Relationships

What It Means to Say a Marriage Is Like a House

It took 15 years, but the day finally came when I knew I had to break up with the house and my ghost of a husband

I imagined leaving for years. My friends listened patiently—they knew I needed to leave too. Some times I'd sound wise, ready to move on: It's me, not you; we've been good together, but we're going in different directions. Other days, I'd get angry and accusatory: You exhaust me; I can't take care of you anymore; I need my freedom.

This would have made more sense if I were talking about a relationship with a person, say, my husband, instead of a house—the house where we raised his two daughters, where we nursed him, sick with cancer, where I brought our infant son, born after his father's death, and where I bunkered down for the last 14 years, holding onto it like a life raft.

My marriage, like our house, was an unlikely project. Sam was 41, recently divorced, I was 25 and just out of college—the baby boomer and the Gen Xer, the textbook May-December romance. Truth be told, he was a bit of a fixer-upper, a man in need of a little emotional repair.

We both had this thing about houses. Sam dreamt again and again of an airy and light-filled house with open windows. The son of an architect, for years he made etchings inspired by his father's blueprints, mapping places only he could see.

Domesticity was romance to me—I loved provisioning a pantry and cooking. A critic would say I was playing house—with him and his daughters, I'd acquired an instant family. They steadied me, but I also felt the long shadow of his first marriage. I craved ownership: him and a house that was ours and ours alone.

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I got both when we moved east—a new job for him, graduate school for me. We found the perfect house—in need of so many repairs that only a newlywed, second-chance couple would want it. We saw past cracked ceilings and failed joists in the house and in each other. Now I realize that the renovations weren't just to the house; they were the way Sam was able to rebuild his life, letting our marriage bring him forward and helping the past recede. When the work was finished, it was exactly as we hoped, and the house helped turn us into a family.

And then, a summer a decade and a half ago, what looked like an ulcer turned out to be pancreatic cancer. His diagnosis and a positive pregnancy test came the same weekend.

He spent afternoons resting, anticipating chemo, but there wasn't much medicine could do. Fifteen Septembers ago he came home for the last time. The house filled with family, his daughters at his side. I can't remember the weeks of his dying or the first year without him. It's not just because it's so long ago now, it's because forgetting is a way of letting the past settle, the way a foundation does on a 100-year-old house.

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The house steadied me, the way he once did, through pregnancy and parenting alone. For 14 years, our son slept in a room that was once his sister's. Sam's pictures still hung on the walls and some days I was sure he'd walk back in the door in time for dinner. Still, I made some changes in the colors of the walls and the company I kept. I bought a new bed, and for many years now have slept in it with a different man who patiently tolerated my inability to leave that house.

It took 15 years, but the day finally came when I knew I had to break up with the house and my ghost of a husband, to let the past recede so the present could expand.

All this makes me think about what it means to say a marriage is like a house. It's no wonder I stayed in that house so long, believing it was the only place I could feel sheltered. I confused the safety of my marriage with the house itself, as if my sense of security could only reside there. It was a necessary confusion. In the years I stayed, I learned to stand on my own, to summon that security for myself, and for our son.

It was only when I walked through the empty rooms of the house to say my final goodbyes that I realized why I held onto it so tightly for so long. When Sam died, I didn't know who I was. I thought I wouldn't be anything, without him, without the house. But it turns out I do know—and being a widow is just part of the story. So I packed up the memories of my marriage and brought them along with me like precious heirlooms. It's taken awhile, but now, because of him, because of that house, I'm ready to be my own shelter.

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