I grew up hiding in the hall when my dad would sneak home late at night. I lay in bed and heard my parents argue. I caught my mom crying in the bathroom, at the stove and whenever she thought we weren’t looking. And there were a few weeks, when I was eight, when my dad left on a “really long trip” as my mom called it. Years later, my dad again left. But this time it wasn’t under the guise of work. We were grown, so this time he used the word “divorce.”
After a tumultuous summer, my parents got back together. Sometimes, I feel like I’m holding my breath, waiting for the cycle to happen again. Because their marriage has been like this for over 30 years—a back and forth dance of happiness and heartbreak, adultery and absolution. “Break up or shut up,” I once yelled at my father when he told me he wanted to leave my mother, again.
As I grew older, I scoffed at my mother’s decision to keep her marriage intact. In college, newly enraged with my newfound feminism, I confronted my mother about her relationship. “You should leave him,” I said.
She responded: “You love your father too much for me to do that.”
“Well,” I snapped, “that hasn’t stopped him.” My mother walked away.
A year later, when my husband and I got engaged, I immediately approached him with my demands. I was the daughter of a lawyer after all. I knew how to drive a deal. One evening, before we sat down to plan our wedding, I laid out the terms of our marriage contract: House work would be 50/50, he had to be fine with no more than one kid, and adultery and abuse were automatic dealbreakers. Jail would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Dave laughed at the earnestness of my demands, but he agreed. The negotiations were simple. Adultery and abuse were dealbreakers for him too, but not for the same reasons. Dave had been raised in a religious household, where trust and faith were important virtues. For my husband, the worst thing I could do was break his trust and that’s what he saw adultery as the ultimate betrayal.
Not long after Dave and I hammered out our marriage contract, I again asked my mother about her marriage. We were cleaning my kitchen. She was at the sink, clinking cups in soapy water. I shoved dishes into a haphazard stack. “Why,” I wanted to know, “why didn’t you leave him when he cheated?”