An Unfinished Marriage

An Unfinished Marriage

by Joan Anderson


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In this moving sequel to her national bestseller A Year by the Sea, Joan Anderson explores the challenges of rebuilding and renewing a marriage with her trademark candor, compassion, and insight.

With A Year by the Sea, Joan Anderson struck a chord in many tens of thousands of readers. Her brave decision to take a year for herself away from her marriage, her frank assessment of herself at midlife, and her openness in sharing her fears as well as her triumphs won her admirers and inspired women across the country to reconsider their options. In this new book, Anderson does for marriage what she did for women at midlife. Using the same very personal approach, she shows us her own rocky path to renewing a marriage gone stale, satisfying the demand from readers and reviewers to learn what comes next.

When Joan and her husband Robin decided to repair and renew their marriage after her eye-opening year of self-discovery, the outcome was far from certain. He had suddenly decided to retire and move to Cape Cod himself and embark on his own journey of midlife reinvention. After the initial shock of incorporating another person back into Joan’s daily life and her treasured cottage, they begin the process of "recycling"–using the original materials of their marriage to create a new partnership. Rereading the letters that she had written from Uganda during the early years of their marriage, she is reminded about the nervousness and joy with which she began their life together. Her sudden incapacitation with a broken ankle reveals an unexpected resourceful and tender side in her husband. A grimly comic and strained dinner party with three other couples reveals to both Joan and Robin some of the emotional pitfalls (and horrors) that can befall married couples.

In her year of solitude by the sea, Anderson learned that "there is no greater calling than to make a new creation out of the old self." In An Unfinished Marriage, she charts the new journey that she and her husband have begun together, seasoned by their years of marriage but newly awakened to the possibilities of their future together. A unique, tremendously moving and insightful entry into the literature of marriage, it will provide salutary shocks of recognition and fresh hope for all women and men negotiating their own marital passages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767908719
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/11/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 563,009
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Joan Anderson is a seasoned journalist who has also written numerous children’s novels, including 1787: The First Thanksgiving Feast and The American Family Farm, as well as the critically acclaimed adult nonfiction book Breaking the TV Habit. A graduate of Yale University, Anderson lives with her husband on Cape Cod, where her “Weekend by the Sea” program for women seeking to experience a time of reflection is thriving. She has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, “CBS Weekend,” and numerous other broadcasts in connection with A Year by the Sea.

Read an Excerpt


Getting Under way

Late September

"The beginnings of all human undertakings are untidy."

John Galsworthy

The night sky has barely dissolved to a pale blue light when I slide out of bed and tiptoe to the kitchen, relishing the early morning silence I have come to treasure. This is when my thinking is clearest, when I give over to the spirits in the air and let them direct my day. My husband Robin seems to know that I need this time and frequently rolls over in continued sleep until I am out the door for my morning walk.

I put the kettle on the stove and wait for its wail while the threadbare afghan I grabbed from the couch warms my shoulders. A few minutes later, steaming coffee in hand, I ease open the screen door, stifling its inevitable creak, step into the morning dew, and take a deep breath of Cape Cod air. Several birds are nibbling at their feeder while the neighbor's cat huddles under a bayberry bush waiting to pounce. As I sink onto the stoop, I let the sensuousness of my surroundings take over. The clarity of morning always offers a fresh start.

We've been back together some three weeks now after a yearlong separation. The decision to reconcile happened as precipitously as the decision to separate. He was able to take early retirement and, having watched me grow and change from afar, seemed anxious to get on with the adventure of his own unlived life. Having acquired a much stronger sense of self during my solitary year by the sea, I seemed to have an inexplicable compulsion to return to living with another. Once the decision to reunite was made, we slid back into relationship with little fanfare and even less preparation. Call us stubborn, karmically connected or just plain stupid, it appears that we plan to slug it out till death do us part. But I wonder if it is not so much about the power of our love as it is the strength of old friendship.

Even so, I enjoyed the vagaries of single life and am unnerved at being coupled again. This lack of ease makes me feel like the innocent I was when I flew off some thirty years ago to marry this man in faraway East Africa. We had met at Yale Drama School and soon thereafter realized how impossible it would be to try to try and survive in the theatre with no guaranteed income to say nothing of steady employment. Joining the Peace Corps seemed to offer a solution. It wasn't difficult to choose adventure over starvation, especially since there were so many illusions and hopes attached to my blushing virginity. I had an entire life spread out before me with plenty of time for trial and error. Now such innocence is gone, and I'm more practical, less expectant, and painfully aware that I'm supposed to know, not only what marriage is all about, but also how to live gracefully within its walls. Everything has become strangely reconfigured, and in the process I've been rendered anxious.

I recall asking my uncle for marital advice before heading down the aisle. He handed me a passage from The Prophet in which Kahlil Gibran likens matrimony to the oak and the Cyprus trees. "Stand together, yet not too near—for the pillars of the temple stand apart and the oak and the Cyprus grow not in each other's shadow." Perhaps unknowingly, I took the prophet's advice when I ran away from home last year. The institution of marriage had permeated my very being; my focus was always on "us," so as I became incapable of being conscious of "me." Devoted as I was to the role of good wife and helpmate, I worked mostly in my husband's shadow, until a sort of toxicity set in which poisoned the air we breathed. By the time I left, we had become more like incestuous siblings than husband and wife.

I suppose that is why we now seem to be giving each other room, fighting against a life of routine, facing each other with both detachment and cautious acceptance. By the time I return from my walk, Robin is generally off to the golf course, which is revitalizing his sedentary body. I'm uncomfortable that our instincts seem to take us in such divergent directions, and yet I sense that we both know that too much togetherness might strip away the new individuality we've each recently cultivated. Finding personal space within perpetual togetherness is key. It might appear that we are trying to avoid one another, but in fact we are both intent on creating new lives. I am determined for us not to become one of those vacant couples you see in restaurants, heads buried in their meals, looking as if all vitality and essence had been sucked out of them. Not me! Not that! I think he shares my sense that we need to create new independent lives, so that when we return home in the evening we each bring a vibrancy that comes from meaningful endeavor.

Still, I wonder how to get the marriage back on track. Where are the guidebooks for maintaining long-term relationships? There are a plethora of prescriptions for raising children, getting jobs, being sexual, and understanding the self. But veterans of long term marriage, deserted by their youthful hormones, are left to muddle along in their middle-aged bodies. In due time I expect some modicum of happiness to surface. At least I hope so, because at our age we don't have days to squander.

As the sun climbs above the trees, I am eager to turn from such troubling thoughts and more than ready to embrace the wild land beyond my door. I go inside to retrieve my jeans and sweater, lace up my sneakers, and head out toward the dirt path I have walked hundreds of times, reminding myself of the Navajo saying: The sun has only one day. Live this day in a good way so that the sun won't have wasted precious time.

The forest is alive with the sound of rustling creatures scurrying under fallen leaves and acorns being squashed underfoot. These external noises drown out my internal chatter. But not five minutes down the lane, my tranquility is jarred by the sound of a huge engine and I quickly spot the source: A North American Van Line truck, inching its way up our narrow path, breaking branches as it heads straight toward me. Interrupting the normal quiet woods the truck appears like an unwelcome mirage. Nonetheless, I step into the brush and out of the way as I hear Robin's voice and see him running through the woods, buckling his trousers while shoving his feet into his docksiders.

"Is this truck for us?" I ask incredulously.

"Yep," he assures me. "Just stuff from the office."

"The office!" I counter, my tone edgy and tense. "Didn't you leave all that behind?"

"Not my files and furniture," he answers, a curt tone now creeping into the conversation. I back away from a potential confrontation, reminding myself of my silent promise not to instruct him or ask too many questions. Men dislike instruction, my mother told me. They've had enough of it from their mothers and teachers. If I can hold my tongue, he might figure out, independent of me, how to get on with his life. Besides, I've come to know that I can have power or love—but not both. This time I'm after love.

Three young men hop out of the cab and open the side door of the van, as Robin tells them to put the cartons inside the living room. "Just stack them up along the one empty wall," he says, to my irritation, without a glance in my direction.

My heart sinks. In the past year I have tried to create a Zen-like space in our little cottage and soon, it appears, that will be undone. When he filled the guest room closet with ties, suits, shoes, and golfing paraphernalia, I figured it was only a matter of time before he would drop the buttoned up look and settle into casual clothes. But when he declared the basement his exclusive domain and ordered a new desk and file cabinet soon thereafter, I was more than alarmed. His spending spree reminded me more of a bored housewife than a man suddenly free of daily drudgery.

I watch as box after box is carried from the truck and will myself to believe that he has a plan for his new life. With that thought, I stride off through a tunnel of trees certain that motion will quell my internal disturbance. But halfway up the road, I'm besieged again with unkind thoughts again and wonder about the source of my anger. If I loved this cottage best when it bustled with family and friends, why would I now bristle at the intrusion of one? Certainly living apart has made both of us more territorial, but there's plenty of room left for coexistence. I'm feeling invaded, but how could that be? He is, after all, my husband! Besides, haven't I learned after all these years that men come rushing into homes with gusto? Unaccustomed as they are to sleeping babies, meditative states, and everyone else's space, they stomp about, slam doors, and crank up the stereo. Such behavior comes with the territory.

Mercifully my walk takes me out of the woods and into a meadow where the edges of things begin to soften, as does my heart. I hadn't wanted to assume what our life would be like when Robin joined me, and I'm not about to start now. Poor fellow. Giving up a secure job for an unknown future is bound to have some ramifications. For the past thirty years, the better part of his days have been spent within four walls of a small office. Having broken free, he must wonder if he's in exile or under house arrest. One of my tasks as a "recovering wife" is to be gracious and accommodating, even if it feels like adjusting to the strange habits of a college roommate. After all, it took me a year to rid myself of the old and permit new attitudes to surface. He needs the same amount of latitude to stumble into his old self again.

I take a deep breath and forge on, up a gradual incline toward the shoulder of a hill where the view forces me to stop, breathe and be grateful. This must be the most gentle and beautiful morning so far this fall—golden and mellow, as the chilly air quickly becomes warm. My irritable mood drifts away like the falling leaves. Today the trees display deepening hues—mauve, beige, sage, and gray—subtle tones that calm my spirit and remind me of where I am in my life.

I spot a huge pile of leaves and topple into its center, overcome by this season's message. Fall is about coming full circle. It indicates the culmination of birth, growth, and death—not unlike couples that have endured myriad challenges only to arrive at the autumn of their lives. I finger the leaves surrounding me, their patterns and colors individual, varied and vibrant and remember, as a child, how I had wanted to preserve their glory by ironing each carefully chosen leaf between pieces of waxed paper.

It occurs to me that if I want to know the moments as well as digest my experiences, I have to give it time. Our marriage as it was is over. But our relationship as it is, ripened and weathered, has a deeper tone to it—not unlike these wonderfully rich colored leaves that half the world pays homage to each September and October. Moreover, since Robin and I have chosen to reassemble our relationship in a bucolic setting, on our own steam, minus the rules and constraints of a staid society, we are left to receive that which will evolve from our own natural cycles.

I like where my thoughts are taking me. This place and my walk have once again worked its magic. I have regained my balance. The return home will be full of affirming thoughts. My stomach growls as I turn back toward home, quickening my step as the road tilts upward until I arrive at the kitchen door.

With no sign of the truck or my husband, I duck into the outside shower to rinse off, not only the grit collected on the walk, but the remnants of an impulse to control, left over from my solitary life. As the clear, hot water releases the tension from my shoulders, I gaze up at the blue sky and let my immediate and selfish desires wash down the drain. Feeling cleansed, I step from the stall just as I hear the ringing of the phone and duck inside the back door to answer it. It's my friend Charlotte. "How's it going?" she whispers, as if asking for secret information.

I sigh, exasperated all over again, and tell her that right now I'm feeling crowded. "Robin's moved his entire office into the cottage," I say.

"His what? I thought he retired."

"Ah, so did I," I continue, "but I suppose he's hoping to consult or run educational seminars and wants to make sure his books and papers are available."

"Isn't he supposed to be creating a new life?" she asks, remembering some of Robin's and my conversations as we daydreamed about world travel, living abroad a few months of the year, or working for an organization such as the Audubon Society.

"I'm giving him a long leash," I say. "Whatever he said before he arrived has changed with the reality of being here. On my walk today I found myself feeling his pain—recalling my early days of withdrawal from my old life. I remember how lonely change can be."

"You sound like you're getting soft," she goads. "Do I smell the rekindling of some sort of romance?"

"Hardly," I chuckle. "It's about relearning what it is to be married without the budding hormones! A sort of androgyny has set in. We're warming up slowly. One minute it feels familiar and the next kind of strange, like we're on a blind date."

"They were scary," she says with her usual sardonic wit.

"No kidding," I agree. "We've been taking in matinees and then going out for a bowl of chowder—benign activities to be sure, but they keep us relating, none the less."

Uncomfortable with how this conversation is going, and freezing now clad only in my damp towel, I beg off, promising to keep her posted on each new installment. I hang up feeling like a guinea pig in this remarriage business. It was hard enough explaining why I ran away and now more complicated trying to make someone understand reconciliation.

I throw on a robe and head for the kitchen, gingerly pulling open the screen door, half afraid of seeing the mess he surely has created. Robin is sitting on the bench beside the kitchen table staring at the contents of one of the boxes.

Reading Group Guide

1. Early in the book, Anderson refers to herself as a “recovering wife.” What do you believe she is recovering from? In this case, how is her recovery as a wife related to her husband’s transformation?

2.Anderson refers several times to the state of her marriage once the youthful “hormones” have worn off. Do you feel that there is a chemical or biological component that brings people together in their youth? Or is this shorthand for a different set of processes?

3.One of the most important components of Anderson’s transformation in A Year by the Sea was discovering her capability to be financially independent, yet as Joan and Robin contemplate a shared future, they must make joint decisions about their money — where to spend it, where to earn it, and who owns it. How do the financial changes a couple undergoes throughout a lifetime change their larger relationship?

4.Joan writes wistfully about her marriage, “Who took the magic out of it?” In contrast to the magical romances of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White that we see in childhood, we are taught as adults that Prince Charming doesn’t exist. But is there a kind of magic that brings people together? Romantic fantasy, like fairy tales and romance novels, is certainly seductive — but is it ultimately harmful or helpful?

5.What are the key components that Joan and Robin salvage and “recycle” that allow them to rebuild their marriage?

6.After twenty-five years, Joan and Robin feel a kinship with their summer friends, even though they recognize each other’s shortcomings. How can relationships with others be helpful in the process of redirecting a marriage?

7.At several points, Joan expresses a desire to clear the air or to discuss the unspoken tensions between herself and her husband, her friends, and her children. Do you feel that the sharing of confidences is always beneficial? Are we more hurt by what we say or by what we keep quiet?

8.Joan’s attempt to reenter her marriage with her husband came after a drastic year of change and renewal — a year in which she was uncertain whether her marriage would continue at all. Do you think we need to repair ourselves before we can work on our relationships? Would this kind of reunion have been possible without their drastic separation?

9.Discuss the idea of rescue. Do you feel most often like the rescued or the rescuer? Do you expect someone to rescue you? Do you allow yourself to be rescued?

10.How do children, even adult children, affect a marriage?

11.In A Year by the Sea, Anderson felt the influence of the sea and the seasons throughout her year of renewal. In An Unfinished Marriage, Joan and Robin look back at the history of their cottage and alter it to fit their plans. How does the place we live define us? How great an impact do our surroundings have on us?

12.If you were to be isolated for two weeks, who would you choose to be with? How would it be to be alone with your spouse?

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