Ask Ellie: “Should I choose my home or my marriage?”

October 19, 2021

“Ask Ellie” is LARB’s new advice column, drawing wisdom from the great myths and stories to navigate the terrible, glorious weirdness and difficulty of modern life. Please submit your dilemmas, midnight anxieties, fear, loathing, and confusion to askelliehere@gmail.com.

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Dear Ellie,

This year I married a man I adore, after five years together. He’s kind, smart, driven, funny. He brings me coffee in bed and sometimes even a bagel too. We have great friends and stimulating careers and even our apartment doesn’t suck (by New York standards anyway). Somehow, I have exactly the life I always wanted.

And that is the problem. Because now my husband wants me to leave this life we worked so hard to build and move home with him to Australia.

We met here in New York, my city, after he moved for work almost six years ago. He loved the city from the moment he stepped off the plane and never once talked about going home. Actually he used to say he would never leave. Until now. Since the pandemic started he’s struggled with being so far from his family and friends. He complains about missing his life in Melbourne, he talks all the time about his favorite spots and the life he had there. He says he’s tired of working so hard all the time, especially now New York is so different since COVID. Sometimes he says that except for me, he doesn’t even know why he’s here.

I can see that he’s hurting and homesick and I want to be sympathetic. But I feel blindsided and scared and resentful. It feels like I have to either lose my husband or my home. But what if I can’t face losing either? I’ve lived in New York my whole life except college. My family and all my friends are here. Leaving was never in my plan. And the thing I can’t say to him is, why should I have to anyway? He made the choice to come here. I never chose to leave my home. I never would. Why should I be the one who ends up homesick, because he changed his mind about where he wanted to live?

So what do I do? Do I choose the life and the city I love, or the man I love?

From,

Don’t Make Me Move

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Dear Don’t Make Me Move,

Are you sure you never chose to leave your home?

Marriage is always an emigration. You leave the sovereign state of your singleness, the wobbly old continent of your family of origin, and find yourself in a strange new country. Maybe it’s a lawless land, or one where the customs make no sense, where people keep stealing your socks or putting the skillet in the dishwasher — or where one day they ask you to up and leave everything you’ve built, based on nothing but a heaviness in their heart. You can never really know what life will be like in this country until you get there, and even then it can change from one day to the next, because it’s a country made by two people, which is to say two infinitely complex, ultimately unknowable, unfathomably beautiful idiots.

Maybe you didn’t notice that you had emigrated. That would make a certain sense — after all, you’ve just been riding the Q train and eating bagels this whole time, right? But look up, look around. Check out the terrain. It’s more hilly, more mysterious than the place you came from. That valley wasn’t there before, and neither was that extra set of footprints.

Look, I’m milking this metaphor because I want you to really appreciate the journey you’ve already made. That’s crucial. Right now, because you didn’t notice it — because you’re still shaking your phone and wondering why your old map won’t load — you’re missing out on an enormous opportunity. Journeys are everything in this life. They’re where the real story begins. You have to get away from home and its cozy strictures, from the calcified, childhood version of you that lives in your family and your village, in order to find out who you really are. We know this most famously from the tired old “hero’s journey” model, of course, but this pattern’s bigger and less testosterone-addled than that. For much of human history, it wasn’t just a story structure, it was a way of life: adolescents on the cusp of adulthood were sent away from the village on rites of passage. Only distance and some hardship could grow them up and draw out whatever magic their particular soul had to offer to the community.

It probably sounds like I’m about to exhort you to up sticks and move to Melbourne as some sort of elaborate rite of passage, so let me be clear right away: that’s not what I’m saying. That’s a whole other conversation, and one I don’t think you can even begin to have until you’ve come to terms with the journey you’ve already made. Until you’ve recognized and begun to live into this opportunity to find your magic.

If it seems Pollyannaish or old-fashioned to frame marriage as a journey into magic, know that I’m no wide-eyed ingenue. I’ve been through a divorce — believe me, I know the darkness that can lurk in this institution. I also know that there’s a reason you found your way here: to marriage, and marriage to someone from a far-off land, no less. You were seeking something. Some ravenous part of you, no matter how buried, wanted more: more life, more connection, more growth. Even now, when marriage so often seems reduced to a box-ticking exercise, there’s a glimmer of this hunger, this hope, on all but the very saddest of wedding days.

So right now, this very moment, you have a choice. You can see this new country you’ve landed in as a more-or-less familiar place, a place like any other you’ve visited, except that now there’s someone beside you as you drive past the same old strip malls and gas stations and endless dead fields, to a succession of only-marginally-sucky apartments.

Or you can blink, look again, and see a country waiting to flourish into the most surprising, challenging, fascinating, occasionally maddening, and deeply nourishing place you’ve ever been.

But it’s not going to flourish on its own. It’ll take cultivation, which means hard labor. The good news is that in this toil, you might well begin to find your own specific magic, the gifts you were born to offer.

So how do you start? First things first, you have to own your emotions and experiences, so that you’re not reacting all over the place. You say that you feel blindsided and scared and resentful, but dig deeper. What’s beneath that resentment, that surprise? Is it more fear? Is it, in fact, abject fucking terror? That would make a whole lot of sense. Melbourne’s a long way from New York. But keep digging. What in particular, in forensic detail, terrifies you about your husband’s longing? What are you so scared to lose? Why are you terrified to stray beyond the familiar? What is the worst-case scenario you’re torturing yourself with? Your answers to these questions will give you a map of your insecurities and wounds — things you should spend some time lovingly tending to, by allowing yourself to feel them in their fullness.

Yes, tend to them so that they don’t come barreling out and steamroll your husband’s most vulnerable moments — but do it for yourself, too. This is how you unlock yourself and your own magic. This is what a rite of passage is: you have to go into the woods, find the most frightening thing, and face it, before you can really claim your place in this world.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll also be able to hear your husband. It sounds like that’s not really happening right now. It sounds like his complaints are escalating — from I miss my family to What am I even here for anyway? — because he doesn’t feel like he’s getting through. Trust the divorcee on this one: you don’t want to end up building a nation where everyone’s screaming and nobody feels heard.

Your husband’s moods and needs are simply part of the weather system of this new country you’ve landed in. Sure, they can be mysterious and inconvenient. They might seem to issue from some distant ocean you didn’t even know was there. But they’re not aimed at you. Like a storm cloud, they just are. And the only way you’re going to grow anything worth having in this climate is if you learn to work with them rather than against them. So listen to him, just like you listened to yourself. Tend to the details. Ask him questions, and slow down to really hear the answers.

If you can do all this, that lush, embracing landscape you once glimpsed will start to bloom around you. I don’t need to warn you that it won’t all be roses. I sense you’re already braced for the biblical storms and the weeds that just won’t die, and they’ll come, for sure. What I hope you’ll start to feel more fully is everything else: the roots and green shoots that will be there even in the storms, if you keep tending to the garden. It sounds like your husband is a good man, Don’t Make Me Move. It sounds like there is an infinitely complex, ultimately unknowable, unfathomably beautiful idiot who wants to cultivate a world with you. I hope you’ll give both of you the gift of cultivating it with him.

None of which, of course, answers the question of whether you should move to Melbourne. I can’t answer that for you, and you can’t answer it either until you and your husband have fully arrived in and started tending to the country of your marriage. But I will say, I have a sneaking suspicion that once your marital landscape starts to really bloom, you might find yourself less desperate to grip onto the life you thought you always wanted, and more interested in exploring all the magic beyond, in the wide world. The things you never even knew it was possible to want. That’s my wish for you.

Xx Ellie

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Ellie Robins is a writer published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The TLS, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, and the translator of Alan Pauls’s novel A History of Money (2015). You can follow her on Twitter @ellie­_robins and subscribe to her newsletter at tinyletter.com/here.