What we learned when we didn’t get divorced

My husband is an in-it-all-the-way kind of husband.  He is my best friend, teammate, foil, helpmeet, and occasionally, confessor. He has—more than once—crowded into a hotel bathroom at 1 am to listen to me preach a draft sermon. And often, he’s my first reader. That is very much the case now, and it is with gratitude to and for him, for our marriage, and for his willingness to allow me to tell a story that is not mine alone that I share this post. 
Craig, I love you so much. Thanks for adventuring with me. – j

As a law student, I volunteered in a “clinic” providing legal services to low-income residents of Salt Lake City. This particular clinic specialized in family law, and one of our primary tasks was guiding individuals through the steps of pro se divorce paperwork.

Pro se is a legal term of art from the Latin; it translates roughly as “on your own behalf.” What it means in this context is that in Utah, couples can self-divorce as long as the action is uncontested. This might be surprising in a conservative state, but it helps keep the dockets clear, encourages couples to work together wherever possible, and provides very clear financial incentives for keeping the process civil.

And so, upon joining the family law clinic, student volunteers were handed a CD-rom of forms and guidelines and instructed to spend some time at home familiarizing ourselves with it.

I was busy, though—like all law students, the reading load alone was crushing (seminary students, take note—you have no idea), and I also had Journal, a TA appointment on the main campus, and a newborn. So I never did take the time to really sit with those forms.

Until the night I decided to use them.

I don’t know how it started, exactly. It wasn’t just one thing. It was, instead, a pebble by pebble rockslide that eventually triggered an avalanche.

Lack of sleep. Worries about money. The seismic shift of new parenthood, paired with a stressful schedule, inconsistent childcare, a newly purchased house in what had turned out to be a nightmare of a neighborhood, and a long and messy commute for me paired with an increasingly isolated life telecommuting for my husband.

The end of law school was just visible in the distance, and as I had suspected—had feared, but had also, in that place of inner certainty, known for all the time it was possible to know—I had no intention of practicing law. None. Ever.

I could feel the light going not just out of my eyes, but out of my soul. By that point, it had become difficult just to get out of bed on school days. And trudging back and forth to classes for three years was one thing; contemplating the entirety of my life after that was simply more than I could bear. And so, while my classmates filled out applications for the bar exam, I began getting things in order to return, upon graduation, to teaching.

This was an incredible relief for me. The clouds parted, the horizon came into view, and like that, I had a future again—one in which I could imagine a possibility of happiness. It was, meanwhile, an incredible shock for my husband. He was enraged, underneath which he was disappointed and scared.* I, in return, felt betrayed and furious, unable and then unwilling to partner with someone so ready to offer my misery unto the world if only it could provide convenience and security in return.

And so, dark days trickled into fractious and difficult weeks, and all of them led, inexorably, to our dining table late one spring night. I sat alone with my laptop, and I did for myself what I had never bestirred myself to do for someone else: I grabbed that CD, and I read those forms. I went to the Utah State Courts website. I entered my name as plaintiff.

And page by page, my fingertips walked the journey that would end with the state of Utah agreeing to dissolve our marriage.

 

Until I got to the section about child support. Because, recall, we had a child, my husband and I—a chubby, dimpled babe, the light of both of our lives. Utah determines child support obligations based on nights spent per custodial parent. And thus, to go any farther with the forms, I was required to state, for the record, where our beloved baby would be spending each and every night of every month of his foreseeable future.

And that is when I cried.

Weeks and months of stress and anger yielded simply to pain. To grief. And, ultimately, to a hardscrabble kind of hope, one born of the realization that while I was angry, I was not—not yet—angry enough to force my way through this child support form. That probably, we could figure this out, because even the hardest conversation imaginable could not be more horrible than this.

And so, we cooled off . . . and then also, we thawed. We talked. We forged a stopgap truce, and eventually reenvisioned not just my future, but ours. Together. As a family.

Yes, that was the time that our story came closest to ending, and continued anyway. And I don’t tell this story often, but when I do, I end it here. It’s hard enough just to talk openly about marital difficulties.

But the truth is this: that moment of yielding and reconciliation gave us another day. But it was not, on the whole, enough to change things. A forgiving spirit and knowledge that we had weathered past crises successfully gave us a calmer confidence when we were in trouble.

But what we have needed in the seven years since that night at the dining table is a way to stay out of the danger zone in the first place.

And what has saved us is our sex life.

Yep. I just said that.

What has saved us, in fact, is treating our sex life like a spiritual practice.

The thing is, sex isn’t something we had to think much about in the beginning. (Though I’m sure we did think about it. Lots.) We were young, attracted to one another, and rich in time in the way that only people with no jobs and no kids can be.

Physical compatibility is not a bad place to begin a relationship, but ten years (now 17!) and many significant life changes later, it was time for an intentional revisiting of our covenant.

But we didn’t even realize we had a sexual covenant, and certainly no one encouraged us to talk about it. Yes, it’s ok to feed your baby solid food now. Also, how’s your sex life working for you? Have you considered what your priorities are? How about some goal setting?

 Pediatrician with baby

And so, we stumbled along into our future, giddy with possibility but also uncertain and afraid. Can these good times last? What happens when things become difficult again?

I think our answer, like that of so many couples might have been, “eventually you just grow apart.” Except we happened upon first one book, and then another.

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The first text, Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Sex, helped us to appreciate the holy importance of sex in a marital union. How sex is part of God’s gift to us, and how treating it with the reverent joy of sacrament might help us to value our entire relationship differently. And to make choices differently as well, or at least to understand what we may be putting on the line when we decide how we’re going to be with one another.

Examples: sex is a sacred obligation; a gift that we give, unencumbered, to one another. We should be naked when we do it—not so much as a sock on—and we should treat each other’s bodies with mystery and reverence the rest of the time. And sex is important enough to the marital relationship that choices, like extended business travel, that impinge upon it should be regarded with deep suspicion.

This book is likely not for everyone—it’s situated within the conservative reaches of the American Jewish tradition, and Unitarian Universalists can expect to do some translating as well as some theology in reading. I suggest that we engage this critical reflection in the spirit that Rev. Rebecca Parker encourages us to cultivate in her own work, Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now–that is, as theologians ourselves, engaged and passionate thinkers who bring our own lived truths to the text.  And also, to sex.

Which brings us to the second book—the one that changed everything.

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Doug Brown, sex columnist for the Denver Post (did you know that this is a thing?), and his wife, Annie, were in something of a rut. They were raising two small children, felt bored and isolated in a their new city, and eventually, began to sense a disconnection even from one another.

And so, they embarked on an experiment. The Browns planned carefully—French lingerie, yoga for toning, attending a sex expo together and experimenting with toys, lube, and even Brazilian waxing . . . but the crux of the deal was this:

The couple agreed to have sex. At least once. Every single day. For 100 days.

The Browns called this experiment “The Marathon,” let their friends and family in on the secret, and documented the results. The tangible end product is a memoir, Just Do It, that we found recognizable, hilarious (I note that Publishers Weekly hated it . . . I submit that the PW columnist might want to take some of Doug and Annie’s advice)—and also, astonishingly helpful.

And I know this because, well: we tried it. Our “marathon” was much shorter—a month—and we told no one during the experiment itself. Also, we were low key. No Sex Convention for us, no yoga, and certainly no “Brazilian” (I mean, seriously. I survived childbirth—unmedicated—for that? When do we torture the men?)

And still, the experience was powerful.

Here is some of what we learned:

*This is a LOT of sex to have in a month

*You will become a lot more comfortable in your bed, in your relationship, and in your body by the end of it

*This kind of short-term experience can alter your relationship in a way that lasts years (maybe forever).

In our own “marathon,” Craig and I developed a trust in each other we had never had. It was, in fact, a trust we never realized was lacking; it is nothing short of amazing what can blossom in a partnership when two people are truly vulnerable with one another in a sustained way. It’s like Outward Bound, for couples.

For us, the marathon acted as a covenant within a covenant—a calling back toward one another, again and again, whatever else had happened that day, or even the night before. Something didn’t go well? We both knew we’d have a chance to reconnect, and soon. This knowledge added both grace and responsibility; there was simply no getting out of doing the work of couplehood.

As for long-term results—the kind that make me know that it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to need to know whether Kansas offers pro se divorce?

First, we touched each other more, outside of bed. In yet another feature we didn’t realize we’d lost, we began to connect with affectionate physicality throughout the day.

Also, we laughed more together, let things go sooner, and took creative risks—in areas that had nothing to do with our sex life.

And finally, we kickstarted an ongoing sexual partnership that has seen us through most of the second decade of a sometimes complicated marital relationship. There is a remarkable return on investment for time spent doing this thing which, on the whole, is highly enjoyable. Need to stay connected when things are busy and it feels like there’s never any time? Have more and better sex. Want to maintain a partnership even when it feels like you’re running a divide-and-conquer offense? Have more and better sex.

In short, when we discover how much we enjoy being in each other’s company, including in bed, we can use it to build on. In our culture, we’re taught to think of sex like frosting—it’s an indulgence, non-nutritive, and, depending on our relationships with our bodies, possibly even sinful.

But here’s the thing: In a long-term romantic partnership, sex isn’t frosting. It’s foundation.

This is Rabbi Boteach’s message—and now it’s mine, too.

If your marriage matters, so does your sex life.    

And so, I offer you three tips, presented in order investment of time and energy required. Try one, try all, make your own and share . . . but your sex life is part of your life. What might happen if we make a concerted effort to live like we believe it?

  1. Talk about it!

You can do it behind closed doors. You can whisper. We don’t all have to say YOUR SEX LIFE, in writing, on Facebook. But if you are living in covenantal partnership, give this part of your covenant some space on your next date night. How is your sex life working for you? What do you celebrate about this part of your life together? What might you like to do differently? And what are you curious about?

(These kinds of questions come from a model called “appreciative inquiry,” and they—plus lots of listening—are one way to talk about things we’re often afraid to touch, conversationally speaking. Use the questions above, or make up your own, and aim for a culture of celebrating the positive and wondering about everything else.  Do this, and you are likely to come away from the conversation with an increased sense of partnership, more openness . . . and maybe a few great ideas. )

  1. Show your TV the door. Your bedroom door.  And tell it to take your iPad with it.  

I know—what!?

Here’s the thing, though: your devices are running your nightlife, whether you realize it or not. If what you see when you look up from your pillow is not the face of your beloved, but a screen, survey says, you’re having less sex. Much less. Fifty percent less, according to one study, which also noted that violence and reality TV are particular libido-dampeners.

And it’s not just the TV.  Small-device screen time–use of phones, tablets, and laptops– in the hour before bed has lately been linked with decreased melatonin and poor sleep quality, both of which may have an echo effect on your sex life.

What would happen if you took the no-tv plunge?

Only one way to find out.

  1. Just Do It.

You can read this book, if you’re interested—it formed a shared base for our own explorations, and we laughed a lot reading it—but really, no book required.

Have sex. Every day. For a week . . .

And watch what happens.**

It should be noted that if you are living in the context of an abusive relationship, following these tips may serve to further entrench that dynamic.   Further, I don’t know if this advice holds, without modification or at all, in a GLBT context. I’m not sure, either, how much of my experience transcends my own race and culture, or how it might apply later in life or with bodies that work differently than mine. I’d love to hear your perspective, though.

With those sizeable limitations, however, and a sample size of roughly 2, my best relationship advice is simply this: have more and better sex.

And I think that’s more likely to happen if we acknowledge our sex lives as part of our whole lives—a sacred, spiritual, and healing part.

Enjoy, friends.

 J

j

Lovely couple in bed, focus on feet

*Understandably, it should be noted. My husband is a practical person, a decide-and-be-done-with-it sort of person. He helps keep our family together. He helps keep me together. And also, he has known what he wanted to be since he was five. And then he grew up and became it. That is, in one sense, the whole story, which partly explains how the story of us—the melding of two individuals—is both magical, and not without intrinsic difficulty.

**Also, if your partnership is one in which pregnancy is a possible result of your sex life, and that’s not a possibility you would wholeheartedly embrace, I CAN NOT OVERSTATE the importance of effective birth control in undertaking this experiment. Use it. Before you do it.

4 thoughts on “What we learned when we didn’t get divorced

  1. Pingback: A repost of excellent “Daily Salvation” advice for couples | dailysalvation

  2. Thank you, Jordinn. Thank you, Craig. My “liking” this story on facebook had the intended outcome: my bride noticed it, read it during a rare, brief pause in the underpaid medical fray that is her residency, and she loved it. An hour-long car-ride later, we came to a momentous decision.
    You spoke to the core of our existential/career/family crises while making us giggle like newlywed kids again. We were married 17 or so years ago, too.
    Oh, yeah: we’re taking your advice and trying the sex-as-spiritual-practice challenge.
    “We got this.” 🙂

  3. Pingback: Facebook friendships, sexuality, Starr King, and more « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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