A friend of mine, worried that her engaged sister and soon-to-be-brother-in-law were arguing, advised her sister that even though the wedding was far along in the planning, she didn’t have to go through with it.
To which I replied, “Sometimes you learn things when you fight.”
The friend in question has a remarkable marriage in which the fights are few and the level of love and compassion between them palpable. Her husband actually gets giddy when she shows him a new pair of shoes.
I can think of many adverbs to describe Mitch's reaction to new footwear but “giddy”? Never giddy. Not ever.
My friend wants her sister to be happy. But what does that mean in the context of marriage? I can be happy, bored, pissed off, exhilarated, kissy, annoyed and rapturous in the space of an afternoon. Reductive descriptors like “happy” and “unhappy” when applied to marriage can send couples scrambling to unravel their unions. Marriage is many shades of grey, like the sky or a dove's feathers.
What if, instead, we saw marriage as a journey, our quirks and personalities sandpaper to the rough edges of our spouses' and there’s to ours? It would mean some days would chafe while other would shine as we recognized a new way in which our partner showed concern or we changed to accommodate their needs.
Early in our marriage when my husband retreated to his basement office after dinner, I would flip out, convinced he was a workaholic, that he wouldn’t be there for me, that I was being ignored. I railed at him, throwing my fears and insecurities like water balloons until he felt like he was drowning, gasping for air as I flooded him with my dark waters.
“I feel suffocated,” he yelled.
“I feel abandoned!”
Eventually I let go with the help of therapy and some white-knuckled evenings with my psyche. I began to knit again and read more. I also noticed that Mitch consciously made time to take walks with me, suggested outings, or explicitly said, “I want us to spend time together this weekend.” The more I noticed, the more I trusted, and the more I trusted, the more I appreciated that he wasn’t abandoning me, but taking care of our joint finances and caring for himself by carving the space he needed to think and just be.
But it took some fights for us to get there. Had we both been more skillful communicators, we might have reached this point less painfully. But there it is--was--our young, silly selves in pitched battle over what most fights are about, fear.
There are outliers like my friend and her husband, who are such congenial, loving couples, that it’s easy for those of us with less patience and stronger tempers to look at our unions and judge them lacking by comparison. How much harder for the sister, whose relationship is undergoing the inevitable paradise-lost period of adjustment to face a sibling, who feels her relationship is unassailable, and confess that her fiancé fights her on home décor or listens poorly or has a stubborn nature, and that they are butting heads like young kids.
We are far from perfect. Mitch has strong ideas about how to do everything from load a dishwasher to compensate a pet sitter. And me? Everything is personal even when it’s not. But when I visit our younger selves in my imagination—and even the lesser selves we continue to burnish today—I try to do so not with blame but with a warm heart that feels like the softest duvet. Then it’s a good day. A very good day.