This week, Mary-Beth and I celebrated our fourteenth wedding anniversary. Getting married was a terrifying leap for me; you might call it a transformative experience. And since the cornerstone of what I teach is transformation, here’s an essay I published a while ago on “How I Got Married.”
When I was 35, I woke up one morning with the sudden realization that being in a relationship equals pain. After another failed attempt at coupling, the evidence was inescapable, and if my own history wasn’t enough, I just had to look at my parents, my friends, and the celebrities on magazine covers.
Did I consider this bad news? No. In fact, I was elated. It wasn’t my fault! It was relationships. Hell, even if a relationship “works,” eventually one of you is going to die, leaving the other one miserable and alone. I’d heard that in long-term relationships when a spouse dies the other follows within a year or two. I don’t want my survival dependent on her, or hers on mine. What if she gets hit by a bus on her morning jog, while I’m parked in front of the TV trying to keep the marriage alive?
About two weeks later, I woke up with the sudden realization that not being in a relationship equals pain. This time I was not elated. I was alone, and the pain was unbearable.
A friend told me about this old hippie therapist in Venice, CA, named Jack, who ran a men’s group on Tuesday nights. He had a sign on his wall that read: Relationships are a choice. I didn’t know what the hell it meant. Jack had me list all the significant relationships I’d had since high school, and then asked me one question: Who broke up with whom? As we went down the list I could hear the bell tolling. My God, I was always the one who left. Jack pointed out that I would never be in a long-term relationship if I kept leaving. I could see why my friend recommended him. Jack was a genius. This had never occurred to me.
I started dating, but with the caveat that if I got into a relationship, I wouldn’t leave. Jack defined a relationship as the moment you start having sex. What?! With this new rule it became clear that there were women out there whom I had no business being with. I knew this, because I’d been with them. I was going to have to get to know her. And she was going to get to know me. I felt this growing panic. I had always worn a mask of self-confidence, but it wasn’t true. It’s easy to appear self-confident when nothing’s at stake. In the past, I thought they were just rejecting this image I’d created, but with the mask off I had to confront all the things I believed made me less than other men.
I remember the first time I read the personal ads and noticed with rising horror that every woman was looking for a tall guy. In fact, it was how every ad began. Maybe they’re listed in order of height, I thought. Eventually I’ll get to the short guy section. It didn’t happen. Well, at the bottom there was one final ad: woman seeks midget. It skipped me.
Like I said, I left every relationship . . . until the last one. The one that made me realize relationships equal pain. We only dated for three months. She had just broken up with her boyfriend and I was the rebound, and when she returned to her ex, I thought I was going to die. I had thought I’d found the one because she wasn’t needy, but she wasn’t needy because she had no plans to stay. I had met the female version of myself, and I despised her.
One night, Mary-Beth walked into the private writing workshop I teach on Monday nights. I’d known her for years through mutual friends, but she wasn’t on my radar. She was tall, blonde, and pretty. But she was nice, and I wasn’t used to nice. I had tickets for a concert at the Greek. I wanted to ask Mary-Beth, but she was my student, and I didn’t want to be one of those creepy teacher dating his student people. But this strange thing was happening; I wasn’t thinking about hooking up, I was thinking about how I’d like to sit next to her and talk.
I called and left a message. She called right back. “Were you asking me on a date? Because if you were, I’d like to get to know you, but I can’t date you while I’m your student.” Wow, she had boundaries. And then she added, “But I could meet you for dinner and a movie.” I didn’t follow her logic, but the next week we went for Indian food and saw Rififi at the New Beverly Cinema. The following day she called me to drop the class.
We started dating. I took her to an Italian restaurant near the beach. Back at her apartment, we kissed. She told me she had to take it slow. I placed a hand on her breast. “Is this slow?” She laughed. We were going out for a couple of weeks when one day we walked past a mirror and I shrieked.
“What’s the matter?”
“You’re taller than me.”
“You didn’t know that?”
Being with Mary-Beth, I’d forgotten I was short.
“Are you OK that I’m taller than you?” she asked.
“Sure, but does it bother you?”
“Oh no, I’ve accepted it.”
You’ve accepted it?! For a moment I felt wounded, and then I thought, if she’s accepted it, maybe I will too.
One afternoon, we were fooling around at my place, and it became clear that this was the moment. I took a breath and told her, “I can’t have sex unless I’m in a committed relationship.”
She said, “Well, of course.”
Strangely, this terrified me. This was it. I had vowed that the next relationship I got into, I wouldn’t leave.
Six weeks into the relationship, we had our first fight. All our fears tumbled out.
“I want to get married,” she said. “I want a family.”
“Don’t rush me.”
“I need to know you want children.”
“Then I have to leave.”
“OK . . . Maybe I do want kids. Just give me some time.”
I realized that for years I’d harbored a half-conscious notion that if a woman was upset I must have done something wrong. Then I began to understand why I’d always left; it was a preemptive strike to avoid confronting my fundamental ineptitude. It’s a common archetype — just watch any TV commercial. The woman is always rolling her eyes at her husband’s screwy schemes. Imagine if they flipped it, they cast women as the fools? It would be the end of consumerism. We’d be trading pelts.
Once, after an argument, I called my buddy, Rick, for advice. His solution was, “Break up with her.” I suppose this is why single guys are single.
One Sunday morning, we drove to Malibu where I got down on my knee in the sand and asked Mary-Beth to marry me. The first night of our engagement, however, I slept on the couch. Two weeks later, she moved into my apartment. Again I slept on the couch, my mind churning at this terrible mistake. Anxiety and fear charged through me at every step forward.
One day, I was working in my office when she entered.
I felt a rush of excitement, like I had been waiting for this my whole life, but just hadn’t known it. The truth was I had always wanted a child.
At the ultrasound, the technician stated matter-of-factly, “There’s no heart beat.” No one told me that miscarriages were common, especially with women in their early-forties. I fell apart.
Something was wrong. This can’t all be about my unborn child. That weekend I called my parents and asked them, “What happened to me when I was very young?”
They understood what I was asking. My father said, “When you were eleven months old, we took the family to Italy for the summer and left you with Nona. When we returned, you didn’t recognize us.”
It was starting to make sense; relationships equal pain. If I married Mary-Beth, she could someday leave me. I could be abandoned again. Suddenly, an idea struck me. I won’t leave, I just won’t get married. “I’m not ready,” I told her. “I need more time.”
She spoke calmly. “I love you too much to push you into doing something you can’t do, so I’m going to move out.”
Wait! What kind of game was she playing? I’m her rock. What was she going to do? Find another rock?
I thought about that sign in the therapist’s office: relationships are a choice. It seems like every year there’s a magazine cover story with Jack Nicholson in his shades smoking a cigar, and that grin like he’s got it figured out. He waxes philosophic on women and politics, and I think to myself . . . he’s not married. Why can’t I be like Jack? And then I remember the Cary Grant quote where he said, “I wish I was Cary Grant,” and I wonder if perhaps I’m just chasing after an idea. I shudder. I could chase this idea for the rest of my life.
We set a date for August. I bought a fancy pair of shoes. Bruno Maglis. The same brand OJ wore the night he killed his wife. I had a lift put in, but I was still two inches shorter than my bride. We married in Boston at the Hampshire House, above the Cheers bar. As Mary-Beth walked up the aisle, I tried to take it in. We exchanged vows. We kissed. I barely remember any of it.
She tells me she never doubted for a moment that we would get married. When it comes to love, women are way more optimistic than men. I once read about a guy on death row who regularly received marriage proposals. “He must be really tall,” I thought.
Relationships do equal pain, but so does digging ditches, or giving birth, or writing a novel. Not soul-destroying pain, but the kind that makes you grow. I’d never known what it was like to have someone in my corner. Sometimes I look back and think to myself, I almost didn’t go for it — I almost didn’t have any of this. Mary-Beth is my best friend, my lover, and we are a team. In fact, the other day we replaced a light bulb together. Actually, I couldn’t reach it. Mary-Beth replaced it. I held the ladder.