A while ago I saw an ad featuring a particularly pretty daytime personality amongst sparkly kitchen appliances, which contained a list beginning, “1. A happy marriage.” Yikes. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to throw salt over my shoulder. Touting your happy marriage in the media is often a one-way ticket to your spouse hooking up with the soft porn one-hit-wonder at the book show. Dangerous. A happy marriage is a tenuous thing at best and shouting from the rooftops that you have one is either tempting fate or camouflage.
Marriage is funny. The longer I’m in it, the more amusing I find it. I can remember being at a bridal shower for a friend before I was married and the groom’s mother and one of her contemporaries were looking at each other piercingly and saying, “Well, you can’t know; you just can’t know until you’re in it.” I didn’t roll my eyes. I squinted over my coffee cup trying to glean what these women were telling me, but I couldn’t, because they were right. You can’t know until you’re in it.
You do learn, if you stick around, what needs to be World War III and what deserves an “Oh?” and a slow blink. Sadly, they can be the same occurrence or utterance the only difference being ten or fifteen years. After sixteen years I’m nearly over the “How could you ever think I would….” But I can still read complicated plots into dishes left in the sink. One of my friends curses the “half help.” “The half help is worse than no help.” And she’s right. The laundry that is started and then left to mildew in the washer. The weeds that are pulled and then their corpses left scattered in their beds. The intent is good, but the reality is maddening, made worse by the refrain, “I was only trying to help.”
A few weeks ago we were having two families over for dinner. Casual. Carry-out and cocktails. The weather was gorgeous and we would dine outside. When I walked out to the patio to see if any wayward footballs needed to be put away I noticed the wrought iron table looked a bit odd. On closer inspection, I realized Mr. Blandings had cleaned the oven racks upon it. Careful to not mar the table, he had placed the racks on newspaper before spraying the lethal chemicals required to clean the baked on grime. Obviously, the paper was a mess when the job was complete. And he left it there. For a week. And it had rained. So now, the table on which we were to eat in thirty minutes was fairly decoupaged with chemically soaked newspaper. Because the rain was a particularly hard one, the paper had worn through the holes in the table and wrapped itself around the edges just a bit. In addition, since the paper had been soaked in chemicals and rainwater and been left to dry in the sun it was delicate. Which meant that when I tried to remove it, it came up in pieces of paper approximately one square inch. Thirty minutes before people were coming to shake off their week and relax in my backyard on the most beautiful night of the year.
I rolled the table to the garage so I could start picking the paper from the tabletop without leaving the remains scattered on the patio. Seething, my heart filled with a familiar anger. How could he be so lazy? Why does he start so many projects and finish none? How can I possibly live with such an oaf for the rest of my life? But when he appeared fresh from football carpool to find me standing in the dusty garage, newspaper confetti at my feet, he offered a contrite look. And instead of letting loose the fishwife ranting and raving inside of me, I looked up and said, “Darling, what the heck?” “Honey, I’m sorry, I totally forgot.” And it was gone.
The thing about marriage is, unless it’s really bad, unless there is abuse or other underlying significant problems, most of the issues are roommate issues. How can she keep her car so messy? How can he not remember to gather the upstairs trash? Tedious and annoying, the things that made you flee your college roommate with joy. It’s difficult to live with other human beings. Better, in the long run, but difficult. It’s hard to let go of the feeling that they will eventually get it right. Eventually, if I move this cutting board back to the top of the toaster oven, he will realize that it lives there. Eventually, if I put his laundry basket back inside his closet, he will realize having it in the bathroom bothers me. I could ask. The only problem is, when you are looking down the barrel at thirty of forty more years you realize it seems a little petty to bring these things up every day. Every darn day that you move the cutting board or the laundry basket.
I think with marriage, you both go rushing toward each other in the beginning. Long, hearty strides to be together. And after a short period of clinging, you begin the dance of baby steps forward and back, each at his and her own pace. Sometimes, you end up back in the center, both happy to find the other one there. Other times, one stays while the other inches out. You are lucky indeed if neither one’s baby steps amount to much, if the expanse does not begin to build, or if one begins to not look back to see where the other is; rarely do I see one or both running away full speed.
Mr. Blandings and I have a marriage. A real marriage that is sometimes happy, and never not, but sometimes borders on indifferent and rote. We are both careful in our frustration and anger to not recite the scathing remarks that appear on the ticker tape that is running just behind our eyes. We do not call names. We rarely yell. We do not condescend. Well, he doesn’t and I try not to. We have been fortunate that neither one of us has been greatly disenchanted with the other at the same time. This is luck and chance and I thank my lucky stars for it daily.
I have had nights when I have laid awake wondering how I got here. What was I thinking? Not because my husband is a bad person; he is a fine man beyond my deserving. No, not that, but me. Did I want to be married? I did. But on second thought I’m not sure I wanted to be tangled up in someone else’s self. On second thought, perhaps I didn’t know him that well after all. I don’t feel connected. I can’t sleep and I can’t quite figure out how this is going to go over the next forty years or so.
Recently, at a charity dinner, I was seated next to an older gentleman who asked me which man at the table was my spouse. “He’s mine,” I said, pointing across the table. He squinted and said, “Be careful with that; we don’t belong to one another. That’s a mistake you don’t want to make.” I took his point, but disagree. We have been together the whole of our adult lives. We have grown up together. The people we have become for all the rest of it was formed in each other’s company. That forever connects us even if we were to choose to live, and love, apart.
I don’t know why some people stay and some people leave. Certainly, we bear witness to the couples who wallow in their misery and snipe and snap, but stay together, “perfectly miserable” as one of our friends has termed it. Are they committed to the commitment or immobilized by the thought of what would come next? I don’t know, but I am always grateful that we are not there yet.
Last year one of my best friends, one of my ten best friends in the world, told me she had been having an affair for over a year. I knew she was unhappy, but I had no idea she had taken a measure so drastic to try and replace some of the joy that her life had lost. It was the first front-row seat to the dissolution of a marriage that I have witnessed, save my parents’, and it was wrenching. Mr. Blandings and I watched in disbelief as this couple, whose wedding we had attended, picked a long-term marriage apart shred by shred. And the thing that went unsaid between us, but of which we were both very clearly aware, was that we were not immune to this. It could be us. In fact, we would be unable to define what made our marriage different. Luck and chance. Timing. The fear of what would come next.
During this time, we attended the funeral of one of our dear friend’s father. Our friend’s parents had been married for over forty years. He had had a long battle with Alzheimer’s. His wife, my friend’s mother, had been tireless in his care, perhaps to the extreme and certainly to the point where her children were concerned. “He doesn’t know she’s there. It’s so unhealthy, I don’t know why she does it,” my friend said of her daily vigils. While I shared his concern I had a twinge of how she felt. Her life with him was more than twice as long as her life without him. He was here and at some point in the tangible future he would not be.
At his funeral each of his three children, and one of his grandchildren, spoke eloquently. An intelligent and clever clan each contribution reflected a different aspect of this eternally cheerful man who had endured more than his share of difficulty throughout his life. His daughter, in her eulogy, described her parents, “She was fret and he was sooth.” She recounted expressing to her father her frustration at her mother’s continually apocalyptic outlook. “She can’t help it,” he said, “she’s Russian.”
And perhaps this is the key. We can’t help it. We can’t help it that we are sometimes grouchy and moody and our tongues are sharp. We can’t help it that we start projects with good intentions, but don’t follow through on the clean up. We can’t help it that try as we might we are sometimes inconsiderate to what goes on around us or that we do things, not wrong, but differently. We can’t help it that we are not always good roommates.
But what we can help is our ability to tolerate. We can do our best to not expect that the other person, after sixteen years, is finally going to come around to the way of right and do it our way. We can bite our tongues. We can go to bed at night thinking that things are not working, that we are not happy, that this is not what we had in mind when we said, “I do.” And we can get up in the morning and try again. Try again to find the thing that made us rush in. Try again to find the thing within us that is driving the unhappiness. Perhaps it is the spouse or the marriage and perhaps it is time to end it before any more harm is done. But if not, we will pick away the newspaper or shut the almost closed cabinet door and do a silent prayer of thanks that today is not the day that we turned away at the same time. Thanks to luck, or timing or chance.