Autopsy of a Dead Marriage
The ultimate cause of death was surprising
The Atlantic Ocean unfolded under my wings as I made my way home from war. I think we were around halfway back to American soil when my marriage breathed its last.
Iraq had beaten the hell out of me for nearly 15 months, but I knew the worst was yet to come. After months of clinging to the misguided hope that marital resurrection was possible, I knew in that moment that it was finished.
I was 34 lbs. lighter than when I first traversed that ocean on my way to the Middle East. I think I stopped eating some six months earlier, which made the harsh elements even more brutal. As I stared at an unrecognizable face in the mirror of that tiny airplane lavatory, I was not sure he would make it.
You’ve heard it said that war is hell. The battles you can literally taste in the back of your throat as they rage all around. War does things to the body, no doubt about it. It also warps the soul in unimaginable ways.
For me, this one began long before my boots touched sand. My marriage was a brutal battlefield. We were two immature souls desperately fighting to shape each other into the idealized fairy tale figures our imaginations longed for.
I’d love to report that we were making progress before I was abruptly reallocated by Uncle Sam, only to lose our momentum forever in my absence. The truth, though, is that we had settled early on into a dead zone of internal surrender to disappointment.
War, in all its forms, is violent offensive and counter-offensive measures in pursuit of prescribed objectives. The real essence of conflict, though, is the people waging it. Competing ideals and ideologies inform confrontations, but people, who are fundamentally broken vessels, fire the shots.
We live and die. Marry and divorce. Raise children and sometimes get that right. No matter how disciplined and well-trained we are — no matter how well-intentioned — things go wrong. We charge headlong (and often recklessly) into the breach, determined to conquer. Forgetting to account for the fragile humanity at stake.
It’s romantic to live in a dream world where love conquers all. In that dimension, all we need are our puppy dog feelings, our virility, and the seemingly perfect counterpoint to our own souls.
Mike Tyson once famously said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Romantic fantasy can only take you so far before the cold reality of human nature bludgeons you with its sledgehammer fists.
Love will test your chin. If you haven’t prepared for that eventuality, your fantasies will disintegrate into the cold death of heartbreak. It was so with us.
Now that we were dead, it was time to examine why. This marriage needed a brutally honest, in-depth autopsy.
How It All Began
I remember the smell of our first encounter. Salisbury steak — slightly burned. The cafeteria at our college burned everything, but there was something especially biting about that sloppy, gravy-drenched slab of meat.
I was sitting in the back of the room with a couple of buddies, cutting up about how awful the food was. Suddenly, a 200-kilowat smile settled into the chair across from me. It was a real record-scratch moment; every one of us went dead silent.
“What’s the joke, boys?” she asked. “I haven’t laughed all day and it’s almost over!”
My mouth, suddenly full of invisible cotton, wouldn’t work at all for some reason. One of my friends — I forget which — jagged me in the ribs with an elbow as if to say, “I can’t deal with this either. You’re up, chief!”
I took a sip of what I thought was my Coke, not realizing I had grabbed the drink off his tray, which turned out to be Dr. Pepper. I instantly gagged on the distinct difference between expectation and rude result. Tears stung my eyes and snot formed on the tip of my nose — it was a visceral backlash.
Smooth. Real smooth.
She instantly diffused the situation with an easy, musical laughter that encouraged everyone to join in. Except me, of course. I was still gathering myself from that choking bite of Dr. Pepper, which I have hated the very existence of ever since.
“Ok! That’s more like it,” she said. “Who needs a joke when I have a show?”
I felt the blood burn into my cheeks. A dull headache began to form in the back of my head. I hurriedly finished what I could possibly stand to ingest of that meal and quickly made my way out of that scene. I was determined to avoid ever seeing her again — sheer embarrassment, you know.
Three weeks later, we were dating.
The Summer Breakup
She called from Houston one hot afternoon that July to let me know that we should see other people. I’m notoriously slow on the uptake when it comes to human relationships, so a friend of mine had to explain that this likely meant she already had a head start on that.
Heartache is funny when you look back at it. In the moment, it’s the worst feeling in the world. You can’t see your way out of it. You act, react, act out — it’s a lot like the disoriented flailing of someone who has been pushed into a swimming pool when they weren’t looking.
I spent the rest of that summer trying to both cope with what seemed like a profound rejection and trying to redefine my identity as a newly single person. We had only dated for four months, but that felt like an eternity in my 20s.
She came clean when she returned to school that fall. She broke up with me because her conscience got the better of her. Turns out, she had been dating some dude off and on for years; being around him again turned the whole thing back on.
We got back together that fall. When we broke up again the next summer, I began to suspect that she was madly in love with whichever one of us was right in front of her face.
Happily Never After
Our second breakup was our last as a dating couple. She quit going home to Houston for the summer after the second one, so homeboy was no longer in the picture.
I was convinced that I had won and that she was mine. I learned three years after we were married that there was always another wolf lurking around every corner. Wild hearts are good at finding them.
Of course, it didn’t help that the marriage itself was a Category 5 Disaster. I never learned to trust her; her defense mechanism was counter-distrust. Chronic cheaters constantly accusing their partners of cheating? That was a major takeaway from this relationship — in hindsight, of course.
If you’re ever wondering whether you’re being cheated on or not, take these things into account:
- Has your partner suddenly started spouting words and phrases that you’ve never heard from them before?
- Has their taste in movies, music, and other forms of entertainment suddenly changed?
- Do they suddenly have a completely different rhythm of coming and going that they haven’t bothered to explain?
- Do they become hyper-defensive when you ask them to explain these things?
In short, it’s about the patterns. Unexplained new habits, anger at being asked to account for them — these are sure-fire signs that something is very wrong.
I saw the shifting patterns and radically new attitudes in my wife, but I didn’t have time to engage them before the phone call came that would change the course of my life forever.
Uncle George’s Invitation
I was sitting in my office at the church one Wednesday evening in February of 2003, about an hour before our weekly youth service. My sermon was ready and I was feeling pretty good about how the evening would go. Just as I was getting up to go grab a bite to eat, my office phone rang.
“Is this SGT Vaughn?” the caller asked.
“Only on certain weekends!” I joked. “May I ask who’s calling?”
“I’m calling to welcome you to your new unit,” the caller said in a monotone voice that suggested I was only one in a long series of calls he had made that day. “You are hereby ordered to report to us here in New Orleans within 24 hours.”
I barked a sharp report of awkward laughter at that. Someone was jerking me around and obviously thought this was funny.
“Haha,” I said. “I’m very busy this evening, so let me let you go.”
“Check your military email,” he said. “I assume you have internet in whatever the hell that town is you’re in?”
“We have internet in North-Central Arkansas. We just got it yesterday,” I replied drily. “I’m pulling it up now.”
I logged into my Army Reserve email account — something I rarely ever did outside of duty hours in my two-day-a-month, two-week-a-year camouflage gig. This took a while — we did indeed have internet there, but it was barely one step beyond AOL dialup.
Sure enough, there were two unread emails waiting for me. The first was an involuntary transfer order to the unit the caller said he was with. The second was a deployment order. Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Report date? The next day.
I delivered that sermon, along with a farewell to a room of around 45 teenagers I would not see again for 15 months. It was a lot to digest in such an abrupt fashion. The tears flowed freely, along with fervent well-wishes and concerns for my safety. The feels were palpable in that room.
Home was a different story.
The Final Goodbye
Iraq was hot, dirty, and dangerous. I distinctly remember the day she told me the truth. Some of it, anyway. It was 145 degrees Fahrenheit outside and we were on the verge of a near-catastrophic dust storm. The sound of mortar fire rattled every inch of the building I sat in as I placed the call home.
She didn’t answer the house phone, but that was no surprise. I hadn’t reached her there in several months. I knew what was going on, but it seemed worth it to keep lying to myself for some reason.
She answered her cell phone, but I could tell she was somewhere that she didn’t want me to know about. The stilted delivery of very few words was a dead giveaway.
“I’m kind of busy right now,” she said. “Can we talk later?”
This stung. I wasn’t out of town at a shower and tile convention — I was in a war that was actively raging around me during that very phone call. And anyway, phone calls were just this side of impossible to get through from Iraq on a good day.
Clearly, the time had come to stop lying to myself. To stop allowing her to lie to me.
“Who is he?” I asked. “And before you deny it, let’s just pretend this is Summer 1998 and get this out, ok?”
“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about!” she said, rather unconvincingly.
“I’m coming home on leave next week,” I said. “Are you sure you want to stick with that story?”
After a brutally long silence — I was sure the call had disconnected — she spoke again in a near-whisper.
“Ok. There is something I need to tell you,” she said. “I’ve been kind of seeing someone for about a month. I never meant for it to happen, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
She met me at the airport in Dallas. Some crackerjack reporter caught us in a passionless kiss and splashed the photo right across the front page of the Dallas Morning News. He made it look incredibly romantic — the war was still a relatively new thing and soldiers coming home on leave was of major interest back then.
The seven-hour drive home featured a lot of uncomfortable questioning and answering. By the time we arrived at our front door, I had most of the truth.
She hadn’t been seeing some random dude for a month. She’d been seeing him behind my back for over a year before I left and moved in with him the day I flew out to New Orleans.
Our house was mostly empty — her entire, considerable wardrobe was at his place, along with half our furniture and my TV. Taking a man’s wife is one thing, but his TV?!
I was home for two weeks during that period of leave, and I saw her maybe three times. I knew she was gone, but there was still a part of me that thought being in front of her again would rekindle something. It had worked that way in college, after all.
We said goodbye in the parking lot of one of the banks in town. There was no goodbye kiss, no hugs. We didn’t even get out of our cars. She pulled up next to me in the parking lot, rolled down her window, and wished me well with whatever came next. Back to Iraq was what was next.
This was 18 years ago. I haven’t laid eyes on her since.
I spent four more months in the Middle East, dodging the perils of war while trying to maintain my sanity as my world back home crumbled into ruins. We spoke on the phone around once a week, me trying to talk her into reconsidering leaving me while she became increasingly rude about
handling the business of our impending divorce.
Once or twice, I said something that seemed to crack through her iron exterior. It was just often enough to keep my hopes on life support, but the truth was plain to see if I would just focus on it.
As the clouds hovered under my aircraft on that last journey home, I determined the ultimate cause of death: fear of being alone.
This wasn’t even the second time she had left me for someone else. The basis for our relationship was codependence, and the content of our marriage was a mutual loathing that always seems to exist between two people who have no business being together.
Our first breakup should’ve been the last. The second should’ve confirmed that. The third — our divorce — was a painful receipt for malicious services rendered by my own self-deception.