I want you to act as if you love me. I want you to make me and Kaarina your top priorities, above your store, above your bike, and above your friends.”
“You are my top priorities. I do love you. I love you both,” he said, bewildered.
“I need you to show it,” I said.
“Maybe I need you to show me how,” he said.
“I’ll try,” I said.
“What should we do next?” he asked.
“Are you willing to do marital counseling?”
“Yes, whatever you think we need,” he said.
“You’ll make time for it? You won’t cancel the appointments? You won’t complain about it?”
“I’ll make time for it,” he said.
Although our marriage felt dead, we didn’t suffer from anything that would rule out resurrecting it from the grave. Neither of us was addicted to anything other than caffeine. We weren’t co-dependent. He wasn’t emotionally or physically abusive, and neither was I. Neither of us was an overspender or gambler. We were both intelligent, reasonable people. Perhaps most important, we both wanted to save our marriage.
That night, I started "Project: Happily Ever After." Would it work? Could a marriage as bad as ours actually be saved? Would I ever feel attracted to my husband again? I didn’t know for sure. What I did know was this. This project of mine? It required a gigantic leap of faith.
Can your marriage be saved? That depends on the answer to one question: Are you both willing to try to save it? If the answer is, “Yes,” then start a marriage project that spans four months. If, at the end of four months, you see any improvement and you are still both committed to making it work, give it some more time and effort. If, on the other hand, there’s no improvement, your future together is pretty grim.
From "Project: Happily Ever After" by Alisa Bowman. Copyright © 2010. Reprinted by permission of Running Press.
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