Some wit once said that half the time she loved her spouse very much, and the other half she thought about whether he would fit in the trunk of her car.
Recently, over a salad lunch in the kitchen, I asked my husband, “What things do I do around the house that irritate you?” He perked up in his chair. His eyes gleamed. With enthusiasm he launched into a litany of annoyances: I don’t fasten bottle tops, I put clothes in the laundry inside out, and I keep buying way too many houseplants. He went on.
Maybe he thought I brought this up as a prelude to reforming my bad habits. He was disappointed to learn that I was just holding a narrow focus group with one subject only. Not surprisingly, he didn’t ask me to express my own pet peeves about him.
Having a dark impulse toward your partner hopefully doesn’t happen as frequently as half the time. And it may not be as diabolical as entertaining the idea of stuffing his body in the trunk. But some variation of your life partner getting on your last nerve is inevitable. This was especially true in 2020, the year we rolled back the clock to 1918. The scourge was called the Spanish flu back then, but the horror was the same, I would imagine.
The friction between partners might be seen as a Venus vs. Mars conflict — inherent differences between the sexes. But gay friends tell me that Venus and Venus or Mars and Mars isn’t always a day at the beach either.
Marriage can be tough. Your partner isn’t some friend or cousin you can avoid when you feel like it. No. Whatever is supremely irritating about a spouse is until death do you part. Probably. There is everything to be said for overlooking annoying habits and for realizing that your partner is trying to overlook your faults too. There may be couples who remain starry-eyed forever and who are never enraged by each other, even during a prolonged lockdown. I just don’t know any. Eventually in any match, daily life sets in and small foibles reveal themselves.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was driven to distraction by her husband’s incessant knuckle cracking. Maybe she couldn’t overlook Count Alexei’s bad habit because there was so much else wrong in the marriage. Still, I can imagine momentarily wanting to fling myself in front of a train solely because someone has cracked his knuckles for the millionth time. Particularly now, when domestic life is life. Period.
“Do you think married couples try to change each other?” I asked my husband, as he finished his salad.
“Of course,” he replied.
“Would you like me to be more like you?” I asked.
“Of course,” he replied again, with a smile that indicated how implausible that was. Later, he qualified his statement. He thinks I’m terrific just as I am in most ways. He doesn’t want me to be like him in all ways. Just in the ways that he is right and I am wrong. Well, thank you, Henry Higgins!
Most of the time we enjoy each other’s company above the company of others, so we grin (or not) and bear the petty issues. This can be challenging because it is the little things that seem to drive us nuts. Especially when we happen to be locked down in East Hampton’s Northwest Woods together for spring, summer, and fall, avoiding all other people and viewing them as possible vectors of death. And then winter happens and shrinks our world even more. And then our dog, Kodak, dies. That was a heartbreaker, and this strange year got even stranger for us.
There’s an old R&B song by Shalamar called “Don’t Try to Change Me.” And an even older song by Lesley Gore called “You Don’t Own Me” that admonishes a lover, “Don’t try to change me in any way.” If you Google marriage.com you will find a therapist’s authoritative-sounding article titled “Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Try to Change Your Partner.” This is a pretty ubiquitous message and it sounds great, so tolerant, so accepting. But we humans do try to change each other. Our unspoken lament is: Why can’t my partner be more like me? Would it kill him or her to be a tad more accommodating?
Accommodating in the little things. Things that aren’t meaningful in the larger scheme of life, but things that make us want to explode in the moment. Especially when they are followed by the defense, “Well, I didn’t do it on purpose.”
If he slams that front door one more time. Does she have to pile another pillow on that sofa? If he leaves crumbs all over the counter. Did she put cilantro in this — again? If I hear that story one more time.
About that last one. We all have favorite stories and quips that we dine out on. After all, we have to say something amusing on Zoom cocktail hours. How could I criticize my husband for retelling an entertaining story? Hearing his stories multiple times is just an occupational hazard in a long-term relationship. I know that. I have my anecdotes, too, and I’m sure he’s sick of hearing them. But understanding this doesn’t help in the moment when the story I know too well gets trotted out again for a new audience. “Yes, I’m from Boston, and I still pahk my cah in . . .”
Oh no. Not again! Pass the wine, please.
Despite all the above grumblings, I would give my husband and myself an A for navigating this pandemic together. It was shocking how quickly everything changed a year ago. Suddenly we were unable to do anything but huddle in our house and wait for a vaccine. Before the epidemic, friends from the city would arrive at our home in the Northwest Woods exclaiming, “How can you live way out here? It’s so remote!” Then they stopped saying that when space and quiet and clean air suddenly became so important to everyone. We feel fortunate to live a short walk from Gardiner’s Bay on wooded lanes with barely any cars.
We survived and now the ordeal is beginning to end. People in the Northeastern states feel like they earn spring by getting through the winter, and they appreciate it more because of that. This spring, and the freedom that the warm weather and the vaccine will bring, has been especially hard-earned. And it’s going to be exhilarating, so bring on the forsythia.
Lockdown heightened irritability over small things that became magnified, but it also highlighted how much we care. By taking turns cheering each other up when one was down, by not falling apart because the other person needed you to not fall apart, by smiling at each other every morning and fashioning the day into something worthwhile, feeling lucky to have each other during a trying time.
So what if occasionally we each wanted to pull out the measuring tape and head for the trunk of the car. Fortunately, we both drive S.U.V.s.
Deborah Goldstein is a writer who participates in the memoir class at the East Hampton Library.