To slightly paraphrase Andrew Billen on writing about The Time Travellers Wife
some years ago now, it seems to me that too often, heterosexual marriage is a partnership in which only the male is conceded the privilege of absence.
It's taken a long time for me to understand the themes encountered in that book. And like the author, I can see it much more clearly now in the light of several failed relationships. More recently I can see it as a really good explanation of what it is like to be in a relationship with someone who suffering from depression or bi-polar disorder or some other debilitating illness.
"It's hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he's okay. It's hard to be the one who stays."
I knew a couple once, J— and D—. She lived in London and was the head stained glass expert for English Heritage. He, I believe, was from a cadet line of some bit of the Irish ascendancy, renting a pile from the National Trust in Wiltshire. Having turned his back on familial expectations, he became one of the most highly regarded cabinet maker and carpenters in the country. He would ask her to marry him, on average, at least once a year. This went on for years with her coming up to the country at weekends. Her reasons for saying no were that while she loved him, she loved her life and her job. One year, D— asked if he could promise her the status quo, would she yes? She said yes, and they carried on as happily as they had before.
They were a good chunk older then I was at the time (I was 28 when they wed) and I remember being a bit shocked that they might consider being so 'apart' while still being married. But at that time I had yet to experience a relationship where that kind of communication and trust existed. I had however already experienced plenty of the absence that Wife
is an allegory of.
I think I was a little bit in love with D— actually and I remember thinking that I longed to be cherished the way he lavished J— with his quiet adoration. However I have to be fair and remember that J— cared for him demonstrably too. During the short weekends she was with him, he had a ritual of taking her breakfast in bed with the papers and a rose cut from the garden. I would hear the sounds of them talking and laughing down the hall. She would cook huge Sunday lunches and make sure all his grown-up kids were round the table to make a bit of a fuss of their dad (and any waifs and strays like me and my other half at the time). It wasn't perfect of course. But on occasions I think they came close. I think their secret was that they never stopped 'courting'.
I realise now that while they had many times apart, they made every effort to make sure that they were not absent from each other. And that is what I think I was envious of.
I still am.