Big Questions

Would Your Relationship Survive Prison?

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“Orange is the New Black,” Netflix’s comedic drama about a yuppie shipped off to prison for 15 months on a decade-old drug charge has gotten me thinking. I wondered about what prison food really tastes like, if I would be tough enough to survive women’s prison, what kind of shower shoes would be most likely to eschew fungi, if I would join a gang and if a gang would want to have me. But most of all, I wondered whether my own relationship would survive prison. In the show, Piper Chapman, based on the real life author and former inmate Piper Kerman, struggles to maintain her relationship with her fiancé Larry Smith. By the end of the first season Larry and Piper are in limbo. In real life they are still married.

Watching the first episode I peppered my boyfriend with questions that began with: If I went to prison. If I went to prison, who would take care of my giant dog? Him (no one else wants her apparently). If I went to prison would we stay together? Probably not.

It seemed harsh, but also very real. It got me to wondering whether that would be the case with other couples. Could most couples tough it out? Was our bond too weak to survive or is prison just that severe that it would break anyone?

I asked four couples in various states of coupledom whether or not their partnership could survive one of the partners going away for a 18-month prison sentence. Here is what they had to say.

The New Relationship: Dating Four Months

I went out with a guy who confessed after about a month that he had committed white collar crime, gotten caught, and was in trouble with The Man. I broke up with him within a week.

She said: I wouldn’t be able to withstand 18 months of him in jail. Eighteen months of him living in his native Australia while I stayed back here in NYC? I could handle that so long as we emailed constantly and had Skype sex on the regular. But if we were only able to communicate during rare phone calls and depressing visits where we couldn’t touch each other for very long, I couldn’t manage. But I would happily wait until he was OUT of prison and date him again (assuming he wasn’t in there for murder or rape or something else horrible). As a side note, a few years ago I went out with a guy who confessed after about a month that he had committed white collar crime, gotten caught, and was in trouble with The Man. I broke up with him within a week. - Jessica, 29

He said: I figured if either of us were in prison, then we both would be, on some Bonnie & Clyde shit. If it’s just her, though, I think I have to agree. 18 months is a long time to spend without someone to kiss and watch TV in bed with, especially since I *know* she is not getting time off for good behavior. I might run with the good girls for a while and see how I like it. I’m getting older. His message to Jess: ‘Good luck in the hoosegow and hit me up if you make parole. I left a half a hundred in your commissary. Don’t make friends.’ - Kale, 28

The Co-Habitators: Living Together for Two Years

I’d catch up on all of my horrible reality TV that I currently get judged for watching and take up knitting.

She said: Yes, if he didn’t commit a crime that makes him a horrible person. I’d use the time to set the temperature to whatever I wanted and spread out in the bed. I’d catch up on all of my horrible reality TV that I currently get judged for watching and take up knitting. I’d wake up early and do yoga everyday because I wouldn’t be hung over from playing drinking games with 29 year olds. Time would fly by – And when he got out, I’d be more appreciative. Absence makes the heart grow fonder! - Tabitha, 33

He said: No. We wouldn’t make it. - Jack, 29

The Newlyweds: Married Just Over a Year

Being in prison you have to adapt, but the problems on the inside versus the outside are so different.

She said: It would really depend on what he did to end up in jail! If my husband went to jail for 18 months I’d support him. Depending on the crime, though, it’d be hard to trust him. If he committed a crime that was morally wrong, something seriously deeply unethical, I’d be hard to get back to a place of complete trust again in the future, especially as your finances are joined and you’re raising kids together. But if it was a “in the wrong place at the wrong time” I’d forgive him. Also, if he could really show and prove to me he learned his lesson and would never do something bad again, I would support him but I certainly would keep our finances and credit separate!” - Kate, 33

He said: I am concerned if it doesn’t include conjugal visits. Our relationship would survive but would change forever. We’d find a way to get through it because we have committed our lives to each other. Being in prison you have to adapt, but the problems on the inside versus the outside are so different, that relating to each other on a daily/weekly basis would be extremely challenging. That means our core values, what holds us together, and what we have in common needs to be that much stronger to survive. In prison and the outside world we all use survival tactics. It’s just adjusting them to our “new” reality. - Michael, 35

The Old Married Couple: Married 35 Years

I honestly don’t know what I would do without her in my life for even a few months, never mind more than a year.

She said: We have survived three kids, one affair, a bankruptcy and cancer. Prison would be a walk in the park. – Ellen, 60

He said: We would get through it, but I think it would be the hardest thing we have ever done. We’ve beat the odds before but that is because we worked things out face to face. There was a lot of screaming and yelling and tears. One time she hit me over the head with a flowerpot. But we worked it out because we were together. I honestly don’t know what I would do without her in my life for even a few months, never mind more than a year. – Frank, 63

Jo Piazza (@jopiazza) is the author of the novel Love Rehab: A Novel in Twelve Steps.

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