All that is gold does not glitter; not all those that wander are lost.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954
New Year’s Eve happens to be my anniversary.
“How many years?” I am frequently asked. Well, this week my husband will have been married two years, and I will have been married fifteen years.
How on earth does that happen? Well, although this is the second anniversary of my wedding to my current husband, I was married to someone else for more than a decade before we divorced four-and-a-half years ago. So, by my calculations, I have been married for fifteen years.
I know it is not common convention to count anniversaries up this way. I realized that immediately on the day that my divorce was barely announced and suddenly all my old wedding pictures had disappeared overnight from my relative’s walls. In the eyes of my culture, the fact that my first marriage didn’t complete the expected lifetime course somehow erased the significance of that wedding and all those anniversaries we had passed.
From the conversations that I have with many people I bump into in my life, I can clearly tell that, to my world at large, only the two anniversaries with my current marriage count. I just don’t agree.
The decade of my first marriage was a pivotal time in my life. During those years I finished the last few months of my medical education, graduated medical school, completed residency, and started my first real job. I moved six times, spending four years in Washington DC and four more in rural Colorado. It was after my eighth anniversary that the highlight of my whole life occurred, my son was born. From the moment he drew breath, my life was transformed. The end of that decade also brought my cancer battle which helped to shape and define my character in ways I could never have imagined.
That first marriage was the crucible which refined my adult sense of self. All those anniversaries may be in the past, and in a past that others don’t want to remember. I, however, have no desire to relegate them merely to ancient history. The lessons and memories of each are still precious to me, because each one crafted a part of the person I am today.
The world has told me over and over that my first marriage was “failed.” That because it ended earlier than planned, it was not successful, and success is all that counts. I can’t deny that the marriage failed to meet the expectations of all those who witnessed the wedding, including my own, but I refuse to see myself as a failure within it. There is nothing in my life that I worked harder at than that marriage. I poured more of myself into it than any other passion or pursuit I have ever undertaken. I still am continually astounded at all was I able to become, all I learned and discovered about life, from the days I spent as that wife. I know it would sound like foolishness to even those closest to me, but I am proud of all those anniversaries and the struggle and determination that they represent.
The years of that marriage still count to me, and the years after it count too. Maybe in some ways even more so. It was a painful strike of irony that the final divorce decree was delivered to me on the day of my eleventh anniversary, but it drove home to me a conviction that I have held onto like a compass. On that day I knew one thing, the marriage may have dissolved but the relationship was not over. We have a son, and so, for the rest of our lives, a part of our marriage will always continue.
The divorced relationship, that I have had to struggle with determination to craft, counts. I am ridiculously proud of the divorce we have created. Our marriage may not have worked, but our divorce has been a chance for me over and over again to choose friendship, peace, compassion, and to show respect. It turns out, amazingly, that the most loving thing I ever did for that husband was to stop being his wife and choose instead to merely be his friend. As such a friend, I have been able to promote his health and happiness and have more positive influence in his life apart from him than I ever had at his side. The relationship goes on. Those first really difficult couple of years of divorce laid the foundation for such a relationship. In my heart and in my spirit I believe that they count perhaps in many ways more than all the years of marriage before it.
To say that I have been married only two years is, in a way, a lie. It would be a rejection, a denial, of all the hard work, heartbreak, and healing that created the person who my current husband asked to marry him. My husband knows that he wed a woman who had previously worked hard for eleven years to try to stay married to another man. To make my current marriage work, I have to believe that he loves me for, not despite, the marriage and divorce that made me who I am.
My husband does not seem bothered by this convention, but on his behalf I resent the process of counting anniversaries as well. The years he spent as a bachelor have deep meaning for him. He used them to do great things in the world, to help a myriad of people who were displaced, marginalized, and who had no other champion. Had we never married, his life would have been as equally important to the universe as any married person’s. Indeed, his life was full of richness and meaning long before I reentered it. Labeling him with a mere number of the years he has been married to me in a way strives to reduce the significance of all the years that he passed on his own. I certainly hope that our relationship will help him to discover parts of himself that he couldn’t have done on his own, but I would never wish for our marriage alone to define him, either in the world’s eyes or in his own.
Society’s pressure to promote “successful” marriage was clearly unhelpful to both me and my husband in our past married and unmarried lives. Yet, the respect I held for my husband in our youth only grew during all the year’s he spent in singleness, and his respect for me only grew as he saw the way I conducted myself in my divorce. Because of this respect, we would never wish for our own current happy anniversary to diminish the relationship and non-relationship achievements of any in our circles who aren’t (or can’t!) be similarly happily married. In this spirit, I push at the boundaries of how I define my own marriage to myself and to be intentionally aware of how I allow those around me to define it as well. I wish to strive to encourage my own relationship in ways that hopefully will not discourage others around us whose lives look differently, but are equally valuable.
So, on New Year’s Eve, I will toast two lovely years with my dear friend. I will wish for many more happy days together. I will know in my heart just how precious each day is, because I’ve seen fifteen year’s worth before, both good and bad, coupled and alone, and all dearly earned with blood, sweat and tears.
I will carry every one with me, and I believe that I will be a better wife, and a better human being, because of it.