At a family event just before Madagascar Man went back to Madagascar for his longest stint yet of almost six months, one of my relatives came up to him. "You can't go. It will destroy your marriage," the relative told him flat out. In front of our daughter.
Madagascar Man reassured her that our marriage would survive. But when he told me about their exchange, I sputtered. I wanted to go up to my relative and spout off: "How dare you? You don't know our marriage. Don't project your marriage's issues onto mine."
Madagascar Man -- Bill -- and I have a solid relationship, forged by many years of happiness and, like all real marriages, a number of years of struggle. We parent (I must brag) rather brilliantly together. We share most values. We respect each other personally and professionally. He is a fabulous cook, funnier than hell, charismatic, a skilled communicator, a loving husband, a whiz at backgammon, and a passionate man. We love and have a deep commitment to each other, and this commitment means we can stretch ourselves and the relationship, even by spending many months apart.
Our marriage currently comes under the terminology of a Long Distance Relationship, eased and abetted with email and Skype. While our daughter and I will visit for two weeks this December, he won't be back at home until April. And then, only for a month.
Recently, I went to a party. The hostess's mother, visiting from back east, asked me "Where's your husband?" I explained that he currently lived and worked in Madagascar, and I saw her face tighten. I saw her judgment. "Why aren't you there with him?" she asked me. But she didn't really listen when I explained about having my life here, my job here, my community here. A wife goes with her husband, I could hear her thinking. Or a husband stays with his wife.
"Not always," I wanted to tell her. In a long lifetime together, sometimes you need to do things alone. Right now, Bill belongs in Madagascar. Right now, I belong here, at home.
We all know people who stay together from fear -- fear of loneliness, fear of poverty. We know people who stay together for the children. We know people who stay together because they've merged into one person, unable to stand on their own. It would have been easy to say "no" to Madagascar, to feel too frightened of what would happen to us in a Long Distance Relationship, to listen to the sentiments of my relative, of my hostess's mother.
But I'm not frightened. After all, I have a model for this. Today is my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. My mother likes to travel and study dance abroad. My father hasn't had a passport since the 1950s. I've seen my mother study dance in Spain for six months alone; I've seen her hike the Swiss Alps without him. I've seen my dad, immersed in his life, missing her but still complete in himself. I've seen them reunited, sitting next to each other at the dinner table and squeezing each others' knees under the table, still committed. Happy to see each other. Growing alone, and then reuniting to share that growth. It sounds hokey, but I've seen it work.