I was sitting at a bar in central South Dakota the other night chatting with the barkeep – an amiable half Jewish, half native American, sports loving ex-convict from St. Louis, via Missoula, Richmond, VA and the Bronx – when the conversation shifted, naturally, to our partners. I am in a commuter marriage between Chicago and New York and my wife and I have never lived under the same roof since the day we first met 14 years ago at the Watergate Hotel. Our relationship is a constant conversation starter onboard my regular Thursday ride, LGA-ORD.
My new friend (let’s call him Frankie) heard my story and instantly exclaimed, “Oh wow, dude. Me too.” We were off to the races!
Our dialogue was ignited by a question: How do long-term relationships always seem to enter the renovation phase at the exact same stage? As a guy who travels and talks to strangers for a living, I’ll offer the obvious and clearly well-researched answer. Money, kids, and sex with the same person for approximately 20 years. Money is boring and no one wants to talk about that! If you have plenty there is no need, and if you don’t, you’ve had the same conversation every night for the better part of your married lives. And let’s leave the sex part for its own separate column. Perhaps under Diet. It’s the kids’ piece that Frankie and I bonded over.
If you’ve got children, you know. You love them to pieces, but they’re a constant wear and tear, regardless of how many you have and where they are in your life. When they’re younger, you’re so darned busy just trying to raise them and entertain them and get them to put down their phones that you barely notice that you and your partner spend 80 percent of your time sighing, wringing your hands, or growling at one another. Relationship repair while raising teenaged kids is a lot like trying to fix the airplane while it’s flying. Not for the weak of heart.
There was a day not so long ago when teens left home for college and I suspect that is when our parents did their relationship renovation work. The house was empty. You could go to Europe, buy that weekend cottage, or learn a new hobby. French cooking, or nude sketch drawing, for example. Except today, the kids never really leave home. If they are at school, they are tethered to you by text and Facetime. And it seems we have raised a generation that once they have earned that four year degree, return straight to the bosom of your home to figure out their next move. Be careful before you Airbnb their bedroom. It could be occupied for a long-term stay before you’ve even replaced the Harry Potter quilt and sheets.
Frankie, as I learned, had one high school kid by his first marriage and three young ones by his second. The firstborn lived 285 highway miles west towards the Rocky Mountains. The three younger ones lived with his wife, their mom, 550 miles south and east in St. Louis. And here’s the best part. Frankie has peaceably reconciled with his first wife and is crazy in love with his second. No kidding! When he’s not tending bar, or working as a substitute short order chef at a local diner, he’s driving his Nissan Altima six hours in one direction or eight in the other. I thought I managed a pretty complex long distance relationship? This guy gets the Triple AAA Motorist Father and Husband of the Year Award.
As the night wore on, we talked about football, Colin Kaepernick, the hapless Knicks, and the exigencies of marriage. We’d both been there twice and both laid claim to our fair share of responsibility for the breakup of the first. And we marveled at how great the second time around was. As the hour grew long, we toasted with a shot of house bourbon, and that was that. Frankie had to be somewhere in Montana for his son’s high school basketball game. I needed to get back to my wife and stepdaughter in Chicago for a family event.
It’s easy to cop a plea that absence makes the heart grow fonder and everyone should try living apart. Maybe that should be my next book. The Marie Kondo of the modern marriage. But as I wended my way back through Minnesota and Wisconsin, I could not stop thinking about my new best friend at the bar. We had definitely hit on something. Relationships that have some breathing room can endure just fine. I pulled into the driveway at two in the morning and moments later climbed exhausted into bed. My wife murmured in her sleep and put a reassuring hand on my lower back. As I waited for the road hum to exit my body, I thought about Frankie driving west. He was looking to hit the Montana border by dawn. I hoped he was doing okay.
Ken Carlton frequently takes to the back roads of America in search of good people, good stories and good food. You can follow his journeys on Instagram @mrswagnerspies