“Sweetheart, what would you like for lunch today?” I asked as I stood in the kitchen clenching the handle of the open refrigerator.
I wondered if my husband Jim could hear the resentment biting into my voice, like a termite chewing through a piece of good wood. This would be the 81st meal I would have prepared for us since he retired four weeks earlier.
Jim and I had just come back from the gym and were still wearing our slightly sweaty workout clothes. He sat at our glass-top kitchen table with his chair angled, holding up the Washington Post in front of him. The sun flickered off of the silver wedding band he always wore, the same design as my gold one, which was upstairs on our bureau. I left it at home because I didn’t like to feel my fingers pinch between my ring and the free weights I lifted.
“I’ll have whatever you’re having,” Jim replied, without looking up. Then he pulled back one side of the paper and added, “I love spending time with you.”
“And I love spending time with you, too,” I responded, then thought, I just wish it wasn’t quite as much time, though.
Two years ago, with Jim’s encouragement, I quit my marketing job to write and take care of time-consuming housekeeping tasks so that we could enjoy carefree evenings and weekends together. I wrote every day, met friends for lunch, took a regular yoga class, and became a weekly hospice volunteer. My new routine was so personally fulfilling that it left me wondering when I ever had time to work.
When Jim retired last month, I rejoiced for his newfound freedom but didn’t expect it to eat into mine. Once Jim was home he wanted us to have every meal together. When I announced I was going to the grocery store, he would ask me to wait until he was finished reading the paper so he could come with me. If I said that I wanted to go for a walk, he would go get his shoes. My writing slipped and my friendships started to fray as I tried to adapt to his new schedule. For the first time since we met, I wanted less time with Jim, not more.
I adore my husband. Our lives fit together easily like a child’s first jigsaw puzzle. I love Jim’s quick wit, personal integrity, and ability to have thoughtful, emotional, and even difficult, honest conversations. From the moment we started dating, years after each of our first marriages ended in divorce, our priority was to be together as much as possible, as though we were trying to make up for all of the time we spent apart.
So how could I be losing my appetite for the man I adore, the man who makes me laugh at least three times a day? And, how would I tell the love of my life that I no longer shared his vision of togetherness? I longed to move anonymously through a Whole Foods Market once again. I missed the days when I would be at my desk, realize I was hungry, silently go to the refrigerator, take out food, eat it, and get back to my writing. I was beginning to feel like I was disappearing into a morphed image of the two of us, and I was frightened that neither Jim nor I would like the new half-person I would inevitably become.
My husband reminded me every day that I was the reason he was happier than he had ever been and that being together was what he wanted and enjoyed more than anything else. We hadn’t discussed what we wanted our lives to look like once he retired, and now I was wondering if I would fail as a wife and partner simply because I wanted—no, needed—for us to be separate individuals in our marriage. I had heard of this happening to long-married couples, but we were still giddy newlyweds who celebrate our ‘anniversary’ every Friday, the day that we eloped at a local lawyer’s office more than 200 weeks ago.
I knew the only way to tell him was with direct, loving honesty, the same way we discussed everything else, except my stomach started to tighten as I considered how this might affect our relationship. Jim might need togetherness as much as I needed space. Couples split up over that kind of incompatibility and I couldn’t bear the thought of that happening to us.
“We’re having a big salad,” I said, as I slowly opened a drawer in the fridge, pulled out romaine, celery, onion, and tomatoes and placed them on the counter near the sink, all the while gathering my thoughts and composing my opening sentence. I opened a can of tuna then rinsed and methodically chopped the vegetables into bite-size pieces, tapping out a message that lunch would be ready soon. Taking my cue, Jim folded his newspaper, stood up and set the table.
“Sweetheart,” I said, as I brought the salad bowl over and sat down. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Do what?” he asked as he sat down.
I intended to speak slowly and evenly, but the words rushed out, like a pot boiling over. “Preparing and sharing all these meals. It’s too much for me. I miss all of the things I was doing before you retired. I miss who I was before you retired.”
“But I thought this is what we wanted, the very reason I retired—so that we could be together all of the time,” Jim said, shrinking back into his chair and locking onto my eyes with his. He looked like a little boy who just found out the truth about Santa Claus.
I tried to explain. “Sweetheart, I feel like I’m losing my balance with all of this togetherness. Don’t you want to pursue your own activities—separate to mine?”
I saw his eyebrows push together as he leaned forward and started to speak. “I have no interest in jumping up and finding stuff to do right now. I just retired from having to be somewhere, reporting to someone, five days a week. Right now I am perfectly happy spending my time with you.”
“Of course I understand that. I’m sorry,” I said, trying to deflect the growing tension. “I enjoy being with you, too, but I’m afraid you won’t love the person I might become if I don’t stay nourished with my writing, my friends, and my exercise classes. I’m also afraid I won’t like the person I might become.”
“I can’t imagine not loving you, but I have noticed that you haven’t been your usual, lighthearted self lately,” he said. “And, I love your usual, lighthearted self.” He started to blink, which I took as a good sign. “But I’m not sure what to do here.”
“I love you, too, sweetheart,” I said, reaching for his hand before I continued. “I have been thinking about this and have a proposal for us to try. How about we eat breakfast together, taking turns preparing, spend mornings—and lunch—on our own, then meet back up for dinner, which we can also take turns planning?”
“So we’re married for better or worse, but not for lunch?” he joked, a sure sign we would survive this hurdle.
“Yes, I guess you could say that,” I said, leaning over for a quick kiss. “I think it’s worth a try, don’t you?”
“OK, yes,” he said, slowly nodding his head, still smiling. “Now please will you pass the salad dressing? I’m starving.”
Suddenly, I was too.