My happily ever after began on November 30, 1997. On that day I married my prince in the middle of the gently winding Hanalei River, on the north shore of the garden island of Kaua’i. Ever resourceful, my prince lashed together a pair of canoes and affixed a platform on top of them, then decorated it with purple orchids, tuberose, and plumeria. During the only sun break of the day, we exchanged vows.
My prince was bare-chested and wore a pareo, a wrap-around skirt traditional for men of the Pacific Islands. He looked even more studly than usual. I wore a white Calvin Klein bikini beneath a sheer white Donna Karan dress. I might as well just confirm what you’re already thinking: I looked completely fabulous. (What you don’t know, of course, is that I was a hot mess only an hour before, madly doing laundry and scrubbing the bathroom for our out-of-town visitors.)
After the ceremony, we repaired with our dozen guests, close friends all, to Hanalei Bay, where we had a champagne picnic. It was the perfect ending to the fairy-tale courtship that had begun two years ago that very day.
Naturally, four years later I filed for divorce.
• • •
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 hard-headed 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. The sky behind me is angry with bruise-colored clouds.
“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 unwatchable 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 were lovers, friends, and partners. 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. It took being married to him to learn that he was more emotional than I’d ever imagined, and moody. Life with Laird: it’s windy, no wait, it’s raining, wait, wait, now it’s sunny. It hardly mattered what put him in a mood (if you guessed it usually had to do with there being no surfable waves that day, you’d be right), because like the temperamental weather in Kaua’i where he grew up, it would all blow over in a few hours.
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. I’m not the Weatherman, it’s never windy/rainy/sunny with me. It’s San Diego with me, 75 degrees all year long. I’m constant and true, but I hang on to shit. His mood, the one that would make me feel unloved, would be long gone, but I’d still be feeling the sting of it, the injustice. I’d still be experiencing his mood, long after he was out of it.
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.
My friends would come over, and if Laird was in a mood, I would warn them to tread lightly. I would fret when the surf report was bad. My mantra was don’t rock the boat. But after three years of tiptoeing around the Weatherman and his mercurial moods, I thought: peace out, I can’t do this anymore. I was curbing my personality for his sake. I was becoming bitter and resentful. And if there’s one thing that trashes a love story, it’s resentment.
To make matters more challenging still, when Laird and I got together, my career was, well, bigger, grander, whatever you want to call it, than his. I was captaining a team on the professional beach volleyball circuit, scoring glossy magazine covers with the matching big feature stories, hosting The Extremists. I’d just signed a contract to write a book, and I was set to make my film debut. I had a sponsorship with Nike, and I was the first female athlete to have her own shoe. By all the markers by which people measure quote unquote success, I had them and Laird didn’t.
This made me ridiculously uncomfortable. If there’s one person on earth who truly does not give a shit about fame and worldly success, it’s my husband. Don’t get me wrong. The dude is bursting with ambition, but it’s the ambition to have the most fun surfing the biggest, best wave for as long as he possibly can, the ambition to keep the sport of surfing exciting and relevant into the future. Even to this day, we’ll be watching some news show and I’ll say check out this guy, he’s Prince Fabulous, he’s got this, that, and the other: a great gig, an innovative idea, money for nothing, and chicks for free. Laird is unmoved. He’s got a clarity about what’s important, always has. He’s only interested in how people are in the world, what they do, how they act. He’s never swept up in the hoopla.
Still, during the few first years we were together, Neptune, King of the Sea, spent many days and weeks traveling with me on the beach volleyball circuit. Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, New York. You’d be amazed where you can build a beach. He did it because he loved me, and because with Laird there is no halfway. He was in, even when it meant being called Mr. Reece.
The whole scene was awkward. Even though I was a bigger deal celebritywise, and even though my success dominated the relationship, his personality dominated mine. This may come as a surprise to those people who may recall that I held the WBVL’s record for most kills four years running, or that I was named the Offensive Player of the Year the summer before that fateful day on the north shore of Maui where I met and fell for Laird. We’ve never been one of those modern, hip couples where it’s been clear from the first kiss that he’ll be fine hanging at home supporting her career by doing the laundry and planning the meals and she’ll be out in the world hammering it down and supporting the family.
By Christmas of 2000 I was done. The marriage had broken down, and I didn’t feel like fixing it. Part of me had withdrawn. I thought: Who needs this shit? When I was young my motto was “nothing and no one is above my own survival,” and after four years my marriage to Laird was threatening my sense of myself. I was downplaying my independence, my sense of humor, my competence, my celebrity (such as it was) in order to be with him. Every day I was consciously trying to make everything about me smaller to minimize the friction in our relationship.
So I filed for divorce.
For a while, Laird tried to talk me out of it, but then he let me go.
Then as now, we spent half the year in California, and half the year in Hawaii. When I called it quits Laird was in Kaua’i and I was in Malibu. He packed up every last thing of mine in the Hawaii house and stuck it in storage. You can imagine what a good time this was for him—he who plunges into one of his moods if he can’t get out of the house and into the ocean by 7:30 a.m.—spending days shoving the T-shirts, panties, and notebooks of the chick he still wanted into cardboard cartons, taping them shut, lugging them out to the car.
I attempted to “move on”—one of those phrases that we all use without being a hundred percent sure what it means or how you do it—and threw myself into my work, a time-honored coping mechanism. The days were all right, but every morning I awoke with an ache in my gut. It felt as if one of those rawhide bones that dogs love to chew was sitting in my stomach.
Then, in the spring, Laird passed through California, and arrived at the house in Malibu to pick up his snowboard. One of the paradoxical things about Laird is that even though he’s a great-looking guy, he’s not a flirt (actually, maybe he’s not a flirt because he is good-looking; he doesn’t need to do anything to gain attention once he’s entered the room).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.
When we met, Laird was already respected in the world of surfing. As time went on, his star began to rise in the world at large. In 2004, he executive produced and starred in Riding Giants, and then a few years later he appeared in a big American Express campaign. He got to show the world that he wasn’t just some guy who wandered around in swim trunks and flip-flops calling everyone Dude. (Which he never does, by the way.) This cultural stamp of approval helped to even out our personal playing field. I felt more comfortable because he was no longer simply Mr. Reece, trailing around behind me, carrying my gym bag from tournament to magazine shoot and home again. It wasn’t as if the worldly success meant a lot to him personally, but it allowed us both to feel as if we were now on equal footing, careerwise. A friend once reminded me that small changes can result in making the big picture a whole lot better, and that’s what happened to us.
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. We had first one kid, then another. In 2007, we weathered another rough patch, and almost called it quits again. Through it all, I reminded myself of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s wisdom. At times, I’ve been on the verge of tattooing it up one leg and down the other. Instead, I just committed it to memory:
When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity—in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.
Partners in the same pattern. That’s a better thing to aspire to than happily ever after. 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 schmappily. I don’t think so.
From a dramatic perspective, this also means there’s nothing left to tell. 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.
A Guide to the Less Than Perfect Life
My Foot Is Too Big for the Glass Slipper
A Guide to the Less Than Perfect Life
You’re not alone. In 1997, Gabrielle Reece married the man of her dreams—professional surfer Laird Hamilton—in a flawless Hawaiian ceremony. Naturally, the couple filed for divorce four years later.
In the end they worked it out, but not without the ups and downs, minor hiccups, and major setbacks that beset every modern family.
With hilarious stories, wise insights, and concrete takeaways on topics ranging from navigating relationship issues to aging gracefully to getting smart about food, My Foot Is Too Big for the Glass Slipper is the brutally honest, wickedly funny, and deeply helpful portrait of the humor, grace, and humility it takes to survive the happily ever after.