Is the secret to a happy marriage learning to be alone?

‘You know, you need a hobby,’ she said. ‘Something to get you out of the house. Go … fish!’

During the early years of marriage, my primary leisure activity was being married. It was all so new and different. I was still astonished at always having a date.

My wife, Diane, was perfectly happy to have an attentive husband but eventually she started to wonder what was wrong with me — especially when the weather would get warm, and regular guys were out doing regular guy things.

Of course, I took this to mean that I should find something new for us to do together: tennis, yoga classes, chess. We did play tennis once (at one of those embarrassing love-nest hotels with the heart-shaped tubs and the his-and-her snorkels). We did try yoga,briefly (I was the only guy in the class, and the only student who had to sit down to bend at the waist). And we did play some chess, until I realized she was just toying with me to teach me how to be more Machiavellian in a particular work situation (since I later learned she could kick my butt in three moves whenever she wanted). 

Eventually, Diane admitted that she actually didn’t want to find a new activity for us to do together. She wanted me to find a new activity for us to do — not together. 

I wanted to let her know that I understood. I understood that she wasn’t just trying to get me away from her so she could write. She was trying to help me get away from myself—which is much harder.

“You know, you need a hobby,” she said, laughing at the sound of the word. It seemed like an artifact from our childhoods, when boys were encouraged to play with model trains so they wouldn’t discover sex.

“Something to get you out of the house. Go … fish!”

While I liked the concept of fishing, I did find it a little odd that it was her idea, not mine. After all, don’t regular guys fish to get away from their wives? If your wife tells you to go fish, isn’t that somehow defeating the whole purpose?

At the time, though, I was mostly really glad she hadn’t tried to make me golf, because there are basically two kinds of men: golfers and fishermen. Golf is clubby, social, competitive, classist. Fishing is more solitary and egalitarian (although fly-fishing can be a tad golfy) and is competitive only when my brothers and I do it. Golf is for strivers and fishing is for yearners, but each activity is profound and pointless in its own way. 

I grew up in a divided family. My grandfather was an avid golfer, while his brother — my father’s favorite uncle — was a 12-month-a-year fisherman. This explains why one of Dad’s favorite places to fish was the pond at the local country club. 

I inherited the lunker gene and, as a kid, loved fishing with my father. My dad fished rivers and old abandoned canals, but mostly he had a knack for convincing people with lakes on their property to let him help unstock them. It was his quiet time, his inner time, the time when he didn’t have to sell anybody anything. He used lures, not flies or live bait, so fishing required more than just patience: casting, he taught us, is a skill. And we had adventures, some manly, some comical. He never let me forget the day when he asked me to grab a stringer-full of fish because we were going to change locations, and it slipped out of my hands, so I watched a half-dozen beautiful bass, still strung together, swim away in unison.

After I moved away from home for college, I stopped fishing. Diane would see my old fishing stuff jammed into a corner of our car trunk and wonder why I never touched it. The truth is that I wasn’t sure where, or even how, to fish on my own, without my father. And I felt a little unmanly admitting that, even to myself.

So, on that warm summer day when Diane told me to go fish, I was reduced to looking in the yellow pages for a bait shop. I drove to Bob’s Bait and Tackle and bought a license, a rod and reel, and enough lures so I could lose the first 20 and still have something to fish with. And then I sheepishly asked Bob where I should go fishing. 

He sent me to a place a half hour away from our home in Philadelphia, reachable by a dirt road behind some railroad tracks, where the Schuylkill River roars across a 30-foot waterfall. When I got there it was early evening and the mayflies were hatching. They hovered in the air like tiny alien spacecraft, their pale-green wings fluttering against the rosy sunset sky. As I sat tying my line, on a rock just above the falls, fish were lunging out of the water at the mayflies and all manner of birds were swooping in for them. It was fishing heaven.

The truth is that I wasn’t sure where, or even how, to fish on my own, without my father. And I felt a little unmanly admitting that, even to myself.

I fished until it was so dark that I couldn’t even see the bass I was reeling in. (Taking hooks out using the “touch system” is not the smartest idea). And then I did something my dad never would have done — even if the technology had been available. I called Diane on my cellphone. 

She was incredulous: Why would I violate the blissful peace of my riverside solitude by making a phone call? Because I wanted to let her know that I understood. I understood that she wasn’t just trying to get me away from her so she could write. She was trying to help me get away from myself — which is much harder. Figuring out how to be alone was an important step forward in our being together.

Later on, after I had started fishing more regularly, we talked about the phenomenon of the fishing or golf “widow.” This fear of being “widowed” in your marriage, or being in competition with your spouse’s avocation, is complex. I can only imagine what it’s like when couples have the same hobby. 

I don’t mean the situations where one spouse gets involved with something and the other decides to get involved as well, as a preventive measure (to make sure the husband isn’t meeting any hot babes at the model railroad show, or the wife newly addicted to bike riding isn’t succumbing to the loneliness of the long-distance pedaler.) I mean couples who are, say, both good tennis players or golfers, so they play against each other — those “till sudden death do us part” marriages. 

While I’m sure there are some joys attached to such situations, I’d imagine the worst part is that you have no one to come home to and exaggerate about how well or how badly you played. 

There was a moment, when I first started fishing again, that I thought Diane might want to join me. We were in our favorite place in the world, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, where a good friend had a cabin. It was in an old private hunting compound with man made lakes and Pecos River frontage so abundantly stocked with trout that they were almost too easy to catch. (Almost.) Instead of having to drive or hike miles away to fish, I only had to walk about a hundred yards from the cabin to access all the trout I could possibly catch. I actually once caught a big rainbow there and, while I was netting it, a second one jumped into the net, too. Without a moment’s hesitation, I did what I always do, my own high-res version of catch and release: net the fish, take their pictures with my cellphone, and then let them go.  

After days of watching from the cabin window as I fished while she wrote, Diane came out to join me. I gave her a lesson and she quickly caught a fish. But, while she occasionally talked about trying it again, what I think she really got hooked on was the idea of watching me fish, enjoying the intense satisfaction of being alone with myself.

It is a powerful feeling to know someone wants you to have that kind of contentment. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite of widowhood.

So, I started fishing more alone. I had hopes of trying to fish more with my dad again, but I didn’t get home as much as I had hoped, so it didn’t happen. 

Then, when he was about to turn 60, my two younger brothers and I decided we would take him on the kind of fishing trip he always said he wanted to take us on. We booked a fishing lodge in Northern Ontario, we hired a guide who said “eh” a lot — “Rick, eh” — and we spent four glorious days together on the Bad River and in Georgian Bay. We caught big, mean fish — muskies and pike so muscular that when we got them into the boat, they tried to throw us overboard. And after lunch of fried-up walleye, potatoes and onions topped with an egg and sopped up with soft, nutrition-free white bread, we lay on our backs on the sun-warm curved rocks on Blueberry Island and dreamed about how this trip could be the first of many. 

Dad said maybe to sink while fishing with your son wasn’t such a bad way to go. You’re with family, doing what you love until you can’t anymore. 

My middle brother’s wife was pregnant with the family’s first grandchild: we figured he would come with us, too. The first time his grandson over-casted and got his line caught in branches on shore, Dad would say he had caught a “tree fish,” just as he had when we first did it. 

We thought we had a lot of time, and a lot of fishing ahead of us. Instead, within a year, our father was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. He got a little bit of time with his grandson, Jake, but nowhere near enough. 

In the fall, as he was about to celebrate his last birthday — 62 — he and I went fishing one last time. We went to a lake on the farm property of a friend of his, and there was a little metal fishing boat we rowed out into the middle. The lily pads were yellow and uncharacteristically full-looking for that time of year, as pregnant as the moment, like they were going to burst into bloom again six months too late. When we arrived, the boat had a little bit of water in it, which we figured was from rain and we dumped out. But the longer we fished, the more it was clear there was a leak. Water steadily seeped in, until we had to put our feet on the rails to keep above it.  We laughed about what it would be like if we actually got stuck out there. Then my dad took one of the oars out of its gunnel and pushed it into the water —  but didn’t get very far. He said the lake was like too many people he knew, a mile wide and an inch deep. 

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The sinking ship seemed like a cheap metaphor for his body’s battle with cancer, but still apt. We fished through it as long as we could, wondering if we were just about to reach the point where the boat had taken on enough water that we wouldn’t be able to row it back to shore and would have to wade back. Dad said maybe to sink while fishing with your son wasn’t such a bad way to go. You’re with family, doing what you love until you can’t anymore. And we still hadn’t caught anything. So, how about one more cast. And then one more, one-more-cast. And another.

Finally, we gave up and rowed in, the now-heavy boat occasionally scraping the bottom. I was disappointed that we hadn’t caught anything on what would likely be his last time with rod and reel. But he seemed fine with it. And he offered the same advice he had been giving us our whole lives, from the first time he ever took us out.

It doesn’t matter what you catch; it just matters that you fish. 

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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