Here Comes the Groom: Breaking the Rules

Every year, my wife goes on a trip with her ex-boyfriend. That may be why we’ve stayed married for a quarter century

There is a story I like to tell about my marriage, which hit 25 years in June. I probably like telling it a little too much.

Before I knew her, my wife Karen had a German boyfriend named Uwe. She met him on a kibbutz in Israel when she was 19. They fell madly in love, traveled around Europe together, carried on a transatlantic relationship for two years. By the time I met Karen at Penn State, things with Uwe had already cooled. Eventually, she understood that they were too much alike for romance—but that’s why they’ve remained friends. They both have to travel, to escape, to get to some never-before-seen place and wipe away all the stuff of ordinary life.

I hate to travel.

But that’s beside the point. There was no way Karen was giving Uwe up after she and I fell in love—not even after we got married. For most of our marriage, my wife has gotten together with him once a year, sometimes camping in the Shenandoahs, or in California, sometimes staying in a hole-in-the-wall place in Prague for a week or so.

She’s never asked for my approval. It’s more like: “Uwe and I are trying Austria this year.” And this is okay with me. We don’t have an open marriage, and Karen and Uwe aren’t intimate, unless you count maintaining a close friendship as intimate.

I enjoy telling people about this because of the reaction: I’m either very brave and trusting of my wife (this is the reaction I like) or very stupid (the reaction most men seem to have).

But I’m not really so smug about the arrangement as I might seem. In fact, I’m not entirely happy with it. I’ve gotten to know Uwe. He’s quite likable, and pretty fluent in English. Karen thinks it would be a good idea if Uwe and I, along with Uwe’s live-in girlfriend Bea, became swell friends. Really, I have no interest in that. He can certainly continue visiting us—I’ll fire up the grill and feed him. But Uwe is her friend. And he can remain all hers.

My point here is how important it is to figure out things on our own terms—whatever those terms might be. There is nothing braver, in my opinion, than getting married, because it is a public declaration of what is most personal; marriage is our most prized collective state. That’s why there are so many rules, most of them unwritten, on how we’re supposed to behave post-nuptials.

To hell with that—as a couple, you have to satisfy yourselves. I trust my wife to go gallivanting off with her old boyfriend. In fact, when she comes home—alone—after drinking in some foreign country with Uwe, she’s refreshed, happy, somehow larger. And she gathers me in, at that moment, like I’m the best thing she’s seen in quite a while.

Uwe is part of her life because she loves him. It’s right. Denying how someone feels—there’s the real risk.

Which is also why, when my wife told me recently that next summer she’s meeting Uwe for a week in Germany, I thought, Good. Because I prefer it like that, on his turf, far away.