My husband and I are a scandal, or at least we were, and still are, no doubt, to some. I left my first husband for him, and I couldn’t be happier about it. But there’s more.
I was 17 when I met him, and he was 35. I was a student, and he was the professor interviewing me for a collegiate honors program. When I walked into the interview room, and we started talking, I knew I had never met anyone like him before. In that interview, we talked about God, religion, faith, and doubt, and I was more open with him about what I really thought than I’d been with anyone else in my Church of Christ upbringing to that point. I was admitted to the program but was put in another professor’s seminar. Occasionally he taught both classes, and I’d always write to him to tell him after how much I loved his class. We emailed here and there about a paper, or other classwork, and he would compliment my intellect – something I had never been sure I had. By the time I finally took a whole course from him in my senior year, I was already married to another honors student with plans to follow him to med school. A few months after graduation, I was pregnant.
My husband knew I really liked my professor, and we both joked about my “crush.” I never thought seriously about it because a) I was already married, b) he was my professor, and c) he was 18 years older than me and married, too. After graduation, my professor announced that we were now on a first-name basis, and we wrote to each other maybe once or twice a year. My husband was entirely immersed in medical school, which often left me trying to juggle our 18-month-old daughter while I worked on an M.A. in family and marriage therapy. I gave birth to our second daughter only five weeks before I graduated, and subsequently descended into the horrible darkness of postpartum depression. My marriage was so difficult that year that I threatened to stay put when he got military orders for Virginia.
I didn’t notice it for a long time, but I often wrote to my old professor when things were at their worst. I consulted him when I decided to drop out of the PhD program and pursue the Master’s degree instead. When I struggled with being a stay-at-home mom, I read and reread emails in which he complimented my parenting, my not-currently-used-but-not-dead professional skills, and my intellectual curiosity. In one of the emails I saved for years in a box under my bed, he wrote to me after we had interviewed potential honors students together (I was invited back as an alumna):
“Right now, I think you’re just a professional who’s raising kids. The woman I saw at work in interviews today, even more than in past years, is the one who takes charge (in the best way, out of competence and self-confidence, not arrogance), who is absolutely straight up real, with no BS, and who can’t help being driven by her intellectual curiosity. And by the way, that’s the same woman I interviewed seven years ago, too; you are not rusting.”
When my husband and I moved to Japan, I would have told anyone that I was happily married. I had to be. My own parents had recently divorced, and I would protect my children from that kind of pain. I knew by then that my husband and I were a mismatch in some important ways — he was a 1950s dad well suited to the military, and I was a free-thinking feminist — but I had chosen him, and I had chosen my life. Problems in our marriage were usually my fault anyway, he would tell me — I was too needy, too sensitive, too silly. Besides, I worried deep down that I was not cut out to be a professional, so being a stay-at-home-mom with a good provider was a kind of solution: I made a profession out of motherhood and homeschooling. My husband meanwhile often treated me like a high-maintenance employee. Sometimes, I’d fantasize about getting cancer or some dreaded disease. He would suddenly realize how much I meant to him and want to show it.
One Conversation Changed Everything.
I still cannot explain even to myself how the conversation happened, but two years after moving to Japan, while my husband was at sea, I started chatting with my old professor friend on Facebook. We still call it “the day we turned the corner.” His wife was leaving him, it turned out, and neither of us could tear ourselves from our screens. The “conversation” went on for hours. When my husband Facetimed me later that day, I told him all about it and he laughed once again at my “schoolgirl crush.” But as the days went on and the online conversations kept up, I began to imagine a different life.
A month later, I confessed to my husband that I was having some serious trouble with what I was feeling. He lost it. It was a horrible day for myself and my children that I can’t write about here. But when you realize that you’re contemplating leaving your husband because you cannot stand the thought of life without emails from another man, there’s probably something deeply wrong with your marriage. I knew I wasn’t married to my soul mate, and I knew that I had one. I had met him 12 years earlier, and he just happened to be 18 years older than me.
Naturally, many long-married people advised me: “Marriage is hard, stick with it. Think about what you’re doing to your children.” But that was just it. I didn’t want my daughters to have my marriage as their model. The decisive question for me was, “If I wouldn’t accept it for my daughters, why is it acceptable for me?” So, not knowing how it would all turn out, but also somehow feeling that it would, I asked for a divorce. I moved with my daughters to Chattanooga in the fall of 2014 to begin a new life in a city I’d always loved, with a man who I never dreamed could love me back. We bought a house together in the spring of 2015, and got married in Vermont, surrounded by both our families, later that summer.
We’ve had our share of challenges as a blended family, but I love his daughters, and he loves mine. I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I have in my entire life. We have disagreements, but never the fights that marked my first marriage. He’s in love with me, and he shows it. I feel beautiful, valued, supported, and more content with my life than I thought would be possible. It’s the marriage I dreamed of as a little girl.