The imaginary husband

It was at 5am on the morning of their fourth wedding anniversary that Karen realised Mark was not the man she had married. They had celebrated the night before, eating at an upmarket restaurant and drinking far too much good wine before catching a taxi home to make love and fall asleep in a blur of stickiness, sweat and alcohol. It should have been fabulous.

Karen climbed out of their bed carefully so as not to wake her still sleeping husband. Pulling on her robe she quietly made her way downstairs. She needed to drink water and to think. She knew that she would be feeling hungover for most of the day but the full effects of her overconsumption had yet to kick in. She wondered if her temporary fragility was to blame for the negative thoughts, before accepting that she was once again making excuses for a realisation that she had been refusing to acknowledge for some time.

Standing alone in their kitchen she looked around at the home they had built together. She had considered them a team, working together, supporting each other against whatever life would throw at them. Now she could see that she had been mistaken. She did not doubt that Mark loved her, only that he could no longer be relied upon to be there for her when she needed him.

Her dream had started to unravel when Mark had agreed to a visit from his sister. Karen had already made plans for the weekend but Mark would not suggest a change of date, instead assuring her that there was no need for her to stay around. It felt like a betrayal as she had assumed that Mark would be coming away with her, although nothing had been agreed.

Karen returned earlier than planned to find the sister happily installed in her home, taking little care to treat the space gently. The sister had a lot to say about how the various rooms were arranged, how this could be improved, what additions should be made. Karen felt resentful, usurped.

Over the meal that had been prepared the conversation felt stilted. Karen played her part but there was little common ground between the two women. When she tried to talk to Mark about her feelings afterwards he had hugged her but shown no empathy. The only comfort she could enjoy was the knowledge that such visits were few and far between.

When they happened though they were always the same. The sister felt at home in her brother’s house and would happily rummage through cupboards when she wanted something rather than ask where it was kept. Karen wanted her to behave like a guest, not the member of the household that she assumed herself to be. Mark acted happy to have his sister around even though he acknowledged to Karen that they had little in common other than blood. He too found it hard to converse naturally, but this was not enough to make him willing to discourage the visits. He resented that Karen could not accept this with better grace.

It was at a wider family gathering that Karen overheard her in laws discussing their marriage, asking Mark why he had chosen someone who was so different to them. He did not defend her, merely smiled, shrugged and wandered off to refill his drink. She confronted him later but he would not be drawn into what threatened to become a pointless argument. Karen swallowed down her hurt but could not forget.

It would be futile to expect him to make a choice between her and his family. In law issues were the stuff of jokes and comedy sketches for a reason, she would have to learn to cope. Karen still considered that she and Mark were a team. She felt that he had let her down, fallen short of expectations. She still believed that if he could be made to understand how much this was bothering her then he would act differently.

It was when he started to defend others that Karen realised they were not singing from the same hymn sheet. She would be passing on some news about a mutual friend and he would disagree with her reading of the situation. It was always the women that he stood up for, even those he barely knew. Karen wondered if he considered her a bitch, she began to doubt her own motives. Gradually she stopped sharing her news with him for fear of his reaction.

And then, when they were out with friends, he started to recount a tale from a meeting with someone they knew well, which he had not previously shared with her. She felt betrayed, that he did not see how much she wanted to be involved in all aspects of his life. She felt sidelined, a spare part rather than the essential cog that she had considered herself to be when they had married.

It was only this morning, as she awoke, that the real truth had dawned on her. Mark had never been anything different. It was she who had invented this idea of him because it was how she wanted them to be. Mark loved her but he had never promised to be all things to her. He had never agreed to take her side against the world.

Karen felt betrayed and alone, yet nobody could be blamed except herself. Time and again she had tried to explain to Mark how she felt, never realising that he had no wish to know. He did not try to change her, accepting her moods but expecting her to fulfil her obligations. They were not the team that she had always imagined them to be.

Accepting that her idea of Mark had been an invention meant letting the illusion go. She felt grief, as if he had died even though he had never existed. If her marriage was to survive then she would need to accept the reality of the man to whom she was wed. She would need to work out if she loved him as much as the image of him that she had constructed and revered for so long.

Karen heard the floorboards above her creak and knew that she needed to act out this day as expected. She was not yet ready to come to any decision, she needed time to mull her realisation, to decide on it’s significance to her future life. How important to her was it that her husband should be a friend she could rely on in all circumstances? Could she live with the knowledge that she would never be as important to him as she wished?

Her head was starting to throb as the expected hangover took hold. She refilled her glass of water and prepared another to take upstairs for her husband. Small kindnesses such as this were easy to offer. It was the continuing unconditional giving of herself, when she could no longer expect this to be reciprocated, that would be the challenge.

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