My childhood was rough enough to knock the belief in happily ever after clean out of my heart. My parents split when I was too young to remember; then, when I was five, my dad died in a plane crash. I’ve always been one of those hardheaded chicks who believe that we’re all responsible for our own happiness. Still, when I married Laird I was confident I’d found my soul mate. Who could be more perfect for me than a guy who was my height—six feet three—and was even more intense and focused than I was?
Laird and I met in 1995 while I was shooting a TV show called The Extremists. Like pretty much everything else these days, you can find it online. I was twenty-five and wore an oversized white T-shirt. My hair—are those bangs?—is whipping around in the wind.
“Today I’m hangin’ with an extremist who catches some serious waves,” I say. “His name is Laird Hamilton and he lives for the big swell.”
I ask him whether he considers this to be a big swell day, and even though it looks as if a hurricane is about to roll in at any second, he says no. Laird looked exactly the same way he looks right this minute: tan and focused. You can see us falling in love right there on camera. Ten days later we moved in together.
We didn’t even make it to our fifth anniversary before our sexy fairy tale turned into one of those unwatchabe Swedish domestic dramas that makes the audience want to throw themselves off the nearest bridge. We were so simpatico in so many ways, but stupidly we’d counted on this fact to remain immutable and provide an unshakable foundation for our relationship. Our love was and is complex. We weren’t simply hot for each other, or companionable good friends, or a couple who had been together so long marriage was the obvious next step. We had it all covered; then, without knowing how it happened, we’d become two really tall near-strangers stomping around the house, fuming, slamming doors, and glaring at each other over our green smoothies.
How clueless was I about marriage, about living under the same roof with another human being with—surprise!—his own personality and his own life? Those who know my husband call him the Weatherman. I don’t put a lot of stock in astrology, but he is one of the world’s primo watermen and a Pisces—known for their deep sensitivity and mutable moods. Life with Laird: it’s windy, no wait, it’s raining, wait, wait, now it’s sunny.
The problem was not the moods—that’s who the guy is—but me. I took every slammed cupboard door personally. I thought, if he loved me, he’d be happy most of the time.
But I would never say anything, which became the problem that compounded the problem, a layer cake of misery. It’s never one thing that tanks the economy or ruins a marriage. I didn’t communicate, didn’t tell him when he was being a jackass, didn’t tell him how hurt my feelings were. I thought that when you love somebody you don’t make a fuss. As a professional athlete, one of the first things I’d learned was to suck it up, and that’s what I thought you did when the person with whom you were in a relationship was an ass. You sucked it up.
I was becoming bitter and resentful. And if there’s one thing that trashes a love story, it’s resentment.
By Christmas of 2000 I was done. The marriage had broken down, and I didn’t feel like fixing it. So I filed for divorce.
For a while, Laird tried to talk me out of it, but then he let me go.
Then, in the spring, Laird passed through California, and arrived at the house in Malibu to pick up his snowboard. He’d completely disengaged from me. He was all business.
I saw clearly at that moment that he’d always been a generous, loving partner, and that his love had been a gift. He’d withdrawn it, and now I was just some chick who was holding on to his snowboard. It was then, after he’d fully stepped away, that I was able to look at him and see what I would be missing. For the first time I realized that he was a person with whom I had a good shot at happiness.
There are thousands of people out there with ideas about how to be happy and happily married and live the dream and own the happily ever after (which you already know I have no aptitude for, having messed up my marriage almost instantly).
A lot of them are men without children, or loners, or people who have other people to do the tedious shit that drives everyone who has to do it—and who isn’t a complete Zen master—insane. Does Eckhart Tolle go to Costco every week for his family to make sure they have plenty of frozen three-berry mix for their smoothies and Pirate’s Booty for healthy snacking? Does Deepak Chopra spend most of his waking hours washing towels that his family dropped on the bathroom floor and then trampled with their muddy feet? Gandhi was out there starving by himself, changing the world for the better, but let’s not forget, Mrs. Gandhi was at home with the kids. What I’m saying is that it’s easy to be your best self when you don’t live in the world of “Clear your plate,” “Stop whining and go to bed,” “Did you brush your teeth?” “Honey, have you seen my clean shirt?” “Honey, what’s for dinner?” “Honey, we haven’t had sex in a month.”
I’m not beating up on these guys. They’ve offered a lot of wisdom, advice, solace, and inspiration to thousands, if not millions of people. They are not, however, married to a guy who doesn’t do email.
Laird and I got back together. For another year or two, we circled each other, unsure. We were like survivors of some natural disaster, grateful to be alive, but dazed by the wreckage. The foundation was cracked, the roof had leaks, the windows were smashed out. Repairs always take longer—and cost more—than you might first imagine.
As I write this, we’ve been married sixteen by-and-large happy years. In celebrity years, this translates to about nine million. It hasn’t been perfect. The degree to which it’s been imperfect would shock even those people who claim to thrive on imperfection.
In all those fairy tales, and also in a lot of Hollywood movies you wind up Netflixing, the story ends at the happily ever after. It’s pure bullshit. Nothing makes you superficially more happy than the first flushes of love, but in the ever after it’s all about dealing with your lover, with understanding what makes him tick, surviving his crappy moods, and working together, always, to preserve what you’ve got and nurture a deeper, more profound and grounded love into the future.
Happily ever after means the good part of the tale has already been told. If we’re lucky, we’re married fifty or sixty years. Do you want to sign up for that? Half a century or more of no conflict, no drama, no restlessness, no opportunity to grow and change? You don’t want that, do you? Rather than happily ever after, we should aspire to game on—in part because that’s the reality and in part because it’s much more interesting.