Here’s what I should be embarrassed to admit, but am not: Once, twenty years into my marriage, I stole my husband’s golf clubs from his golf course. Anyone who plays golf, or is married to someone who plays golf, knows the severity of this act. I knew he had a game scheduled with his foursome the following morning, but I pulled up in our SUV and asked the valet to get his clubs. The valet, unsuspecting of wrongdoing, threw the clubs in the back of the car, and I sped off. The tires screeched as I pulled away.
Here’s how I justified that behavior: Two weeks prior to the golf club stealing escapade, I pulled up to our summer home in New Jersey to find my husband had replaced our front steps. Granted, the red bricks were old and crumbling but that’s exactly what I’d liked about them. They were laden with character and grace: flowers and grass shooting through the crevices. Our house was white stucco, Spanish style, and built in 1920. The steps were part of the history and spirit of the house. He’d changed them to brand new blue stone, crisp and flawless. In addition, he had the gardener cut the bushes, uniformed and tight. This did not sit well with me. I liked how the vegetation around our home grew wilder every year.
It was important to me that my husband understood my feelings, but he didn’t seem to when he said, “It’s not a big deal, don’t make it one.” Infuriated, I resorted to the golf club stealing tactic and couldn’t wait to say, golf clubs in hand, “It’s no big deal, don’t make it one.” My thinking was clear: If you can take my things, I can take yours.
We held opposing points of view on almost every front: religion (him—Orthodox, me—not so much), politics (him—Republican, me—Democrat), parenting style (he was authoritative and I tended to coddle.) And even though we knew our differences existed intellectually, we still worked daily, succumbing to unconscious desires, to change each other. We were emotionally fused or codependent, and it would take therapy with the very best to separate us.
Our therapist taught us five losing strategies in marriage: the need to be right, the need to control, unbridled expression, retaliation, and withdrawal. Oops, I was guilty of all of them. And so was my husband. Just the day before, I’d said that since he hadn’t talked to me for three days, I wasn’t going to talk to him for three days. Was that retaliation or withdrawal? We had a lot to learn.
Getting my husband to go to therapy was easy. Although we didn’t agree on much, we agreed we needed help. “When your toilet breaks, you call a plumber,” my husband said pragmatically. Our therapist told us we were a hot couple, as opposed to a cold couple, which meant we fought a lot. (I should’ve known there was something wrong with me when I thought being hot was a compliment.)
I’d been looking at our disagreements as failures, instead of opportunities, believing we should get along better. It didn’t occur to me that this was exactly where we needed to be on our journey, and that these crises were our stepping-stones.
Today there is less stress in our lives. Our five kids are grown, and there is more time for us to spend together. We’ve matured, settled down. Not settled, just settled down.
Here’s what I’ve learned: While my husband may whip out his cell phone while I’m in mid-sentence or leave his underwear on the bathroom floor, I try to focus on the fact that he brings me coffee most mornings and flowers every Friday night. I pay attention to, and appreciate, when he hugs my children with enthusiasm or laughs at my jokes. The point is we held out and can now sit side-by-side playing with our grandchildren, wondering how we got so lucky.
I know there are couples who’ve had it easier than we have, and couples who’ve had it harder. The idea is not that everyone should stick it out, just that possibly some couples give up too soon. When I told my sister-in-law I was writing this essay, she concurred, “It’s like a nursing mom,” she said. “They often give up after three months, just when it gets easy.”
Recently, my husband and I went for dinner, and at the restaurant, we saw a room full of couples we knew. We saw couples who were our contemporaries, couples who were 30 years older than we are, and couples who had been married for 10 years less. We know their stories: the couples who are nothing alike, the infidelities, the disrespect, boredom, fighting and yet, they’re still together, dining.
One of the older men approached us at the bar saying he wished he’d come alone with his wife to the restaurant as we had. He was there with four couples celebrating a birthday, and two of the men at his table had a fight. He said that while his wife would’ve driven him and the waiter crazy, changing her order and complaining about the food as she always did, he would’ve known what to expect. No surprises. It was familiar and, at this stage of his life, preferable to the insanity at his table. This man was known to have disliked his wife’s company years prior. What happened? Here in this room was a crowd of people who had made it. They had managed to stay in long-term marriages and, seemingly, be happy. Or at least, happy enough.
So I asked my husband, what if people were told that during those early years, let’s say from the ages of 25-45, marriage was going to be tough. There’d be work stress and the raising of children to contend with. You and your spouse would fight, you’d fantasize about leaving the relationship, and you’d want to change the other person. But then, after that time, it was going to be smooth sailing: grandchildren, serenity, joy. Would you, could you hold out and stay in the marriage? My husband said he believed Americans wanted to be happy now. Asking them to wait 20 years for serenity was too much to ask.
This made me think of the marshmallow experiment done in the 60s. A child was told he could have one marshmallow immediately, but if he waited 20 minutes, he could have two marshmallows. According to scientific interpretation, the more intelligent children waited and received double the gratification. My husband wanted to know if he held out could he have two women tomorrow. So much for progress.
Not everyone goes to therapy or cares much for self-development. I know a man who goes by what he calls the Eight to Eleven Rule. “Can you deal with her from 8:00 pm to 11:00 pm? That’s all you have to do.”
Just as no two individuals are alike, no two marriages are either. While the Eight to Eleven Rule might work for some couples, I was someone who needed more and my husband never discouraged me from growing. On this we agreed: “That he not busy being born is busy dying,” and he often sang this line from the Bob Dylan song as proof.
Undeniably, marriage is hard work. My mother did warn me, “Life isn’t a bowl of cherries,” she’d said. But I was 18 and madly in love. I didn’t know what she was talking about. If I had, I might not have been so disillusioned when reality kicked in. I might not have expected my marriage to unfold without disagreements and intense negotiating or to view these things as negative. I would’ve known that the predicaments were the blessings, the path to self-growth and intimacy, and that marriage was my teacher.
Here’s what happened a month ago: My husband and I were getting ready for a wedding. He does things fast and sometimes without much deliberation (another way we differ). He used his electric shaver to trim his buzz cut, and since his hair was short, he imagined he couldn’t do much harm. But the setting was off, and he shaved a bald spot the size of an egg right at the front of his head. “I can’t go tonight,” he came to me in a panic. “Look what I did!”
I admit, I chuckled a bit prior to getting serious. “We have to go,” I said. We tried a number of unsuccessful solutions before I reached into my make-up drawer and retrieved my black eye liner. We stood close, giggling, while I colored in the empty space. And with soft eyes, he thanked me for filling in the spot.
(This is an excerpt adapted from my essay published in Evansville Review. Fall 2012.)