GOOD, BAD, AND UGLY – Marilyn Armstrong

There are a lot of marriages that stay together and I have no idea why. It’s obvious that the two people don’t love one another. Sometimes, they appear to actually hate each other.

If you get one of them alone, they will give you the usual reason why they are staying together:

      • Children
      • We can’t afford to get a divorce (too poor or too rich)
      • He/she is wacko (and sometimes, he/she really is)
      • We run a business together
      • Religion
      • Drug abuse, gambling, alcoholism or any addiction
      • Fear by one party of the other; abuse is a lot more common than most people realize.

No matter how many ways you point out that there are solutions, they aren’t listening. Sometimes, something happens and one day, the relationship snaps.

The kids grow up. They decide money is less important than they thought and they can run the business, even unmarried. They do some minor religious switching and suddenly divorce is fine.

I always worry most about abused spouses because sometimes, when they snap, a partner dies. They may deserve it, but the killer doesn’t deserve what’s in store for him or her.

It’s not an easy choice, especially when there’s a good chance that if they try to leave, someone else is going to die — the kids or a wife, husband or any combination of the above.

Despite feeling strongly that people living in really bad marriages should do something about it, I grew up as a child in such a marriage. I understand.

I know how ugly the outcome of these divorces can be, especially for children. No how bad your parents are, the alternative can be worse. With all of the studies and statistics on how dreadful foster care is, we have yet to come up with a better solution. When you are a kid, you often feel you have a choice: live with the devil you know or get thrown into life with devils you don’t know who could be worse.

What baffles me more are people who basically have good marriages, but the first time something goes wrong, they are filing papers. I agree, for example, sex outside (monogamous) marriage is uncool.  I’ve heard conversations where everyone agrees that if such a terrible thing should happen in their relationship, all bets are off. It’s the divorce court. No conversation, no forgiveness, no discussion.

Why not?

Given the looseness of pre-marital relationships in this century, is there some reason to assume that this is going to entirely change because you stood up in a church or a registry office and vowed: “Till death do you part”?

Marriage isn’t a vow. It’s a process. It’s not dating. You don’t just hook-up until it stops being fun, then go to your next hook-up.  It’s when things get a little rough that the real marriage begins.

Half the time, the partner would never even know anything happened if the spouse didn’t have some sort of bizarre need to “confess.” I’ve always wondered what the point of that confession is supposed to be. Is it going to improve the marriage? Of course not. I’m sure it’s intended to do exactly what it does: break the relationship up.

You need to be honest? If you needed to be that honest, why did you do it in the first place? Since you’ve already strayed, live with it. Find a priest and confess. Find a shrink and confess. Find a complete stranger on a bus and confess. But leave your mate out of it and move on.

Also, a genuinely committed couple who have built a life should be able to cope with reality and maybe with a degree of dishonesty, too. Life in the real world is not life on television or Hollywood.

I’ve seen couples divorce because one of them was sure he/she could do better. A few do. Most don’t.

It’s not about the wedding or even the honeymoon. It’s working through issues, changing your behavior. Helping your partner change his behavior. It’s helping a partner get sober or quit gambling. It’s sticking with them if they fail. And them sticking with you when life isn’t going well.

Loving them when their hair falls out and they aren’t nearly as cool and dashing as they were 30 years ago … but you still think they are.

You don’t know what kind of relationship you have without the lumps, bumps, twisted ankles, and heart attacks. Without consoling them for lost jobs, broken backs, and twisted feet.

That’s when you know you have something that means more than pretty cakes and chapel bells.

NOT QUITE THIRTY – Marilyn Armstrong

We are about to celebrate our 29th  wedding anniversary. As I ponder the upcoming 29th — a year short of the big 3-0 — I hear distant bells.

I remember the wedding. The thrill of ultimate victory, the agony of getting there. How, by the time I got to the altar, I was a nervous wreck, but Garry was cool as the proverbial cucumber and looked dashing in his tuxedo.

After it was clearly established that we were definitely, unquestionably, without any doubt, getting married, it came down to details. Dates. Rings. Caterers. Bakers. Flowers. Music. Photography. Videography. And (trumpets) a ceremony.

I had been married twice before — okay, three times because I’d been married in a registry office in London, then the whole Jewish medieval ceremony in Jerusalem. Having been there and done that. I wanted to elope or maximum, go to city hall, have the mayor marry us. He would have. We knew the guy and still do.

We could have been married at City Hall, I’d toss a bouquet, someone would throw some confetti, and voilà. Married. After that, we and our actual friends could all go out for Chinese.

Garry wanted a Real Wedding.

He was 48 years old. Never married. This would be his one and only wedding and by golly, he was going to Do It Right.

“I want a real wedding. In the church in which I grew up. In New York,” says Garry. “And I want my old pastor to officiate.”

“Pastor G. is retired … like fifteen years ago.”

“I’m sure we can work it out.” When he said we, I thought he meant he and I would do this thing together. Because where I come from, that’s what “we” means. I was delusional.

“Why can’t we just do something in Boston? New York is 250 miles away. You haven’t lived there in 30 years. Everyone you know except your parents live in Boston or some other part of the country.”

Garry’s face was set and stony. He wanted a hometown wedding in the church he attended as a child. With the Pastor who ran the church when he was a kid. Who was very retired.

Did I mention my husband is stubborn? He is very stubborn.

“This is going to be a lot of work. It’s hard to plan a wedding long distance,” I point out. “And I have a full-time job. in case you’ve forgotten.” Garry is unfazed.

“We can,” he repeats, “Work it out.” There was that we again.

“Fine,” I eventually agree. “We’ll have a wedding. In New York. At your church.”

There were caterers to hire. Music to be arranged. A bagpiper (don’t ask). Battles over the guest list. A cake to be designed. The cake was my favorite part. It went like this. Having settled on a vanilla cake with lemon filling, we needed to decide on decorations.

“Do you want the bride and groom in white or black?”

“Can we have one of each?” No, we could not. In 1990, they do not have a mixed couple cake topper. I offered to take a marker and paint the groom black, but inexplicably, Garry found this objectionable. I suggested they take two sets and cut them in half, but it was deemed too complicated. In the end, I opted for wedding bells, the DMZ of wedding cake toppers.

So, Garry got his wedding. It was (for him) as simple as simple could be. Marilyn arranged the wedding. Garry showed up in a tux.

You see? We worked it out.

P.S. I eventually learned that “we’ll work it out” always meant “you’ll take care of it for me.” That included moving, packing, unpacking, cooking, arranging vacations, airline tickets, mortgages, and car loans. For Garry, it meant “show up nicely dressed and smile.”

SOME THINGS SHOULD GET EASIER WITH AGE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I believe that one of the benefits of age and experience is that romantic relationships should be easier than when we were young.

When I was young and married for the first time, I was insecure and didn’t know how to stand up for myself. But I was way too rigid and sure of my opinions and views and way too intolerant of people with other perspectives. I was hypersensitive to any slights or criticisms yet unsure how to express those feelings constructively. Looking back I realize how difficult I was, in many ways.

When I met Tom, my second husband, at age 49, after 25 years of marriage and two kids, I was a different person. More confident and not willing to put up with shit from people, yet easy-going and accepting of differences. Tom and I bonded instantly over the similarities between both of our mentally ill exes.

We got along seamlessly and talked until 3 AM on our first date. We spent the next weekend together and from that point on, we were a couple. That was 20 years ago. We didn’t marry for three and a half years, mainly because my kids were still living at home. But we knew we were till death do us part from the very beginning.

Tom and I on our first trip together early in our relationship

Our relationship has been as easy and positive as our prior marriages were difficult and negative. We understood what was important in a relationship – two ‘normal’ people who respect and accept each other as we are; who enjoy and appreciate each other without reservation, and who support each other 100% no matter what. All the rest is window dressing (except making each other laugh and the passion part, which goes without saying). Maybe we should have known all this in our twenties, but we obviously didn’t. We thought we could ‘help’ or ‘change’ our spouses. That rarely works.

My relationship with Tom has been smooth since day one because when there’s an issue, we talk about it and it’s over. We don’t hold grudges or bring up past issues. We deal with the issue at hand and never attack the other person. Then we immediately go back to friendly behavior with no anger residue. All of this is basic ‘Relationship 101’ advice. But I think time and experience helped us understand the importance of these maxims.

Another trip before we got married

I have two friends, one in her mid-fifties and the other in her late sixties, who have been dating online. Each had a recent nine-month to one-year relationship that ended a few months ago. Both of these relationships were difficult and up and down with lots of negative mixed in with the positive.

I felt that these men were wrong for my friends because they weren’t a good fit. It wasn’t ‘easy’ for them to be together. These women saw the negatives but didn’t want to give up on the positives. One woman kept questioning if she should break up with this guy and the other actually did break up, at least two or three times. I just don’t believe that if a person is right for you, things should be that full of angst at our ages. No roller coasters for the fifty and over crowd if you’ve found ‘the one’.

Luckily both women have met new guys with whom things are going smoothly and quickly. One had a first date on a Saturday night that lasted till Tuesday! Way to go! The other said she felt so comfortable with this new guy after just a few dates that it felt like they’d been together for a long time. That’s what I’m talking about! Both women have slipped easily into relationships with major positives and no major negatives. No obvious ‘red flags’. They both feel as if this is too good to be true but they’re going with the flow and enjoying every minute.

This is the first time with these friends that I feel they’ve found the right guy for them. At this stage of life, it should come relatively easy if it’s right! I wished for them what I had with Tom from day one and I think my wish for them has come true.

RETURNING WEDGEWOOD – Marilyn Armstrong

It must be something about me. Dishes come back. First, there was the Spode’s Tower, which was passed around the family for 25 years until one day, it came home. Again.

Spode Tower Pink
Spode Tower Pink

This time, it’s the Wedgewood.

This morning, a large heavy carton arrived via UPS. It was from my sister-in-law who lives in northern Maine. I haven’t seen her for a long time, though we’ve emailed back and forth occasionally and exchanged Christmas presents and cards.

There was a card taped to the box which said: “OPEN ME FIRST.”

96-Card-Wedgewood_04

Translated into years and a timeline, Garry — the man to whom I have been married for almost 29 years — was my first husband’s (now deceased) best friend and my son’s godfather. He had just come back from vacationing in Ireland when Jeff and I were married. It was August 1965 and he gave us the Wedgewood as a gift. That was merely 55 years ago.

Jeff and I separated in 1978. My son and I went to live in Israel at the end of that year and didn’t come back until 1987.

I didn’t take the Wedgewood to Israel, so Jeff gave it to his mother. She loved it and had room to display it.

72-Wedgewood_10

Grandma Kraus died last year at 103. This morning, the Wedgewood came home. It is — for now — on the coffee table in the living room. I’m not sure what to do with it. I guess it can live on the coffee table, at least until Garry does laundry and needs to sort it, something he does on the big glass coffee table. Which is useless for any other purpose, unless you count barking your shins as useful.

72-Wedgewood-OIL_09

And so, another set of dishes has come home. I don’t know or can’t remember if any other china, porcelain, or pottery is lurking in my past. For all I know, it’s in the mail, winging its way back.

Life is circular. Stuff comes back.

Especially dishes.

A BIPOLAR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first husband, Larry, was bipolar, but he wasn’t diagnosed until thirteen years into our 25-year marriage. However, the ups and downs were a part of my life from the beginning. Larry could be fun, smart and affectionate. He had a wicked sense of humor (including clever puns), tremendous energy (sometimes too much, manic energy), a great “joie” and endless enthusiasm.

Larry in a jocular mood

He loved to read and was interested in a wide variety of subjects, ranging from physics and biology to history and sociology, to law and mysteries. He also loved the arts, particularly the theater and at one point we had five theater subscriptions at the same time. In addition, we also went to Broadway shows quite often, which kept us very busy and very up to date on the theater scene of the day.

One of Larry’s passions was shopping and when manic, he was a true shopaholic. He couldn’t resist buying anything that tickled his fancy, which was a lot of stuff. On the other hand, I loved it when Larry would shop with me in my favorite stores; craft shops, art galleries and jewelry and clothes stores. He would even come into the dressing room with me and help me pick out what clothes to buy. He had wonderful and sophisticated taste, though his taste was often a lot bolder and flashier than mine.

I really shouldn’t complain, because Larry loved to buy things for me. However, when he was manic, he would overspend and buy everything in sight. I was in charge of the budget and it was frustrating to see all my budgeting and saving go out the window with Larry’s shopping sprees. It got to the point that I would pretend that I didn’t like things we looked at because if I said I liked it, it would be mine in no time flat!

Two pendants with matching earrings Larry bought for me on trips out West

Once my son, David, then around twelve, went to an electronics store with Larry. Before they left, I pulled David aside and instructed him to try to keep his father’s purchases down. They returned with not one, but two VCR’s and I asked David why he had failed to rein in his dad. “Hey!” he said. “I talked him down from three, so don’t complain!”

Another positive side to Larry’s love of shopping was that he was always an active partner with me in decorating our homes, helping me choose everything from wallpapers and fabrics, to furniture and window treatments to bathroom fixtures and door knobs. We also designed our house in Easton, Connecticut together with the help of an architect. It was a wonderful, shared experience and the house meant so much more to both of us for the experience we had in creating every nook and cranny and picking every design element. I remember jumping out of bed late one night to draw out a new plan I had just thought of for the kitchen/breakfast room area. It was a wild idea and it was the design we eventually used in the house. I still love it 30 years later!

The kitchen design – with rounded eating area and round sunroom off of kitchen island area

Larry exhibited his sense of humor and fun one Christmas when he and David, like many other Jews, went to the movies on Christmas day. Before the show started, as a joke, Larry stood up and started singing the Jewish classic “Havanegela”. To his delight, the rest of the audience joined in and Larry acted as conductor for the group sing-along!

Larry didn’t sleep much and was always on the go. I needed a lot of sleep and ample amounts of downtime, which created much conflict between us. On weekends, he would get up early and want to go out and do something, get something to eat or just window shop. David was also not a morning person so we would take turns appeasing a very persistent, and often annoying and inconsiderate Larry.

Larry playing with David, 6 and Sarah, 1

One day, when Sarah was about eighteen months old and couldn’t talk yet, Larry got up and started pestering David, who was six and a half, and me to go out with him. Suddenly, our toddler ran into her bedroom, grabbed her coat and then ran to the front door. It was her way of saying “Take me, Daddy! I want to play with you!” Now Larry had a new playmate for his early weekend excursions and David and I were thrilled! When Sarah could talk, she’d say to Larry, “Let’s go sopping!”

Larry and Sarah continued their ‘sopping’ trips for the rest of Larry’s life (he died shortly before Sarah’s 21st birthday). He and Sarah also traveled and went to lots of shows and movies together from early in Sarah’s life and it was something wonderful she shared with her dad. Those memories are important and comforting to her now.

But there was a dark side to Larry’s bipolar disorder. When he cycled manic, as he did every year or so, he became volatile, paranoid, angry and agitated. He would fly into rages about the slightest thing, real or imagined and he would become verbally abusive. To our frustration, he would often ‘forget’ these episodes as soon as he calmed down. He was what is called a “rapid cycler.”

A classic example of that syndrome happened one Thanksgiving when we were supposed to drive from New York to Larry’s sister in New Jersey. In the morning, Larry was curled up in a ball on the bed, refusing to even get up. I eventually got him up and we started to drive to New Jersey when he suddenly went berserk over something.

I don’t remember what it was on that occasion, but once the kids were making too much noise in the back seat of the car and once I left the dirty dishes in the sink. To Larry, that proved that I didn’t care about him, that he didn’t matter, that he wasn’t important to me and that I was a bitch.

The four of us when David was 13 and Sarah was 8

On this Thanksgiving drive, Larry pulled the car over to the side of the street and stormed off, refusing to come back to the car. David finally talked him down and got him back into the car, because, as usual, Larry refused to even talk to me. We eventually made it to New Jersey, but Larry had gone from paralyzing depression to raging mania in the course of one day.

Another holiday in New Jersey ended badly because of Larry’s manic overreactions. He stormed out of a lot of rooms, houses and cars over the years, often on major holidays with family. But this one was special, even for Larry.

We were playing a game with Larry’s sister, Robin and her family, my kids and Larry. Larry was being hyper-competitive and was trash talking everyone constantly, which I think he thought was funny. After asking him to stop several times, Robin finally got exasperated and told him to shut up and Larry snapped.

The four of us when David was 16 and Sarah was 11

He stormed out of the house, but this time he took our car and disappeared. We eventually got a call saying he was at the train station and was taking a train back to New York, even though he was supposed to be going back to Connecticut with me and the kids for the long holiday weekend. Robin had to drive David to the train station so he could drive our car back to Robin’s so I could drive back to Connecticut with the kids. Robin talked to Larry at the station and they patched things up, but Larry still insisted on taking the train to New York, disrupting and appalling everyone. I was mortified and everyone else was shaken and upset. This was not an uncommon situation for me, but each time it happened, it was like a punch to the gut.

In some ways, it would have been easier for me if Larry had always been abusive and impossible to live with, but he wasn’t. He was eventually put on Lithium, which worked well and contained his mania, but he kept going off the meds.

I loved the non-manic Larry, so the hope that Larry would get help, and then that he would stay on his meds, kept me with him for 25 years.

KEEP IT SMALL, KEEP IT SIMPLE. BETTER YET, ELOPE – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Abstain from Ceremonies

If you survive the wedding, marriage is a piece of cake.

When Garry proposed, I was shaken. He was 48 and I was 43. I’d been married twice and my first husband (still alive) was Garry’s best friend. Don’t ask for details. As they say in modern RomComs, “It’s complicated.”

I had finally managed to get unmarried to number two which was complicated by requiring a board of Rabbis in Jerusalem to agree and you’d be surprised how complicated that can become. They are not modern guys.

Photo: Debbie Stone

Garry proposed. Once I got over the shock, I realized there would be a wedding, about which I wasn’t enthusiastic. I’d never been enthusiastic about weddings.

But Garry wanted the whole thing with flowers,  music, and his pastor from childhood (retired, but drug out of retirement for the occasion) … and of course, me. It had to be in New York, not Boston.

Having told me what he wanted for a wedding, Garry retired from the fray and let me get on with it. At some point, he figured out I would do everything and he could show up in a tuxedo. Voila! Done and done.

Somewhere in Ireland

It’s a blur. I don’t remember the details though I have it on a CD and that helps. When you are a bride, you get moved around, told where to stand. You wear shoes so painful you need the jaws of life to remove your feet. Also, the gown had no shoulders, so I had to wear some kind of corset thing. It was a warm September and beneath the corset, it was sweaty. Then there were stockings and a veil, flowers, hair, and makeup. Sheesh.

As for the date, it was simple. It would be when Garry’s baby brother, the honorable Dr. Anton Armstrong, conductor of the St. Olaf’s Choir wasn’t going to be on the road with the choir. We wanted him to sing — and HE wanted to sing — but he’s a busy guy. Then there was a bagpiper (my former first husband insisted). My Maid of Honor wanted to sing (lovely voice) … and another friend was going to sing too. NO way we were getting away with simple music and anyway, Garry has a streak of Hollywood director in his soul, so we made almost no plans for the party, but staged a big show as the ceremony.

On September 15th. Today. In 1990.

When people asked if they could bring their kids, we said NO and they brought them anyway. Garry’s mother invited all her best friends because she was Garry’s Mom.

Happy anniversary!

I wanted to go to city hall and have the Mayor marry us. He was a pretty good friend then — still IS a friend, though he’s long out of office. We could have had a nice little ceremony on the steps of city hall, grabbed a plane at Logan and headed for Ireland. But we had to have this wedding. I think we were the ONLY people to invite 86 people and end up with 110 people. No one refused.

Everyone came.

“You mean — GARRY is getting MARRIED? I’ve gotta BE there!” He was Boston’s longest known bachelor, so this was an occasion for all and sundry.

It was a great wedding which I know because we had it taped. A couple of years ago, we transferred to DVD. It turned out mylar tape corrodes over time. Who knew?

With a few exceptions (mostly due to death), we know all the same people today we knew then. Funny how that works.

Photo: Debbie Stone

I suppose we stayed married because we were determined to make it work. We really cared about each other. Love is important in a marriage, but I have to say it is the friendship that keeps it going. When the flush of romance has been crushed under the pressure of two full-time jobs and Mr. Romance just wants to sit around the apartment watching baseball, being good friends matters.

Ireland

Love is a grand thing, but a deep and abiding friendship is forever.

Personally? Call an abstention on the wedding and spend the money on a fabulous honeymoon.

LOVE AND LOSS – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Love

Before I left for Israel at the end of 1978, my best friend for a long time was gay. It started out casually and eventually got to be an intense friendship. He’d never had a straight female friend and I’d never gotten close to a gay man. We both learned a lot about each others’ worlds … and eventually, each other.

He would call me every night. He could tell by the sound of my voice if I needed company or felt bad about something. Even when if I said everything was fine, he knew. We were best friends and spent pretty much all our spare time together.

When I finally decided I needed a divorce, R. asked me to marry him. It took me a while to realize he wasn’t kidding. Married?

I told him I didn’t think it could work. Not only was he gay — and had always been gay — but he was a serious Roman Catholic who wanted to be a priest. If we could leap the sex hurdle (highly unlikely), I was pretty sure we’d never get past religion.

He said he could change.

We can all change … but how much? I asked him if he’d ever had sex with a woman. He admitted he hadn’t. I asked him if he had ever wanted to have sex with a woman and he said “no,” although he thought I might change that.

Then there was his fascination with Catholicism versus my skeptical Jewishness. It wasn’t only that he was “born a Catholic.” He went to Mass several times a week. He was serious about it. Religious differences between friends is not an issue, but between a married couple?

I said I didn’t think he could change that much. I didn’t think anyone could. Religion isn’t like that … and sex isn’t a choice. We are what we are; we need what we need. Despite what some misguided people believe, you don’t get to “pick” the sex you prefer.

He said we could do our own “things” and we’d still live a fantastic life. That was true, but it was not what I wanted from marriage. I wanted a marriage that could be the center of my life and I wanted it to include physical closeness.

I thought about it long and hard for several weeks. I tried to figure out how it could work. Was I ready for a marriage that was, in fact, a close friendship with vows?

For him to ask me to marry him was a giant leap. I was touched, flattered, and a bit haunted by it. It was not a casual suggestion.

In the end, no matter how many ways I looked at it, I was sure it would not be successful. For either of us. It wouldn’t matter how hard we tried. It would not work. So, I said no.

That he had asked had already changed our relationship.

He seemed to take rejection well, but he was hurt and angry. I don’t know if he was angrier with himself for asking or at me for saying no. Probably both. For him to ask me to marry him was remarkable, generous,  and heartfelt. To be refused was more than he could handle.

It’s not like the rest of my life was going to be perfect. I did a lot of things wrong before I finally got it right.

The problem was simpler for me. Everything I understood about gay men told me being gay was not a choice. Not optional. There was no way he could decide to not be gay. Moreover, there was only so much Catholicism I could stomach.

I was already in a failing marriage.  I didn’t know I had another one waiting in the wings, too. Even if I’d known what was awaiting me, I could not see the point of starting another impossible relationship. I’m convinced I was right, but he was the closest friend I ever had. I have missed him for all of these years. We loved being together and no one ever took his place.

Sex and religion can really get in the way of life, you know?