With her marriage sputtering, Delani Miner drives cross-country in an attempt to figure out if there’s anything worth saving.
This post is part one of a Role/Reboot series exploring partnership and independence on the highways of America.
By Delani Miner
It was somewhere on the Loneliest Road in America, U.S. Route 50 in the middle of Nevada, when I took off my wedding ring. I thought about it, and then I did it. Oddly, it was that simple.
My decision to drive from San Francisco across the United States alone—well, with my dog—all stemmed from several long months (and maybe even years) of severe frustration. Filtered through some serious bouts of acute pain and sadness, the state in which I found my marriage, myself, and the confusion of how far I’d traveled from who I am became too much to bare. I was stuck. Nothing about the place I found myself in was shifting, no matter how hard I tried to metaphorically move the pieces around me. A bit of an idealist, it seemed the only thing left to do was to travel back to the trailhead of my existence, revisiting important people and places that shaped me along the way. Some beautiful sights and the freedom of the open road, being forced to exist in the present instead of constantly spinning all of my previous bullshit couldn’t hurt either. The ringless-finger was a symbolic gesture of truly putting myself out there alone on the loneliest road, no husband waiting for me just around the corner. It was just me, stripped bare of any sort of crutch I might lean on in trying times, when indecision takes hold.
The plan: drive across America in one week (shacking up in crappy but affordable motels along the way), stay with my parents for two weeks (which should exemplify the dire nature of my situation), and then drive back to San Francisco (this time with both the dog and a friend in tow) in another week; one month total of being gone from my life with my husband.
The hopeful result: reclaim a portion of myself I’d lost somewhere along way and find that barometer I’d always used as my compass for decision making—my core—to have a better understanding of whether my marriage (of three years, but a relationship lasting well over a decade at this point) really has what it takes to last. While some may see this “journey” as running away from my problems, I look at it as going away to gain hindsight of the place I left, which will hopefully become clearer, vision made 20/20, as they say.
Marriage, as an institution, has become rather confusing in today’s world. While the LGBT community fights for their right to marry, straight couples are collectively racking up statistics that should make everyone think twice about the stark reality of marriage’s success rate. But what is it that we’re even supposed to think about? Marriage has many of the same problems that it did 30 or 40 years ago, but now, as women become more career-oriented and some less inclined to have children, the gender roles in a marriage have ever so gradually, yet monumentally, shifted over time. Much like a tectonic plate—it’s gone unnoticed until we woke up one day and realize Africa and South America, which used to fit so snuggly together, have an entire ocean between them. That’s how I feel about Husband and me. Notions of what a marriage is supposed to be have become antiquated, but we’re still running to old information for answers on how to live happily as one in 2011. And, at least based on my experience, we probably shouldn’t be. I don’t have the answers yet of what we should be asking, but maybe by the end of this journey I’ll be a little closer.
As my marriage began its unraveling, I tried taking the necessary steps to right the ship, or at least begin peeling back the complex layers to get a better view of what the problems really were. I started seeing a therapist for my own individual self (let’s face it, no matter how much he’s at fault for things, my mental health periodically needs a, uh, tune-up), and my husband and I started couples counseling. The time with my individual therapist, so far, has been quite rewarding. Moving through why I do what I do, and how I feel about it, has helped me process a lot of the misery I was experiencing and lead me to understand ways in which I can frustrate those around me, i.e. my husband. I had more information than I did in the past, and I have to say, it’s a lot easier to start making decisions and reconciling hurt when you have more understanding of things. Although tough at the time, the strides I was taking in my own personal journey were paying off. But the couples counseling, that’s where things got… strange.
While our couples counselor claimed to be a feminist, her views on marriage, I felt, were fairly moldy. In the first meeting with her—after we established that Husband was the logical one and I the introspective idealist—I was expressing what I wanted from my marriage that I hadn’t been experiencing, which lead me to a great deal of unhappiness. These things included a deeper emotional connection, one that is raw and unfiltered. I wanted the real deal and not the slap-on-a-smile version of the person I married. I thought to myself, Hey, I’m speaking from my heart here… this will get the conversation somewhere, our communication somewhere. And then, something happened that I could not believe. Without any hesitation, the counselor told me that this is not something my husband could give to me (because he’s too logical), that I don’t want it anyway, and that it could actually be dangerous to want that kind of emotion from a man. She went on to explain that men haven’t been socialized in this way. When a little boy falls down and gets hurt, they are told not to cry. They’ve been taught to suppress their emotions. Then she just sort of stared at me, while I envisioned Husband internally celebrating being let off the hook.
I will never forget my reaction to this: I sort of looked at her with bewilderment, and then, being so utterly dismayed, my frustration now spurting and exploding over the edge, broke down in tears, and remained in that state for the 30 remaining minutes of our session. While I wasn’t walking in there looking to win or lose anything, it felt like a dagger had pierced my heart.
From that day on, the counselor’s themes of what it takes to make a marriage work centered on how I needed to check certain parts of myself at the door when I entered the home of my relationship. And these things weren’t just my sometimes-annoying wit and sarcasm; they were deeply embedded aspects of myself, threads of fabric woven intricately into my design; like my need to be wholly human with someone. A common question asked was if I loved him enough to neuter myself, which I read as to become less of who I am. To fake it for another. To give up a basic, innate female need of emotional connection to cater to my husband’s slightly autistic (I’m exaggerating here, but humor helps) non-needs. The answer then was “no” and it still is. And I’ll tell you why.
While compromise is a must, not being one’s self is, in my mind, a different beast entirely. That’s something I’d never ever considered before. It was shocking to hear and disturbing to consider.
Being that Husband is logical, and I’m the opposite, over time I’ve found that I’ve acquiesced a lot to him because there’s no hard data to back up a feeling. This has grown to become a real problem for me, for him, and for our marriage, because I’ve looked back and realized I had let my voice die. Or maybe not die completely, but it had been encumbered to the point of rendering my ability to express my wants and needs meaningless.
We were already at a point of being two separate individuals, and the distance we’ve been feeling between us was almost made worse by being pushed together to do counseling homework assignments. A road trip, or any trip away for a solid amount of time, seemed like a necessary reprieve from the horrid, contrived feeling of paint-by-numbers living we were attempting to participate in.
And so, for the trip, I chose every stopping point. Every motel. Every road. Every snack. Everything necessary to keep my dog and myself alive while driving through the 105-degree heat of Utah and Kansas. Everything was me. And while I didn’t do everything perfectly, I dealt with those things along the way. And, of course, we made it through the first leg of the trip completely intact. I have to say, that aspect of things felt good. Great even. Definitely rewarding.
After long days in the arid, rolling terrain of Nevada, the burnt-orange spires and plateaus of Utah, the pines and snow-capped mountains of Colorado, and the prairies and plains of Kansas, just four days into my journey, I felt a genuine sense of happiness I had not felt in a very long time. I remember seeing a Winnebago with a covering on the spare tire attached to the back of it that read, “Life is good.” In the past few months especially, if I’d seen that same thing, I would’ve wanted to take an automatic rifle and shoot the whole thing into unrecognizable shreds. Life is not good! Life is goddamn impossible! Stop spreading around your insipid good cheer, jerkass! But on this day, and on that road, I looked at that spare tire cover and said to myself, Yeah, OK. Life is good. And it was good, because I was somewhere I chose to be, all on my own accord, feeling small in accordance to the land through which I was driving, my annoying white problems taking a back seat to the reality of all the things that could go wrong out there. I also felt huge in my confidence to grab life by the proverbial balls and shag it senseless. There’s some real liberation in the phrase, “fuck it.” I suggest trying it.
But it was when I got to my friend’s house in Louisville, Kentucky where I had the starkest of all the experiences on the road. My friend had gathered a few people in his backyard for a bonfire and some beers, lots of musician types, the type of folks I’m most comfortable around. Towards the end of the night, there were three of us left—myself, my friend, and his bandmate with the craziest beard I’d ever seen. Buzzed from an evening of consuming a steady stream of Miller High Life, we got past books and music and began talking about our personal lives. As it turned out, all three of us had recently attended couples counseling with our significant others. How weird! Some strange trajectory in life placed us there on that night. And the talk was good. But the weirdest thing of all was sitting back and watching two men become very cerebral in sharing their emotions and feelings about love and relationships, both openly and honestly. And it affirmed what I suspected all along: men, at least some men, are entirely capable of raw, unfiltered emotion. And it was a beautiful thing to witness from a female perspective.
For that conversation alone, it was worth the two wrong turns to get there that sent me an hour out of my way, tacking on more time to daily drives that were already reaching the nine-hour mark; the shitty motel in Dodge City with the trash in the pool, the concrete walls that felt like a jail cell, and an AC unit that didn’t work; dog puke; the daily peanut butter and jelly sandwiches eaten to save money for gas; and the punctured tire after parking on broken glass. It was worth the champagne of hangovers I endured the day after our little group therapy session when I had to get on the road and drive another seven hours. Oh, there was more beauty than the eye could behold across America and the trip was mostly without incident. But I endured a lot as well. And just like the character-building challenges one must face before finding that fabled Chinese guru atop a mountain, I had achieved something I was looking for, that I likely wouldn’t have found had I not, through some shift in imagination and scope, gone looking for it.
The rest of the trip to the East Coast was all music and sunshine, experienced with a lighter heart than I had when I first started out. Which was good, because I was about to spend the next two weeks with my parents and if you’ve ever watched Seinfeld, they are the Constanzas of families. Wish me luck.