Midmorning on Friday, July 4, 1997, my then husband, Robert, was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and our den, holding our 19 month old daughter Abbie and screaming at me. “I’m leaving! Do you hear me? I’m out of here! I don’t love you anymore! You make me sick! You’re a fucking cow! How can you expect me to be married to someone who won’t even have sex with me? I’m out of here!”
Abbie was crying and squirming, trying to get away from her dad. Jacob, 3 1/2 years old, was behind me, silent. I was standing in the middle of the den, ice cold down to my bones, a basket of toys in my hands.
“If you’re leaving, go now,” I said. “You can couch surf until you get a place.”
To this day he tells people that I kicked him out of the house.
Amazing how a day and an event that I dreaded for over a year and from which I took nearly two years to recover has become so unimportant in my memory. I almost never think about it anymore, but at the time I was afraid I would drown in the fury of my feelings.
From the vantage point of 13+ years, I can look at that relationship and understand when it really ended for me, the thing that broke us for good and for always.
Which is not quite true; we were young and foolish and had no business getting married, much less having children together. Walking down the aisle on our wedding day, the thought bubbled up, “This is a bad idea. We’re not going to last.” I was already pregnant and figured that calling the wedding off at that moment was not an option, and honestly, I didn’t want to.
Sigh. If I’ve made a more selfish decision in my life than that one, I don’t know what it is.
The illusion of us, of Robert and Adrienne, young couple in love, began to crumble for me on December 30, 1993, when Jacob was 20 days old. We’d been married 7 months.
I was over the moon with joy about my new baby. Motherhood agreed with me, largely because there was never an easier, happier baby than my Jacob. I was tentative and uneasy, a bit overwhelmed, but mostly I was enamored of my beautiful little boy.
Happy as I was, I was also pretty raw emotionally. I didn’t suffer from postpartum depression, but I had a decent case of the baby blues; I was weepy and sensitive, a little bit anxious. I sought frequent reassurance from Robert that he didn’t love the baby more than me. I was happy, but out of balance, a little off my center, disoriented.
On that evening in December, 1993, I got out of the shower to find Robert standing in the bathroom door. He looked shocked.
“Is it your mom?” I asked. Robert’s mom was in Wyoming, dying of cancer.
“No, it was Jackie. Remember I told you about her? My high school girlfriend?”
“Before April, right?” I think I’ve mentioned before that Robert liked the ladies; keeping track of the relationships he had before me (or during one of our many pre-marital break-ups) was not easy.
“Yeah, before April. When we lived in Colorado. She was calling about my son. She was pregnant when my mom moved us to Albuquerque and she had a son. He’s seven.”
I stood there on the bathmat, staring, with the towel pressed against my breasts to staunch their enthusiastic, near-constant dripping of milk. Several minutes passed.
“What’s his name?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” he said, and then he began to cry. I stood a moment longer, my hair dripping cold water down my back, while Robert wept quietly. Eventually, I walked past him into the bedroom so I could get dressed.
How Robert came to have a child whose existence he did not know about for over seven years is long and convoluted. I’m not sure I know the whole truth. I do know, though, that on December 30, 1993, a tiny flame of contempt sparked to life in me. I wasn’t aware of that at the time; after Robert told me about his first child (not my child; not our child), the only emotion of which I was consciously aware was shock. I was angry, too, but I was young and in love, and a brand new mother, too, so I carefully kept that secret from myself.
The most important lesson I learned in the two years after Robert and I divorced (when I was busy dissecting and analyzing every one of our seven years together) was this: contempt is poison in a relationship. As corrosive as sulfuric acid, as poisonous as the venom of a brown recluse, contempt eats a relationship from the inside until it’s hollow.
Of the many mistakes I have made in my relationship with Brian, contempt has not been among them. I remain ever-watchful for feelings of moral or intellectual superiority, for secret angers and judgments.
If I feel rage rise in my throat over things that should be no more than minor irritations (the damp towel in a heap on the bathroom floor; the pizza with the wrong toppings; the car with an empty gas tank), I know I’ve missed my mark.
So I back up and look for the thing, the one that’s chewing on me. I find a way over, around, or through it.
That first marriage wasn’t worth saving. We were blessed with two magnificent children, and for that reason I will never regret our relationship, but we had no business trying to live our lives together.
This marriage, this life I share with Brian, is worth any amount of effort to keep it from rotting away. He’s in this with me. No matter what mistakes we’ve made, how often we’ve hurt each other, we’re partners.
I could survive without him, but I’m immeasurably grateful that I don’t have to.