Breakups at the Beginning and End of Marriage

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

These two entries for our ongoing reader series are bookends of sorts—one at the end of a long marriage and the other just before one. This first reader has a grim anecdote, which she frames as “the final breakup”:

My husband was dying from Lewy Body disease—think Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s combined. (Robin Williams made the right decision when given the same diagnosis.) He was in a nursing home. As he lay stretched out on the hospital bed, I gently caressed his forehead and forearm. His last words to me before death: “Stop petting me like a fucking dog.”

This next reader goes into much greater detail over her “pre-emptive divorce” to a manipulative Mormon fiancé:

The breakup that sticks out the most would be when I broke off my first engagement at age 20. I met him September 2002, when I was 19, and he proposed the next April. We were both students at Brigham Young University, which has a very high marriage rate, in part due to the strict moral code of conduct associated with Mormon beliefs. I was inexperienced and had never dated another Mormon before, so I thought he was amazing: He shared my belief system and was a decent human being, and I thought that was enough.

Well, when school let out for the summer he went to live with his parents in Boise and I went to live with mine in Texas. I poured my soul out to him in emails that were pages long, but he would only respond with a paragraph every couple of days or so. He called once a week. My parents saw him for what he was (manipulative, not particularly affectionate, cynical, and unable to hold a job) and were very vocally opposed to the union. I spent nearly all of our engagement in a perpetual state of anxiety.

When I flew back to Utah for classes in the fall, he picked me up. I was totally unprepared for the raging anxiety attack that I experienced on the way from the plane to baggage claim. I ducked inside the bathroom for a few minutes to collect myself, wishing that I could stay in there forever. Why was I feeling this way? It hit me: because I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to marry him.

But I did go out to meet him so he could pick me up from the airport. And then I let him manipulate me into thinking, yes, we should get married. He also said that my mother, if she was opposed to our union, was in league with Satan.

When we discussed what to do about a study abroad program that was a requirement for graduation for my major, he suggested that I not go, because “all I’d be doing was delaying my graduation.” We were both devoutly Mormon, so we never slept together, but the topic of birth control was brought up. “I dunno,” he said. “I guess that’s just something that you’d take care of.”

By November, I couldn’t take it any more. We sat at the table in my apartment, and I said, “Do you think we should break up?” (which of course meant, “I think we should break up.”) He leaned away from me and crossed his arms, with a closed, empty look on his face. He said, “How much of this is from you, and how much is from your mother?” My eyes flashed with anger, but I kept my voice quiet. “It’s me.”

Later, we found ourselves outside my apartment and he hugged me for the last time. He said, “I’m still your friend and your brother. Someday, when you find someone, if he hurts you I’ll kill him and make it look like an accident.”

You’d think that with a closing line like that, it would be a fairly amicable breakup. Ha. Then the nasty emails began. He said that I was ridiculous, that my reasons for breaking up with him were illegitimate, that he “overestimated my maturity.”

The breakup was totally worth it. My roommates said that I looked happier, that I had become a stronger person. I went on my study abroad to Egypt and it was everything I dreamed it would be. When I got back to the states, he contacted me again and asked if we could spend some time together, presumably in hopes of getting back together. After all those nasty things he said to me a year previously, there was no way in hell. But I said politely, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”

If I had married him, I know I would have divorced him by now. Indeed, I referred to this breakup to my friends as my “pre-emptive divorce.”

I did eventually marry someone else several years after this incident. October will be our 11th anniversary, and we have four kids.