Watching my husband Mark, 34, and our son, Benny, two, piecing together a puzzle, I dabbed away happy tears. Mark was lying on the floor in the playroom, puzzle pieces all around him, handing Benny, who has Down’s Syndrome, what he needed to complete the puzzle. It made me realise that everything happens for a reason. If our marriage hadn’t reached the brink of collapse, we wouldn’t be so happy now.
Giving our marriage another chance was the best decision Mark and I ever made, and now, with two kids, we couldn’t be happier.
In 2004, I was hired as a store manager for a mobile phone shop, where Mark was one of the salespeople. When most of the team were made redundant, Mark and I ran the shop on our own for two months. We worked tirelessly, but we worked together and falling for each other felt inevitable.
At 6ft 4in, Mark was over a foot taller than me. He made me feel like I had a protector, someone who always had my back. We were such a tactile couple; even when just watching TV we were always snuggling and cuddling.
Two years on, we bought our first home and one day, Mark surprised me with a new puppy, Ruby. As he already had his own dog, Jade, he wanted us to have a dog each. With our two poodle-mix pups, we became a little family.
Our life together felt so easy. We didn’t argue over how to renovate or decorate our home. We were both easy-going and neither of us liked confrontation. We just didn’t seem to annoy each other. We worked hard and played hard, often going on weekend adventures with a group of friends. We loved concerts and finding unusual things to do in the city. If there was a scavenger hunt through the streets of Detroit, Mark and I were there, front and centre.
We married on October 24, 2009 – a huge wedding in a cathedral in Detroit, followed by a reception for 230 people. We said the traditional vows, but thinking back now, I don’t know how much either of us were really taking them in. We were young, we didn’t understand what a marriage was. We spent the whole night dancing.
As newly-weds, we started trying for a baby. But month after month, I didn’t conceive. As if that didn’t put enough strain on our relationship, our careers were going in different directions. I’d taken a new role training employees and was travelling all over the US. As the mobile phone industry levelled out, Mark was making less money than ever in commissions and was bored and unfulfilled.
Slowly, I realised Mark didn’t like the fact I was doing well. I’d come home full of news about an exciting new project or some recognition I’d had from the company for my hard work, and Mark would just zone out while I was talking to him, or act like I wasn’t even talking.
‘It’s a stupid company to work for anyway,’ he’d say, shrugging his shoulders.
I could understand that he resented my success, but I thought he was acting like a child. If he’d been the one flying high at work, I’d have been proud of him.
Instead of telling him how his reaction made me feel, I avoided confrontation like always. We didn’t argue. Instead, I’d go and make dinner, hoping that if I made his favourite meal, he’d say something nice.
Mark was unsatisfied at work and it reflected in his attitude. We didn’t have children and I was earning a decent salary, so I urged him to quit and find his calling.
It was a bad idea. He left his job with no idea of what to do next, and instead of returning to education or applying for new jobs, he just stayed home all day, sulking.
Our marriage started to spiral downhill. Mark spent all night playing video games and all day sleeping.
Once, I came home after a few days away, determined that we’d get on like we used to. Putting my suitcase down in the living room, I went in for a hug. ‘Are you going to leave your case there all week?’ he asked, ignoring my effort to hug him.
Tears stung my eyes, but I still didn’t confront his behaviour. I just went and cooked his favourite meal. By the end of 2011, friends had started to share their concerns with me. Mark rarely came out when we all met up. I was going out more than ever to escape the misery of what waited for me at home. I took up as many opportunities at work to travel as possible. We began to live separate lives.
By January 2012, less than three years into our marriage, I’d had enough. We still hadn’t had a single conversation about what was wrong, but I’d made a decision. It was broken beyond repair.
One morning, I plucked up courage and walked over to where he was on the sofa.
‘It’s over, Mark,’ I said, sad at having to have this conversation, but clearly wanting to step out of a marriage that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I expected him to be cold. I didn’t think he’d even look up from the TV. For so long, I’d convinced myself he didn’t care about us anymore.
But Mark looked up at me. There was shock and pain on his face and I noticed that it had softened for the first time in months. I’d never seen Mark cry before, but now, tears started to stream down his face. Then he just broke down. Physically and emotionally, he crumbled.
‘Can... can we not try to fix this?’ he asked, between tears. And after so many months of being at the receiving end of his cold shoulder, it was my turn to be uncharacteristically cold. ‘Sorry, Mark,’ I said. ‘I’ve been wanting to tell you this for some months now.’
Everything that had built up, every feeling of rage and sadness that was bottled up inside me burst forth. I tried to hurt him with my words the way he’d hurt me.
All the while he was silent, tears rolling down his cheeks.
But I didn’t pause to see that. I grabbed a change of clothes and a toothbrush and stormed out of the house.
A mixture of emotions flooded through me – anger, resentment, pain. As quickly as I could, I enlisted a lawyer to start divorce proceedings. I put the house on the market and ignored all of Mark’s texts, calls, emails and Facebook messages. I was so angry with him that I wanted the divorce over and done with as soon as possible.
When Mark asked me if I’d go to couple’s therapy with him, I refused. But my lawyer advised me that it would look good in court, so I grudgingly agreed.
We met outside the therapist’s office. Mark looked so different. He was a broken man and the pain of separation and loss was written all over his face.
I pitied him, and for once hoped therapy would be quick. I just wanted to get it over with. In our first session, our therapist asked a lot of questions – from how we met and what our likes and dislikes were, to how we handled stress and how much space we gave each other in the relationship. Once she understood the dynamics of our marriage, she had some home truths for me.
She explained that I had facilitated Mark’s unreasonable behaviour. Every time he’d been rude to me, ignored my news or glazed over, I hadn’t confronted him, I’d cooked his favourite meal.
‘It was like you were rewarding his bad attitude,’ she said. ‘Whether Mark realised it or not, it only facilitated more resentment.’
She was no more kind to Mark.
‘You have been emotionally abusing her,’ she told him.
Therapy was brutal. I always thought I was a perfect wife and Mark had all the flaws. She made me see that my non-confrontational approach didn’t help. As she peeled away the layers of my childhood and the patterns I was repeating, she left me feeling fragile and hurt. Now, I was even more convinced that I wanted the relationship to end.
At the end of the session even the therapist didn’t think our marriage was repairable. She suggested we needed time apart, and after a few months of twice-weekly sessions, I dropped out. It was too horrible to go through, considering I had no hope for our marriage. What was the point?
I cut off all communication with Mark, and our lawyers dealt with the house sale. We started seeing other people. I knew I didn’t want to be with Mark anymore, but trying to fit together with someone else just felt wrong. I was so numb and sad after everything that had happened, I wasn’t ready to meet anyone.
I thought I wouldn’t care that Mark was dating other people, but when a woman he’d been seeing posted a picture on Facebook of her with our dogs, I was furious. It touched a raw nerve in me.
I was staying at my best friend Kelly’s house at the time and I jumped up from my computer and started pacing the room.
‘Well, that did it!’ Kelly laughed.
I was incensed. ‘What?’ I replied.
‘That photo finally cut through all the lies you’re telling yourself, that you don’t care about Mark anymore,’ she said.
I just collapsed in the sofa.
It was a pivotal moment. Kelly was right. I was so busy telling myself Mark and I were over, I wasn’t allowing myself to admit I still cared about him. I didn’t know how or what to say to Kelly and just buried my head in my hands and cried.
Three months after our failed therapy sessions, in June, Mark and I started to reach out to each other. We didn’t see each other, but we’d occasionally text. He was volunteering at a homeless shelter, going to the gym and eating healthily.
‘How are you doing?’ I’d ask.
‘Good,’ he’d reply.
Sometimes he’d text me and say what he’d done in the day or the food he’d eaten. He wasn’t spending whole nights playing video games and the days sleeping anymore.
But I was certain the marriage was over. Mark had given up asking if we could try and make it work. He said he loved me, but couldn’t keep asking.
In September, we were due in court to finalise our divorce. It had been nine months since I’d left Mark and I was sad, but resolved that it was over.
We met on the courtroom steps.
‘Hi, how are you?’ he asked, his face streaked with pain and love.
We’d lost £24,000 (about Dh127,154) on the sale of our house and spent thousands on legal costs. Bar the signature on that final document, it was done.
‘I’m good,’ I said, then looked away. I’d wanted to end this marriage and now it was about to happen. My heart was racing and I was feeling a bit weak.
Mark came and hugged me. It was warm and I could feel a lot of love come through. For a couple of minutes we said nothing but just hugged each other tightly. I realised I didn’t want to let go. It had been such a long time since Mark and I had any physical contact. For years, we were always hugging and holding hands. It felt so familiar to be in his arms again.
We were a few hours early for the hearing, so Mark asked, smiling, ‘Breakfast?’.
I’d learned a lot about myself in therapy and had been thinking about how Mark and I had stopped communicating. Going for breakfast seemed like a sweet way to make our divorce amicable.
‘OK,’ I said.
Then, something happened. We fought.
‘Why did you have to behave like that when you stopped working?’ I asked.
‘That was because you were cold shouldering me,’ he said.
‘No it was you,’ I said.
We cried and laughed. We communicated in a way we never had before. I didn’t get to the point where I felt we shouldn’t divorce, but as I looked at Mark, I realised I wasn’t 100 per cent sure that we should.
I felt if I wasn’t sure I didn’t want to go through with it, I shouldn’t be going ahead.
When it was time to meet the judge, my lawyer explained to her that we wanted more time. The judge smiled and said: ‘I grant you a month’s extension and wish you luck repairing your marriage.’
As we left court that day, I took Mark’s hand and entwined his fingers in mine. A united front, for whatever lay ahead.
We had a month to figure out what we wanted. Mark and I had uncomfortable, necessary conversations and after eight years, it felt like we were seeing each other in a new light for the first time.
I was still living with Kelly, while Mark lived with his brother.
One day, we went on a date. Then, we began to take fun trips away during weekends. Discussing how I felt was completely out of my comfort zone. But I knew that if I didn’t explain my feelings, I’d harbour anger. I had to push myself to talk to Mark, to really talk to him. And the more we talked, the better it felt.
We discussed where we’d gone wrong before and began to build a happier, stronger foundation for our future. And with a week to go until we were due back in court, it was our wedding anniversary. Mark had a big day planned – he wanted to take me on a tour of all the places we’d been to on our wedding day. But first, we had something important to do.
A framed copy of our dissolution of divorce order hangs above our bed to remind us of what we nearly lost and how far we’ve come.
We wrote new wedding vows, and alone in the bedroom at his brother’s house, Mark and I said them to each other. This time, we understood the magnitude of marriage and what our vows meant to us. Returning to court a week later, we were certain of what we wanted.
The judge spotted us walking in hand in hand, and laughed heartily.
‘Do you wish to dissolve your divorce?’ she asked. ‘I do,’ I said, smiling at Mark. It was a bit like getting married again!
As she dismissed our case, the judge said: ‘I’m really glad you guys worked this out.’
My lawyer was so angry he didn’t even show up, but Mark’s lawyer hugged us.
Our marriage saved, we started house-hunting again. A month later, after eight years of failing to conceive, I was pregnant. Benny was born in August 2013 and our daughter, Ellie, was born this February.
We’re still the same two people, married, but everything is so different. We have made fundamental changes to the way we communicate and whenever we get complacent, we remember why we’re together. If Mark feels inadequate, he has to talk. If I want to walk away, I have to talk. We work on ourselves as individuals, to work on our marriage together.
Almost divorcing was horrible. We’re only just coming out of the debt it created. It was the most raw, vulnerable time of my life. But I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Our dissolution of divorce paperwork is framed above our bed. It serves to remind us how far we nearly went and how far we’ve come.
Jamie Freeman is from Dearborn, Michigan, in the US, where she lives with Mark and their children.