Lives #11 – A Potemkin Marriage

[This is the eleventh in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, called “Lives”.  I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction.  I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that the individuals are not identifiable.  That is particularly true here, since I am revealing secrets hidden until now.  If you think you can guess who this is about, you are certainly wrong.  However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened.  The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]

I’ve known Peter and Judy for more than forty years.  I worked for Peter at a bank, before I went to law school.  Judy later gave me pointers on how to handle a colicky child.  I went to their wedding.

Twenty years ago, when their kids were in university, Peter and Judy realized that their marriage was dead.  They had to make a decision:  separation and divorce, vs. staying together for the kids.  But, it was more complicated for them, because at the same time Peter had to find a new job, and it turned out that new job was not in Toronto.

Their response was to create a fake marriage: a relationship that was entirely fictional, but was presented to the entire world, including their kids, as real.  They did it consciously, through a negotiation that reflected their quite unique personalities.

I call it a “Potemkin marriage”, after the Potemkin villages that were created in Crimea to fool Russian Empress Catherine II in the 18th Century.  Like those villages, which were literally fake constructs to be taken down after the Empress passed, Peter and Judy created a marriage that only existed for the rest of the world to see.  No part of it was rooted in reality.

Peter was a banker at a time when bankers didn’t make a lot of money.  Starting in the 60s, he progressed up the ladder slowly, and never reached a level higher than manager of a small local branch.  It was a solid middle class job; nothing more, nothing less.  Many people thought of him as a “plodder”, getting the job done but never surprising anyone with his brilliance or initiative.  He was not stupid.  He just wasn’t invested in his career.  It was a job, period.  He made sure he got the paperwork right.

Peter’s main interests were starting a family and coaching his kids’ hockey teams.  Perhaps because he grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario, Peter lived for hockey:  playing it, watching it, and later teaching it to his kids.

Judy was from the same small town, and was Peter’s girlfriend starting in Grade 10.  Unlike Peter, Judy was a real “go-getter”, as they used to say.  She was a cheerleader, and in the school band, and a prefect.  For a while, it looked like she might even be the class valedictorian.

She was also “an assertive young woman”.  If you had asked people to describe her back then, they would have said “Judy gets what she wants.”  Judy wanted Peter, the centre on the school’s hockey team, and a good-looking guy as well.  His down to earth approach to life, and his obvious love of family, made him, in her eyes, perfect for the future she wanted.

No-one was surprised when, right after their high school graduation, they announced that Peter had landed a job with a bank, so they were getting married and moving to Toronto.  The wedding was a big local event.  Then they were gone.  It all seemed pre-ordained.

The 70s unfolded exactly as expected for the young couple.  Judy got a job as a property manager for rental apartments.  She was in and out of the job, though, because they had four kids, literally one a year until they decided they had enough.  Each time, Judy would stay at home for six months, then go back to work for six months, then leave to have another child.   As if planned, they alternated boys and girls.

They were smart enough to buy a new house right at the far reaches of the city, in nearby Mississauga, scraping their money together for the down payment, living house poor as their family grew.  Peter – with Judy’s active help – spent every weekend improving their house, so that when it got too small for them, they were able to sell at a good price and buy a much bigger house further out of the city, in Oakville.   With a big backyard.

By the late 70s, they seemed set.  Their combined salaries were enough to cover their now-small mortgage.  Their kids were at various levels of elementary school, and went after school to daycare.  They got a dog, then a second, and then a third.  (No cats.  Judy didn’t like cats.)

Behind the scenes, they had slipped into rigid and largely predictable roles.  Judy was in charge.  She essentially made all of the decisions in the family, with little resistance from Peter.  He, on the other hand, was the family’s athletic director.  When his oldest was just three, he flooded a rink in the backyard, and taught her to skate.  By the time the youngest was three, they had a much bigger house, and skating in the backyard was a daily thing.  Kids from all around the neighbourhood learned to skate and play hockey at Peter’s house.

No surprise that each of their kids ended up on a hockey team by the time they were in Grade 2.  One of the boys never really took to it, but the other three kids played hockey every winter until they were teenagers.  Most of the time, Peter was one of their coaches.

And it wasn’t just hockey.  Summers were taken up initially with baseball, but later all four kids gravitated toward soccer, a growing sport in Canada.  Although they had varying skill levels, their hockey-based fitness made them all pretty good.  One of the daughters ended up on the local rep team, and travelled to tournaments all over North America.  Peter was always one of the parents that went with the team.

Aside from his responsibility for sports, Peter basically worked under Judy’s direction when he wasn’t at the office.  She provided an endless list of projects for Peter to do around the house.  Peter didn’t object.  He loved it.  As the kids got older, they got involved as well:  a deck, a dog run, a finished basement, a pool table (built from scratch), an extensive garden (that Peter built but Judy maintained).

To anyone looking on, this seemed to be the perfect life.  If you asked the kids, they would tell you their friends were jealous of their wonderful family.  Peter appeared to have endless energy.  Judy exhibited unlimited drive.  Everyone was always smiling at their house.  Happy, happy, happy.

All of that was true, none of it a lie.

But then, three things happened.

First, their youngest graduated from high school in 1996, and was about to leave for University of British Columbia.  He would be the last to leave, and only Peter and Judy would be left in their big house in Oakville.

Second, Peter, in his late forties, lost his job.  It wasn’t anything he had done.  He was just getting a little older, and was part of the previous generation of bankers with no degree and little formal training.  The new breed – highly trained MBAs and economists – were taking over.  The existing paradigm was being pushed aside, and Peter along with it.  Perhaps if Peter had spent his evenings and weekends going to school, upgrading his qualifications, he would have survived the round of layoffs.  Coaching hockey teams was not going to save him, and it didn’t.

Third, Peter’s younger brother Carl, who also lived in the Toronto area, and also had a solid and happy middle class life, announced that he was getting a divorce.  He told Peter that he had never been happy, and now that his only son was grown and launched, it was time to start a new life.  He was 44.

Either of the first two events – a newly empty house, and no job – could have pushed Peter to a radical rethinking of his life.  However, if you ask him today, Peter will tell you that it was Carl’s announcement that made him ask the question “Am I really happy?”  He was so shocked that his brother – the “smart one” – was going to head off in a new direction in his life, that he looked inward at his own life, and his future.  Was he happy?  Peter’s answer, to his astonishment, was “No”.

The reasons for that were complicated.  Over the twenty-eight years of their marriage, Judy and Peter’s focus had moved from the excitement and intimacy of starting and raising a family, to a financial and practical relationship that had little excitement, and no intimacy.  The shift had been slow, and from Peter’s point of view it had been masked by the day to day pleasure of his relationships with his kids.  He didn’t really notice his relationship with Judy turning into the sterile and empty thing it had become.  He was busy with the other parts of his life.

It later came as a surprise to Peter, though, to find out that at the same time Judy was having doubts about her future with Peter.  Unlike Peter, she would never have actually considered splitting up.  She had built a successful family unit, and she wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that record of success.  On the other hand, she knew that, without the kids around, she could look forward to living in a big, silent house with an unhappy – and in her mind, somewhat boring – husband.

With little chance of changing any of that.

It took a fourth event, a few months later, to trigger the new life they decided to create.  Peter was able to land a job – a very good job – but it was in London.  As in, England.

They were driving back from University of Western Ontario, where their oldest daughter had just entered graduate school, when Peter got the call.  Judy’s response was immediate, and blunt:  “You can’t take it, Peter.  There is no way I’m moving to England.  No chance.  It isn’t going to happen.”

Judy could be abrupt when she knew what she wanted.

But to Peter, this was the most exciting thing that had happened to him in years.  A customer he worked for on foreign exchange transactions at the bank needed a Canadian banker in their forex unit in London.

They wanted him.

The job paid very well, even with the cost of living difference, and was a step up in responsibility and prestige.  No-one can afford to actually live in London, of course, but they could live in Essex or Surrey or Kent, and commute, like everyone else in the City.  He would be nominated to a good private club.  His colleagues would be bankers, like him, from all over the world.  He would travel, and attend conferences, and maybe even go to school to get the degree he had never even started.

Peter was not used to going against Judy’s wishes, so he stayed quiet for a week, stalling the prospective employer.  Judy asked him every day “Did you call them?  Did you turn down the job?”  He avoided the questions.

If you ask Peter today, he can tell you the time and place, describe the circumstances in detail.  They were on the back deck, the sun shining on a hot June day.  He had primed himself to talk.  It was like he was giving a speech, well prepared but a little nervous.  Predictably, as soon as he said that he had decided he wanted to take the job in England, Judy pounced.  She wasn’t going to move to England.  Period.  She was putting her foot down on this one.

There was no more than one minute of talk about moving to England, Peter says, before the whole discussion was about their life, and their marriage, and what went wrong.  They got a bottle of wine from the fridge, and then another one, and over the course of more than four hours they hammered away at the subject, alternately angry, hurt, and strangely rational.  In some respects, the discussion was a relief for both of them.

It took five minutes for Judy to understand that Peter was going to move to England.  It took another five minutes for Peter to understand that Judy wasn’t coming with him.  As the realization, and acceptance, kicked in, they were a bit stunned, but then they tried to understand why this was going to happen.

They had lost the ability to communicate with each other about their feelings, so it was tough going.  (Of course, that was part of the problem.)

Peter accepted the new job the next morning, with a start ninety days later. Faced with a deadline, Peter and Judy tried to figure out what was going to happen to their lives.  They were not going to be the same.  Their lives were going to be separate, one way or the other.  They had to make some decisions.  They talked to each other more in that three months than in the previous three years of marriage, but they were not really uplifting discussions.  Emotional, even constructive sometimes, but relentlessly sad.

Once they decided that their lives were going to be separate, they had to figure out how that would work.  The most obvious option was divorce.  The kids were grown.  They had a mortgage free house, and each of them had a good income.  Judy, though, was adamant that she would never get divorced.  Marriage is for life.  What kind of example is it to your kids if you show them that marriage is temporary?

Furthermore, since neither of them was really intending to start a new relationship, or a new family, there was no apparent reason to divorce.  They could live apart, and work out how to do it.  Divorce added nothing.  If things changed later, they could deal with that then.

The bigger problem was what to tell the world, including the kids.  Do you tell everyone that you are not really like a married couple anymore?  What will people think?  How will the kids adapt to that change?  Isn’t it just as bad as divorce in the message it sends to the kids?

On the other hand, if you decide that the details of your relationship are just between the two of you, and no-one else’s business, how do you keep the truth a secret?  Surely your kids, and your close friends, and even co-workers, will find out sooner or later.

Peter and Judy decided that they would remain a married couple, not just legally, but in the eyes of everyone else, and keep the real nature of their relationship a secret just between the two of them.

It was harder than they thought.

As they worked through the details, they realized slowly that they had to have a plan.  Not just ideas, but a real plan, with the specifics worked out for many aspects of the fictional relationship they were going to show to the world.  What about visiting back and forth?  Were they going to have two houses?  Would they own both jointly?  What about vacations?  Visits with grandchildren?  Family events?  Life insurance beneficiaries?


They even talked about what to say to their kids if they were asked about their sex life.  (“We haven’t had any sex life for ten years,” said Peter.  “Why would they suddenly ask now?”)  But, it turned out to be a good thing to get straight.  The kids did ask, and Judy, who was the one who got the initial question from her oldest daughter, had a pre-agreed answer.

Many times they wondered whether this octopus of a deception was worthwhile.  Or even morally acceptable.

By the time Peter had packed his belongings into a container for shipment to England, Peter and Judy had created a totally imaginary relationship, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.  Much of it was written out, some of it longhand, and some of it on Peter’s new computer.

The details?  Well, for the most part they don’t really matter.  Until she retired a few years ago, Judy got four weeks’ vacation from her employer, and if she wasn’t visiting her kids she would spend the time in Guildford, Surrey, where Peter lived.  Except, she didn’t actually go there.  She would often spend the time in Paris, or on a beach in Spain.  If she wanted to share photos, she claimed Peter was there with her.  He wasn’t.  Peter spent his vacations in Canada, mostly visiting his kids, but sometimes notionally with Judy in Oakville.  He didn’t actually spend much time in Oakville.

Christmas alternated between Guildford and Oakville for a few years, until one of the kids bought a house and became the de facto host of family gatherings.  Both Judy and Peter always attended.

Sometimes the kids, and then grandchildren, visited Peter in England, and sometimes Judy would join them.  She was able to hide the fact that Peter’s house was really quite unfamiliar to her.  (“Peter, you appear to have moved the wine glasses.  Where are they now?”)

For six months last year, Peter hosted one of his grandchildren who had a scholarship to attend University of London.  Judy visited for one day, but then suddenly had to be somewhere else.

Peter and Judy are now approaching seventy.  Judy has retired, and Peter is thinking about it.  Their lives have moved on from each other, and now they only share their children, and their Potemkin marriage.

Peter is not going to move back to Canada.  He is happy where he is, and will continue to be there even when his job doesn’t require it.  He will spend more time at the university, where he finally got his degree at age 64.

Judy has an active social life in Oakville, centred around her church and the local seniors’ centre, where she volunteers.  She is happy where she is, as well.

I don’t know Judy’s views about what has transpired over the last twenty years.  (She doesn’t like me much these days.)  Peter, on the other hand, has no doubt that what happened, and how they handled it, was the best thing for everyone.

He put it to me this way the other day.  “My youngest son just turned forty.  I think he knows Judy and I are not really married any more, and haven’t been for many years.  But I think he’s decided to let us have our “little secret”.  It hurts no-one.  As for the other three, they just think their parents’ lifestyle is weird.  That’s OK with me.  I probably am a little weird.”

It never ceases to amaze me how people can make the strangest, most improbable, decisions about how to live their lives.

And yet, still end up making it work.

   –   Jay Shepherd, April 22, 2017




About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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2 Responses to Lives #11 – A Potemkin Marriage

  1. quistian says:

    An interesting and strange story. For me, the bigger meta-narrative is what is the bigger driving force in society and individually which pushes people to all levels of social gymnastics to “live a lie”, especially in the face of those closest to them. Clearly that force is greater than the moral one which says: “Lying is the most devastating thing in human relations”. No trust, no relation.


    • Jay Shepherd says:

      I agree. But here’s another interesting fact.

      One of the challenges to the Lives series is anonymizing the stories, but usually it is possible to make some factual changes that don’t change the point, yet still leave the people unrecognizable. Here, it was much more difficult. Each time I changed the facts, the story started to sound more like another couple I know. If I moved away from that, it was a third one. Eventually, I realized that I know six couples that, with various changes, could have been the subjects of this story.

      Further, if you get rid of the fact that this couple lived apart for several years, I could add another half dozen couples that fit the bill. The Potemkin marriage is not an anomaly. It is very common.

      How many people do you know that are living a deliberate lie in their marriage? It is probably lots, and that raises a broader question about marriage and its role in our society.


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