I never thought that I’d be like trying to approximate these feelings again for a podcast. Anyway, so OK —
Mmm. Thank you for that. No, in some ways, it was like this false missile alert was like a stress test on your relationship.
So it was a false alarm for the missile. But it was real for my marriage, yeah.
Well, thank you so much for sharing this and for reading it so beautifully.
Today’s essay is “No Sound, No Fury, No Marriage.” It was published in 2016. It was written by Laura Pritchett and is read by January LaVoy.
Three years ago, my husband and I broke up after two decades of marriage. Our path since has been so gentle. But we have been the cause of confusion and gossip in our little Colorado mountain town. Both of our cars are often in the driveway. Meals are frequently eaten together, and logistics make it easier for us adults to switch houses rather than our children doing so. Neighbors sometimes can’t tell the difference from before the split and after and need to be assured when they run into me at the post office: Yes, a breakup has indeed occurred. By now my response has become a well rehearsed murmur. We like each other and always have. We are conflict averse quiet people. No one was at fault. The relationship, in my opinion at least, had just run its natural course. I remind them that break have a new paradigm. They don’t have to be hostile and hate filled. They can be mindful, respectful. Humanity has evolved. Also, I tell them we’re thinking about our children, not only for the usual reasons of keeping them foremost in our minds during difficult times. But because in recent years, they have already been traumatized by things beyond their control — evacuated for wildfires, cut off by historic flooding, and exposed to loss and devastation.
The neighbors nod, knowing all too well the various natural disasters our area has endured. Those sirens and helicopters and newscasts still seem to blare loudly in our ears, another reason for us to go quietly about the dissolution of our marriage. I smile at these neighbors and wave as they get into their cars. I do not speak about the sting of all this. I don’t tell them how I recently sank to my knees laughed in half sorrow, half relief, only because of this. My marriage had long ago turned into the cliche of roomateness, and that it could suffer such a change without any emotional upheaval was revealing. In fact, the silence set it all. The words I don’t say to my neighbors, the words that get held on my tongue are: I wish you had heard a fight. I wish our voices had been loud enough to carry across the valley. He and I may have free speech, but we’re not so good at frank speech. Shakespeare had it right. My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break. I never spoke of the anger in my heart, the mounting resentments and hurts, and neither did he. I never demanded attention or care, and neither did he. And that’s why we broke. What hurts most is not the loss of the marriage. What hurts most is that our relationship had never, evidently, been the kind worth raising one’s voice about. But I’m getting louder. Now I watch couples all the time in movies, in novels, and in real life paying attention to the way they have conflict. I lean over in restaurants. I sit on a bench near the river where two people are talking. My favorite overheard conversations include lines like “Really? That’s all you’re going to say?” Or, “That’s not enough for me.” Or, “That’s just not so, honey.”
Dialogue basically that pushes. I want to hug such couples, tell them to keep it up. The last time I tried to do that conversational push with my husband, I failed. And thus, it was also the moment I decided to leave him.
It was an ordinary day. The house was quiet. And I was reading on the couch. He was reading a magazine while standing in the kitchen. He always did that, happy to stand after a long day of sitting in meetings. And I suddenly realized it had been a decade since he and I had sat on the same couch at the same time. Perhaps we had sat together for a moment while one of us tied shoes or to discuss a calendar. But to actually watch a movie, talk, have sex, fight, raise our voices? A roaring anger flew into my body. And I wanted to push him with words. Why hadn’t he ever learned to sit on the couch with me? Why hadn’t I ever asked him to? But most important, why hadn’t we had a big damn fight about it?
After therapy, we had made no progress in solving our differences in how we experienced or received love. We had identified them, or at least I had. He disliked touching or snuggling. I did not. He wanted to stay at home on evenings and weekends. I wanted to go out. He disliked the sensation of two bodies being in proximity. I did not.
All these differences expanded over the years as we became our truer selves. Quietly. Sometimes I would open my mouth to say something about our growing distance. Probably he did, too. But no, my mind would run through the list of reasons to keep quiet. I would come across as unreasonable, nagging or needy. He was tired. The children were in the house. They should not hear us fighting.
On the couch that day I watched him flip through the pages of his magazine. He glanced up, met my eyes and went back to reading. I let out a quiet sigh.
I watched my breath expel the anger from my body, let any fight I had left in me dissipate. I could nearly see my exhaled stew of emotions. It looked like glitter floating around, drifting to the floor. I wasn’t high, but I felt like it. The patterns in the sunlight suddenly struck me as the most painfully beautiful things I had ever seen. Silent sparkles swirling around, making a decision.
A few days later, I got the words out. I was leaving. While our friendship had sustained us for 20 years, and we were both the better for it, I wanted more. I was sure we could manage the coming split with respect and dignity. I was sure we could guide our children through it with love and devotion. He sat on the couch with me as I told him. My voice shook with the words I was trying to say. Speaking my mind felt awkward and new. But I got them out. I looked at him and awaited a response. “Are you sure,” he said? I nodded. I waited. I was not sure. I was waiting for his big reaction or mine. I was waiting to see how this discussion would go. It went as always: quietly, reasonably, without obvious anger or raised voices.
It has been quiet ever since. We are simply not capable of sound and fury, I’ve decided. I sometimes wonder if our inability to strike out is heartbreakingly rooted in our love for one another, because we did and do love each other. And we both had been so injured by our violent and loud childhoods that we found refuge and joy in the quiet. But that kind of love often doesn’t survive life. And in the end, our silence was less about respect or affection or love than it was about cowardice. He and I were equal partners in that, turning inward instead of speaking out. So we have gently floated on. The children stay put in the same house. And he and I amicably rotate back and forth. The mountains have greened up again. There hasn’t been a major fire in years.
My current boyfriend loves banter. He chats all the time about ideas, movies, songs, his day, bad drivers and the fact that he loves the look of horses standing in a field. He grows annoyed when I don’t push him back with words or ideas. That’s what conversation is for, he argues. I laugh and engage. We also have big complicated disagreements. I am no longer interested in silence.
I sometimes laugh to myself when I hear someone say, “I’m a drama free gal.” I know what she means. And I appreciate peaceable ways. But something about that phrase also breaks my heart. My ex and I still take walks to catch up on things, to discuss logistical or parental matters. On these walks, I sometimes start a conversation of substance just to see if we can do it better. We can’t. We retreat swiftly to talk of holidays and events and plans, Thanksgiving, our daughter’s violin concert, the meeting at the town hall. On these walks, the neighbors will sometimes stop us to ask cautious questions. Our demeanor is so calm and quiet. They must feel a need to have us once again confirm our split. They will congratulate us on a separation so well done. And I will nod in silence.
It was my pleasure. It’s still a piece that fascinates me, honestly. So how many years has it been since you divorced?
I imagine this was such a tumultuous time when you first made the decision to leave your marriage. Can you take us through that period of how you went about dating? Can you just describe that time in your life?
Well, right after the divorce, I was not looking to get into a long-term relationship. But when I was ready to start dating, I put those feelers out there, put the word out there. And, you know, I’ve been on the one-and-done dating thing, which I have to say were good for me because I got married when I was 22. And I didn’t date much in those years. And I think you learn something by dating. You learn what’s important and what’s not, and different styles of living and communicating. It was fun. But none of it was meant to be long term.
I had a play that was produced in Fort Collins, Colorado. So our very first date was him coming to see my play. He was just so delighted to be there and so happy and a little bit shy, as was I. And we talked in the parking lot for a long time until we got so cold that we eventually had to part ways. But the next day we went on a hike when he leaned over to kiss me.
When was the first moment when there was a fight or a sense of like, oh, what have I gotten myself into? Did that happen? Was that that moment?
I just remember getting upset at something he would say and just wanting to turn around and walk out of the room, and then having him touch my shoulder or catching myself and saying “No, turn back around.” And heart racing, throat closing, flushing, feeling my face really hot. That’s a hard thing to sit with. I’m not good at that.
And when did you feel like you had really achieved a new level of accomplishment in a relationship that had give and take and combativeness, and that didn’t spell the end of the relationship, it was just part of the relationship?
My guess is that will be an ongoing realization bit by bit in little moments throughout. But I certainly feel that now. We spend a lot more time together. We sit on that couch. I think in my piece I mentioned this couch. But my ex and I had literally never sat on together. But we sit on this new couch every day together and snuggle and talk and read and joke. That’s what relationship is.
Do you feel your role in that ever falling back into habits of the past and not speaking up about needs and that sort of thing?
Well, I think I’m still aware of my need to communicate that. I can’t imagine lapsing into a dullness. I do sometimes fear what I think is true about many relationships, which is that they were not intended to last forever. They just weren’t. And I have to say, I see a lot of people who are married for a very long time. And you feel obligated to congratulate them on their 35th anniversary or something. But they don’t seem that happy to me. Or they don’t report that they’re happy to me. And so I do really question this institution of marriage, and our cultural impulse to really celebrate longevity instead of intensity or joy. That’s something that will always be on my mind.
So thank you, Laura. It’s really good to talk to you.
Modern Love is produced by Hans Buetow and Kelly Prime and edited by Sarah Sarasohn and Windy Dorr. Music by Dan Powell.
This week’s Tiny Love Story was written and read by Jennifer Byrne. Our essay was written by Laura Pritchett and read by January LaVoy.
Special Thanks to Julia Simon, Nora Keller, Mahima Chablani, Laura Kim, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick and Choire Sicha. And also to Ryan Wegner and Kelly Rogers at Audm.