I’ve been plinking at this blog post on and off for about a month now. The actual words have been writhing on the page like the tentacles of some ecstasy-crazed raver octopus, too uncoordinated to move in any actual direction. I got a fair way through a pretty stuffy discussion of persistence of vision and how it applied to romance before deciding that it was too, well, stuffy. And not entirely the point.

So. I’ll pose the question that’s been vexing me straight out.

Why the hell did you get married?

I have no particular target in mind for “you.” And I don’t mean to exclude couples who are enjoying equally long-term but less formal unions, or those who would prefer that formal union but are currently denied it by the will of a peevish majority. The phrasing  just had a punchiness I preferred to “What has sustained your relationship with your significant other lo these many years, especially in those moments when you seem as if you don’t like one another very much?”

It’s a question I’ve often found myself wanting to ask. When my mother launched a head of iceberg lettuce at my father’s head during an argument. When I see attractive middle-aged couples at intimate restaurants staring stone-faced into their martinis for an entire meal’s duration. Or when I hear husbands speaking with casual disdain of their wives, or women circling the vaginal wagons around “You know what men are like.”

This is not the way things are in the first flushes of youthful romance, when the mere whiff of a suggestion that someone might not be the most perfect specimen of boy-or-girl-kind ever born of woman is met with a ferocity unmatched since the extinction of smilodons. The bones of more than one seemingly indestructible friendship lie bleaching in the pitiless sun after barbed accusations of jealousy or soft headedness find their offended marks.

The duel usually comes down to some variant of: How dare you suggest I won’t always see her this way? parried by some flavor of: You’re not seeing him the way he is now.

So how does one get from “Speak ill of my only and forever love and I’ll drive a spike through your skull,” to the thousand year stares, the disappearance behind smartphones and into man caves, the litanies of underappreciation, overwork, disrespect?

I have no systematic, sociologically pleasing answer, only a handful of the vignettes and ruminations that exercise me whenever I hear things like, “And then he said, ‘Well I’m going racing this weekend. You were going to be around anyway, so you can watch my dog.’”

Here Honey, Let Me Get that for You! Forever, and Ever, and Ever.

Amy is dating, she tells her college roommate Erin, “Nate, the perfect guy.” Perfect except for one teeny superficial thing: his dreadful taste in clothing. But that’s easily fixed, so as soon as she thinks she can tactfully get away with it, several Saturday “dates” consist of replacing his wardrobe. He isn’t entirely happy – he likes what he wears because it is durable and comfortable – but he wants to make her happy so off to Goodwill go all of the concert t-shirts, torn jeans and battered sneakers, replaced by baby blue pinstriped Oxford shirts, tan Dockers and penny loafers. She loves, she says, seeing him look so much more handsome and professional.

Erin moves away, but shortly after Amy’s tenth anniversary she happens to be in town and they meet for dinner. Erin is recently married herself, although as she and her husband cohabited for several years their relationship isn’t precisely new.

The back seat of Amy’s car is loaded with packages. For her husband, she sighs. “Nate won’t shop for his own clothes, or even come along. I have to go alone and buy them for him. After all these years I’m so tired of it. But you’re married now,” she adds. “You know what men are like.”

When Erin says that she doesn’t – on that issue at least – Amy peppers her with questions. Yes, Erin’s husband shops for his own clothes, and helps with hers because she sometimes has an unfortunate color sense. Yes, he does his own laundry, and his own ironing, and her ironing too if they’re going to be seen together since, he scolds, “Waving a hot implement in the general direction of your clothes doesn’t get the wrinkles out.”

“You’re so lucky.” As Amy drinks her forbidden margarita (Nate is a deacon at church and alcohol is unbecoming a deacon’s wife, but she has some on special occasions and keeps a few Bartles and Jaymes hidden at the back of the refrigerator since he doesn’t do any of the cooking and never looks past the front where she keeps everything he likes), she confides that she is thinking of going to marriage counseling to learn how to change his behavior.

She looks perplexed when Erin gingerly suggests that maybe – just maybe – she had trained Nate into precisely that behavior even before the wedding.

Erin is perfectly happy not ironing, after all.

Animal Magnetism

Ah, opposites. They attract, and then swap polarities and they’ll break windows in their desperate dash to get away from each other.

Consider Cat and Shawn. When they first start dating Shawn takes Cat all kinds of exciting new places: hiking in the Santa Monica mountains, bicycling on Venice Beach, to weekend long parties with colorful people. And Cat shows Shawn little local art galleries, quiet restaurants and trendy coffee houses where they talk for hours about politics, philosophy and religion, trends in science and computer science.

He leaves for graduate school and they both are very sad. He makes new friends and tells them all about this wonderful, intellectual woman he’s kind of sorry he left behind. Her friends tell her she’s losing her tan, her hiker’s physique, and a certain joie de vivre. They exchange long emails, spend weekends driving to see each other, decide maybe this could be a permanent thing. She finds a job, they find a house. Life together begins.

7 a.m. on a Saturday and Shawn is jumping up and down on the bed. “Good morning, good morning, good morning, Cat! Time to rise and shine! A bike ride, a hike, a party tonight!”

Groaning, Cat swims up out of the bedclothes and fixes a bleary eye on him. “I haven’t had any time to myself all week. So I am going to put on some coffee and start my laundry. Then I am going to walk downtown and get a bagel and lox. I am going to walk back, pour my coffee, and read Leonard Woolf’s autobiography until the laundry is done. If you’d like to do something together after that, we can talk.”

Their friends say: “We heard endless glowing stories about your clever, intellectual girlfriend. Why exactly did you think she didn’t read?”

Their friends also say: “You liked the fact that he was always open to new experiences. So why are you surprised when the banjo is followed by the sailboard is followed by the mountain bike and the camping gear?”

Mistaken Identities in Miniature, Past and Present Tense

“Sure, he plays a lot of video games now, but you know how boys are. He’s just never needed to be responsible.”
“When are you going to stop playing games and grow up?”

“Yeah, maybe she likes dirt bikes as much as you do, but…I dunno…she looks more like a dude than a girl, don’t you think?”
“She let you go out and buy a Honda? Just like that? It’s a three week argument with my wife if I want a new lug nut.”

“He’s just the nicest guy I’ve ever met. I’ve never known someone so sweet and sensitive and soft-spoken.”
“Why don’t you ever stand up for me?”

“I know you’re only a semester away from finishing your degree but we’re not getting any younger. Don’t you want to start a family?”
I’m the one who earns all the money. You just spend it.”

You Don’t Bring Me Flowers

(A wise male friend once replied, when I said that I had always been suspicious of men who arrived at my door bearing bouquets but could never put a finger on why, “You don’t bring flowers. You send them.” If that doesn’t make sense to you, think harder until it does.)

I happened across this on Facebook the other week: Wives need wives…Every woman needs someone to take care of her and some of us would love to be taken care of in the way only a wife can. No offence to the men, you take care of us in so many other ways, but having a wife is pretty darn special and we need one too.

The notion of “care” has always seemed a difficult one to me, doubly so when sorted by gender. In my single days I learned a deep distrust of men who said things like, “Why won’t you let me open your car door? I just want to take care of you.” Weird patriarchal utterances inevitably followed. And friendly little gifts like Women and the Word of God to teach me my place subservient to the man, because households where someone doesn’t have the final say are full of tension and strife. (Subsequent empirical experience says: not always.)

Later I learned to distrust myself when a toilet handle broke or a new part arrived for a computer or my windshield wipers needed replacing. It was too easy to say, “Oh, I’ll let that sit until <insert name of male acquaintance/boyfriend/spouse> gets to it,” with its implicit, “Because that’s what men do, and he cares about me, after all.”

And then it’s a short slide to the dreaded, “If you cared about me, you’d…” From the early days of romances so all-encompassing that there is barely room for anyone else how does one come to this, the slow decay of “care” from the bedrock of an enduring relationship to a kind of emotional minefield?

Years ago I watched two good friends’ marriage crumble under the weight of that phrase.  I remember the night it reached its nadir, shortly before they separated. She and I were studying, he was finishing a tech writing assignment in the study. They called out almost simultaneously, “Could you make me a cup of tea?” “Could you get me a Coke?”

“I’m busy!”

“So am I!”

“I was at work all day!”

“I was at school and then watching the baby!” She frowned at me. “This is what my life is like every day. If he cared about me, he’d make me tea.”

The stalemate dragged on for several unpleasant minutes. I finally went to the kitchen, boiled water and poured it into a mug. I delivered a Coke to the study. On my way back I pulled their soggy-fingered eight-month-old son away from the electrical socket he was crawling toward. And silently swore that I’d have to be in bed with a hundred and three degree fever and two broken legs before I’d ask any then-hypothetical spouse to make me tea.

If you cared about me, you wouldn’t nag about things that need doing around the house.

If you cared about me, you’d notice that the dishwasher needed emptying.

If you cared about me, you’d understand why I need to be alone sometimes.

If you cared about me, you would have brought me flowers for our anniversary.

If You Love Me, Honey, You’ll Smile

The rules to this game, in case you’re unacquainted with it, are simple. Players sit in a circle. The designated “it” moves from one (opposite-gendered in the incarnations I observed) person to the next and coos, “If you love me, honey, you’ll smile,” while victims attempt to keep a straight face. If they smile or laugh, they take the “its” place; otherwise he or she must move on and try again.

It’s a game for single people of a certain (youngish) age and typically a certain moral disposition: flirtation in an environment more controlled than a bar, sexual tension cloaked in “good fun” and constrained by witnesses. The most consistent winners I knew tended to be the reserved, tightly buttoned up sorts who, whether because they were competitive or to get the stupid exercise over with, channeled sultry sensuality with a laser-like focus all the more shocking for its unexpectedness.

These players were generally congratulated for finally emerging from their shells to reveal “their true selves.” One man found it impossible, in the surge of a newfound popularity, to point out that he had been acting a part to win (or end) the  game. So he made himself over to match, and  successfully carried it off. Right up until his divorce, replete with accusations from a bitter ex-wife that their entire marriage had been a lie.

Why the hell did you get married?

It’s a question I’ve always had an answer for, coming up now on fifteen years. But it doesn’t do to be cavalier. Forced or arranged unions haven’t been in vogue on the North American continent for quite some time, so presumably every giddy couple walking down the aisle thinks they’ll always have an answer too, till death do them part. No one intends to find themselves staring into the crystalline depths of a martini glass wondering when the person sitting next to them became someone they don’t respect, someone they don’t know, someone they don’t love.

Every woman needs someone to take care of her.

I will be bold here and suggest that most men likely desire some degree of caretaking as well. But there are questions to consider. When? And how? And what are you (woman or man) willing to surrender in the bargain? Because, as the saying goes, you only get unconditional love from your dog (and I’m skeptical of that, too). To the extent that I have an opinion to offer about how the lovely vision of the future one beholds in the first flush of romance might persist, this is my reply.

You need to decide where in that great unmapped terrain of interdependence and self-sufficiency you want to plant your flag. You need to decide when you want to be taken care of, and how, and how much caretaking you’re willing to perform in return. Preferably before you walk down the aisle, or buy a house together, or start sharing e-books on a single Kindle account (damn you inexorable march of technology for making the tangibility of merging CD collections obsolete).

Does a man who opens car doors matter more than veto power over a household decision you hate? Do you want to keep track of your own doctor appointments and social engagements in exchange for never having to hear, “I told you this morning you had to be there at three!” Do you want dinner on the table when you come home? Are you willing to commit to being home to eat it?

After you’ve decided, you need to wait for a partner who offers you those things you think you need. (If you’re the prospective partner I suggest you multiply those needs by twenty years and see how appealing they look to fulfill.) And then you need to be prepared to live with the consequences of your decision. Without irritation, without resentment, because that was the choice you made.

In the excitement of initial attraction and discovery, we want to be what our beloved wants us to be, and we want to be believe that they are what we want. It’s easy to say, “I love you, honey, so I’ll smile.” But if we don’t – not love, but know ourselves – before we love someone else, the divorce rate suggests that smile can all too easily turn into a rictus grin.