The Dream of the Perfect Marriage

When you've been down the aisle and really bombed, it's hard to believe you'll ever have a happy marriage. When you've put on the tux, chosen the rings, picked out the invites, the flowers, the music, written the vows, made up the guest list, said, "I do," then wound up in the marital shitter before you've written the thank-you notes--it's hard to imagine a different ending with somebody else in the future.

It was for me. After my rotten divorce, I doubted that I would go through it again. My marriage had been a year-long romance that culminated in an overpriced party masquerading as a viable couple. Friends watched me wed this much younger doctor (who'd appeared in my life at a rebound moment) without telling me the obvious truth--I was making a big mistake. They beamed at the wedding and played their roles, offering their strained blessings, and then they told me in unison they had known that I was marrying a crazy person.

Not that I would have listened. When friends are in love, it's a bad idea to try to save them from themselves, unless they've asked for an honest opinion which I, conspicuously, had not.

Following the breakup, reeling with emotional PTSD, I vowed to stay single for a very long time. Living alone, licking my wounds, casually dating now and then, I began to feel better than I had in years. For the first time, I understood what it meant to be in the "prime" of one's life. This prime is something that has to be earned: through disasters, setbacks, disappointments and building strength in adversity.

As a happy bachelor, I felt more solid and rooted, myself, than I ever had in a relationship. Outside the glare of a lover's attention, I could see who I truly was and that person turned out to be both good and broken. The broken part battled to fix itself with love but failed every time because it was broken. The time had come to survey the leaks, study the cracks and survey the ruins of my needy psyche.

I found a good therapist, filled lots of journals and grieved the death of an ancient dream. I'd been an addict of love at the cost of truth, a serial monogamist pushing the same miserable rock up the same unyielding hill only to be crushed again. The rock was the dream of the perfect marriage. The hill was the pile of unconscious pain.

I acted out this passion play with a series of inappropriate people; the Mentor who wouldn't let me grow up; the Seductress who didn't want to be faithful; the Lover who was really a friend; the Lost Boy who hated me secretly; the Genius who told me that I was a monster; the Yeshiva Boy who became a junkie. Though I genuinely cared for each of these people, it had been a carnival ride through hell. Each love affair was differently doomed, uniquely flawed, and hell came from knowing this in my gut yet staying with them anyway.

Now I was finally happy and free. I prayed to the God I didn't believe in not to meet someone and fall in love. Then, of course, I did. One minute I was blissfully single, the next I was dating a dancer named David and feeling pretty far gone. He was everything I didn't want him to be: funny, available, smart, handsome, solvent, soulful and easy to be with. He was also determined and interested. After the second date, we were inseparable.

My friends begged me to take my time, to play the field, but that was never going to happen. I was in my 50s, I knew who I was, and could see plainly that he was a keeper. When conjugal PTSD kicked in, triggering some psycho reaction or other, David was understanding but not indulgent and left me to clean up my side of the street. When I went too far, one embarrassing night, he warned me, gently but firmly, that until he gave me a reason not to trust him, I had to trust him or this wouldn't work.

This lack of faith was my problem, not his. I knew if I didn't take the leap -- if I ran away in fight or flight -- my life would be the narrower for it. If I ran away from this honest man just because my demons were howling, I'd become a prisoner of my past, skittering away from the shadows. We make this choice, each of us, every day, to step toward the unknown or to turn away, risk or withdraw, surrender or block, say yes or no to the chances we're given. So I took David's warning as a mantra -- you have to trust 'til there's reason not to -- and five years later I've never stopped.

Last week, we were walking through the Boston neighborhood of David's childhood, where his parents spent their 50-year marriage. Out of the blue, he asked me how I felt about getting married. I told him I wasn't interested. David said he felt the same way.

"Maybe a clambake for friends." He looked out at the Charles River. "But don't expect me to feed you cake."

"Maybe next summer."

"Someday," he said.