After coming upon a cover story from a 2011 article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine “Infidelity Keeps Us Together,” I thought about a recent conversation I had with my husband. Clearly, the issue around couples staying together is in the air, with all the sex scandals and divorces we keep hearing about. So given the statistics we all read, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got a phone call from my friend, Barbara, who told me that she and her husband had decided to split up after 27 years of marriage. Pretty much no one after 1955 named their daughters Barbara so you have some idea of her approximate age and stage of life. I hadn’t seen this coming so I asked Barbara if she did. Was he having an affair? Did he seem depressed?” No, “she said. “As a matter of fact, I’m the one that initiated the idea. I don’t think either one of us has been happy for a long time. I don’t want to die wondering if there was someone else who made more sense for me to grow old with.”
When I look at the photograph on our piano of our closest friends who were at our wedding, we are the only ones still married out of eight couples. ‘So what’s that all about?’ I wondered. Is it that we’re too settled, too conventional, or just too used to the trials of a long-term marriage to contemplate making a move? Or are we actually happier with one another than all these other couples we had essentially grown up with?
So, at breakfast the other morning, I said to my husband, “With people’s lifespan being what it is, does it really make sense that we get married to one person for our entire lives no matter how long that turns out to be?”
I’m sure this caught him off guard because what I usually ask him when he’s eating breakfast is if he wants fish or chicken for dinner. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when he said, “shrimp.”
The good thing about your husband not listening to you is that you can say just about anything and not have to be accountable. It’s like talking to yourself only out loud. But I was not deterred. “Umm, what I was talking about, and really, here’s where I’d like a little eye contact, is what do you think about the idea that when people get married they sign a marriage certificate that has an actual end date on it?”
I had his attention. “You mean like an expiration date?”
“I wouldn’t exactly call it that. It’s just when they get to that date, they get to calmly and rationally consider re-upping or not. I mean, first you get married during your child-bearing years and you agree to get the kids through high school. So, say, a 20 year contract. Then you get an email or something reminding you that your contract is running out and asking if you want to renew or cancel. So you sit down and talk it over with a minimum of hysteria because, after all, this was part of the original agreement.”
My husband said nothing. I wasn’t sure if it was because he was thinking whether he really did want shrimp that night or if an in-depth analysis of the state of marriage did not go with his morning cereal. (The next husband I contract with will listen with rapt attention to everything I say.)
I persisted. “So what do you think?”
“About what?” he asked.
Used to this, I repeated what I said, something I have to do at least twice a day and even more when he’s watching some game on television. (Husband #2 will think watching sports on television is a scourge on humanity.)
“What happens if one wants to renew and one wants to cancel?” he said.
Admittedly, a sticking point. I persevered. “That’s the challenge. You’d know the contract was coming to an end, so it would be like a politician trying to get re-elected. If you were the party that wanted to renew, you’d get out there and campaign for it. You would make promises you probably won’t keep. But if the other party still wanted out at least there’d be no blame. I mean, it was in the contract that we could walk away if our needs were no longer being met.”
“And then what?”
“What happens next is that we separate, the children are fine with it because they’d seen many of their other friends’ parents not renew, there’s no bitterness, they only care about our happiness and we both look for new mates that satisfy our new, more mature needs.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay? What do you mean, ‘okay?’”
“Yeah, sounds like an idea. I mean I figure most guys would be around 50 or 60 when this happens, so how hard would it be for us to find a woman between 35 to 45 who wants to sign a contract with us?”
35 to 45? How hard would it be for me to find a man between 35 to 85 who wants to contract with me? I have a lot of single female friends. It’s hard. Very hard. This wasn’t going the way I had anticipated.
“Does everyone sign the same contract?” he asked. “What if a couple doesn’t want kids? What if you’re both forty when you marry for the first time? Is it still for 20 years? And I feel sorry for the couple that marries at fifty-eight. They’d only have to commit for, like what — a couple of weeks?”
The concept needed work. I could see that.
“And what about the money? You don’t think there would be fights about dividing up money and property?”
I was a little concerned that he was getting so invested in this plan. Now I was thinking on my feet. “No, this way would be more civilized. From the get-go the understanding would be that everything is divided in half at the end of the contract.”
He didn’t seem to have to think this through very long when he said, “Well, I can tell you that if I’m getting married with an end date in mind, I’ll be squirreling some cash away during those 20 years.”
“You would do that?”
“Probably. So would anyone who was earning money during that time. It’s not like it would be the way we did it, going into the marriage with the intention to be together for life.”
He got back to reading his newspapers and watching morning television. I knew that in fifteen minutes he’d be getting up from his chair after finishing the same breakfast he eats pretty much every day of his life, going upstairs to shower and dress and go off to work, still happy to be following this routine after all these years. It was predictable, but not in a non-renewable sort of way.
There was something to be said for knowing what to expect. What if husband #2 turned out to have bad hygiene or didn’t want to spend time with my children, or wanted me to dress up in spandex or leather, two very bad looks for me. Meanwhile, my husband would probably renew with some hot mama who thought it was so adorable how he screamed at the top of his lungs at the television every time some football player crossed the finish line or whatever it is they do.
Now I was thinking that maybe my husband refusing to drink anything other than Chardonnay wasn’t such a deal breaker after all. And I hope he doesn’t think too hard on this subject or he’s liable to come up with two or three…dozen…offenses of my own that would be grounds not to renew. So, I’m reminding him now, it’s for better or for worse. If I can handle him thinking the golf channel is actually entertaining then he can handle my occasional headaches on a Saturday night. That’s amoré.