My marriage wasn’t all bad. But after turning 40, I realised that wasn’t enough

I know I sound horribly ungrateful – and probably something of a fool because I still use the pizza maker to this day, whereas that wanky bike was likely sold on Gumtree long ago – but looking back at that moment, it was clear that we had always spoken different languages.

I must have known it then, but by that stage I’d stopped listening to my gut about such matters. Instead, I listened to my head, to platitudes like “opposites attract” and “love the one you’re with”, and to my nanna, who always told me that the key to a happy marriage is to make sure you pick a nice man, just like she did.

I tried my best to ignore the heart pangs I felt when I saw a friend’s husband touch his wife affectionately on the arm or a couple give each other a pash at the end of the night.

I took her advice to heart. She was married to Pa, one of the all-time nice men, for more than 55 years. By this stage she was dying, and I wanted so badly to hold on to her by emulating what they had, that when I found my own nice man, I married him.

Nanna and I just both forgot to take into account the fact that she and Pa were also the great love and passion of each other’s lives, the kind of #couplegoals who still held hands and smooched adorably every second that they could, right up until the day that he died. It wasn’t his niceness
that made their marriage so strong or her so happy. It was their love, their profound connection. You can’t emulate that just by wanting it.

Still, our relationship wasn’t all bad. We rarely argued, we were pleasant to each other, we had fun. Despite our differences, we made a good team – we should probably have just applied to be contestants on The Block, rather than getting married.

For a long time I could easily ignore the rest because his job meant he only spent a few nights a week in our family home, and I was busy working and filling the increasingly gnawing, empty hole I was feeling inside with children and friends and, more literally, with lemon drizzle cake. (The main way I’ve always kept my excess feelings under control is by eating them.)

At her 40th, Justine danced until dawn, but in the months following, she began to realise she yearned for a deeper connection.

At her 40th, Justine danced until dawn, but in the months following, she began to realise she yearned for a deeper connection.Credit:Michelle Johnson

Part of me suspected the problem might just be me, because no one else I knew was as much of a relationship f— up as I seemed to be. I was surrounded by irritatingly blissful-seeming marriages (conveniently forgetting through the lens of wanting that no one ever knows the truth about a relationship except the people who are in it), so I tried my best to ignore the heart pangs I felt when I saw a friend’s husband do something as minor as touch his wife affectionately on the arm or a couple give each other a pash at the end of the night when they thought no one was looking. I carefully looked away when I saw other married people look like they just really enjoyed each other’s company.

I put that sort of relationship down to one of those things that just wasn’t for me, like a childhood pony or a burnt-orange Birkin. That didn’t stop me from aching for it. But leaving never entered my mind. To have one ex I shared children with was unfortunate, to have two would have been careless.

Instead, I told myself that no couple is perfect, and I tried very hard to avoid dwelling on my life choices or watching Nicholas Sparks movies. I tried to keep all my emotions – my ever-growing loneliness, my yearning for a deeper connection – shoved deep inside me, but slowly they seeped out, an annoying trickle at first but pretty soon a full flood. The little voice inside my head that had sometimes whispered to me out of the blue during dinner or lying in bed that this isn’t right eventually turned into one that screamed it at me, constantly.

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I should have ended it much sooner than I did, but I wasn’t brave enough. First I pretended it was okay, because I was afraid and I thought what I had should be enough. Then I cried and pleaded a lot, unfairly begging him to help me fix things that could never be fixed because they were never intact in the first place. Then I slowly let us become more and more detached from each other, less and less married in any real sense of the word, until eventually (and maybe inevitably) the time came when I fell in love with someone else. It was the coward’s way out, but I’d been cowardly in matters of the heart for a long time by then.

Edited extract from Semi-Gloss: Magazines, Motherhood and Misadventures in Having It All (Allen & Unwin) by Justine Cullen, on sale May 4.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale May 2. To read more from Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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