The day after the 2016 presidential election, I sold my engagement ring. My husband was red. I was (secretly) blue, and silent tears ran down my cheeks as I sat in my car, in the rain, on Philadelphia's jammed Schuylkill Expressway, listening to Hillary Clinton's concession speech on the radio. Instead of voting for the candidate I wanted, I'd cast my vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson, though I wasn't sure what a Libertarian was. I had wanted to keep the peace with my husband, a goal that was increasingly difficult to achieve, whether we were discussing politics or just coping in everyday life.
This article first appeared in Salon.
"I'll give you $4,000 for it," the bespectacled pawnshop owner said. According to the appraisal, it was worth three times that amount. But 26 years into my marriage, I knew how to get by on just enough, financially and emotionally. This wasn't the first time I had hocked my ring. My husband and I had an expensive house and cars we couldn't afford. Our careers were in slumps. But I suspected that my unhappiness went beyond being broke, and that our political divide presaged a deeper splintering.
I married at 19, leaving New York City and my burgeoning acting career in a whirlwind of infatuation, caught up in the excitement of my husband's professional soccer career in Texas. The plan had been to live together, but under pressure from my conservative parents, we made things official after dating just six months. My husband was a world traveler, a charming risk-taker, the life of the party — good qualities for a boyfriend, perhaps, and not necessarily for a husband. Our first substantive fight came early on. I wanted to keep my maiden name. My husband was flat out against it. My Scottish surname was an important part of my identity, plus I just didn't like the way his name sounded with mine. But I was afraid he would change his mind about marrying me if he knew how I really felt, so I conceded. When his soccer team folded and we found ourselves back in New York, with me trying to make another go in show business, I argued that I needed to reclaim my stage name, so I legally — and happily — changed my name back. When I trace the trajectory of our long marriage, that is the first time I remember masking my true desires to keep my husband happy.
I did it again in 1996, when my husband stayed up all night to watch the Clinton-Dole match; he was rooting for the red team. I went only as far as saying I was pro-choice. Still, I didn't vote in that election. Back then, I didn't care too much about who was president and it was easier to just agree with him. I grew up in a house where people didn't yell, and I had learned to keep quiet rather than to fight it out.
As the years turned into decades, however, I started caring more, and our political differences began to feel like one of the more obvious markers of the disconnect between us, whether we were parenting (he was a strict disciplinarian; I was a softie); choosing a vacation destination (he wanted to throw a dart on the map; I preferred a carefully researched itinerary) or deciding how to manage our money (he was of the let's-gamble mentality and I was in constant distress about saving enough to pay for our two kids' college tuitions).
By the time Barack Obama was on the ballot, I'd accepted the fact that my husband and I were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But on Election Day, when my eight-year old daughter declared, "I'm gonna pull the lever," I knew there was no way I could let her inside the voting booth with me. With my heart pounding, I insisted she wait outside the curtain, then I slipped in and yanked the lever as fast as I could. Deep down, I knew that in a healthy marriage, hiding one's voting preference was probably not normal. But I wasn't brave enough to explain to my daughter why I didn't vote the way Daddy did. I committed my small act of defiance in secret. I told myself it was one way of staying true to myself, keeping a bit of who I was.
I also kept mum when politics came up at dinner parties. In the red county where we lived, most of our couple friends were red together. Sure, it might be funny to see James Carville sparring with his Republican wife on TV. But in real life, I figured, one partner had to shut up. And it was me. The truth is, my husband was the honest one, because he voted for what he believed. I was the one with a secret life.
By 2012, I had resorted to outright lying, about politics and everything else. "Yes, sure, I voted for Mitt Romney," I said at the dinner table with a straight face on Election Day. And then I smiled, cleared the table, and pretended everything was OK. But the more our political beliefs widened, the more I examined other aspects of our relationship. I tried to remember what I had initially loved about the man I had married, and realized that we had always been different. He liked the small town where he grew up and I longed for the big city. I loved books. He didn't read. He wanted to join the country club and I wanted to go to museums and author talks. Still, I loved that he kept our yard beautiful and planted anything I wanted. Though he could be harsh with our son — a constant source of conflict — he was sweet with our daughter and would stay up all night with either child when they were sick. And he coached the kids' teams and volunteered for any committee that needed help. What more could I want? But I was having a harder and harder time seeing us growing old together.
With Trump on the ballot in 2016, I began keeping a running list of the pros and cons of staying versus leaving, with the incessant hum of Fox News in the background. I took to escaping with a book inside my walk-in closet, the only place in our home I truly felt safe. It felt like a metaphor for my life and the person I'd let myself become.
Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearings were a breaking point. As usual, my husband sided with the Republicans, claiming the accusations against him were ridiculous, and I landed with the Democrats, saying it was inexcusable behavior. For the first time, my daughter was truly paying attention to what was occurring on the political stage. That alone prompted me to finally speak up, but neither of us could hear or listen empathetically to the other.
Still, I said yes to couples' therapy and to an expensive, weekend-long marriage retreat. Finally, my husband told me that he was who he was and he wasn't changing. As for me, it was easier to tell him that I was unhappy because of his views on an election that had divided an entire country than to admit that I had never been emotionally honest with him. It was easier than telling the truth: I didn't love him the way I should.
At first, my husband didn't believe me. And why would he? The reality was that he didn't actually know me. I'd never let myself be known. When I told him that I needed to leave, that I would be moving into my mother's home to regroup, my kids were shocked, too. But they also seemed a little proud, at least eventually. Dismantling our home was painful — excruciating at times — but we all survived. Except for the woman hiding behind the mask. She's gone.
Now, newly divorced, the kids stay with me in my mom's house where my son has planted a Black Lives Matter sign in the front yard. That's not something we would have done in our former home. I don't blame my husband for that. He was never the one who stopped me from voting for my preferred candidate or expressing my beliefs. All along, I had been gagging myself.
Not this time. I voted early in this year's election, accepting a sticker for my candidate from a volunteer and adhering it to my coat collar.
"Would you take a picture and post it on your social media accounts?" he asked.
I paused. Yes. I would. I was no longer secretly blue.
The sunny Friday after the election, I went on a trail run. My smart watch started buzzing with incoming texts. "Thank you, PA," a friend from Florida wrote. "You saved us, Philly!" another pal said. I smiled, flicking through the messages, and caught sight of my hand. My ring finger was naked — for good.
The world feels different now, and so do I. I'm willing to admit that my husband and I were mismatched from the start — there's no use pretending otherwise — and that our political divide just made the rest of our fault lines clear. I guess that's one thing to thank our soon-to-be-ex president for.
Heather Christie is the award-winning author of the young adult novel "What The Valley Knows" and the producer of the national storytelling phenomenon Listen To Your Mother Greater Berks. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College in Boston and will begin her doctoral studies in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, Scotland in 2021. Heather lives near Reading, Pennsylvania, with her family where she sells real estate when she’s not writing. Find Heather at her website, and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.