The kids have been home from school a full week now, which means I have been home with them a full week. And since their father works out of our house, this means we have all of us been home together for A FULL WEEK. It's been a little like an executive team-building camp. Instead of the ropes course, our participants clamber around on the family room furniture. The objective is to remove every slipcover, cushion and throw without ever letting your bottom touch the upholstery, or your feet touch the floor. That's the kids' team's objective, anyway. (What, did you think we were all on the same team?)
The adult team's objective is to try and stay married through the end of the summer.
This is an advanced course, involving an intricate criss-crossing of personalities, schedules, and responsibilities, all of which must be negotiated while trying to get the slipcovers, cushions, throws and bottoms back on the furniture. Not recommended for persons with high blood pressure.
Patrick has been insanely busy with work, which beats the alternative in the feast-or-famine realm of freelance, but has zapped all the flex from his time. Early last week, he took the rare move of initiating a marital conference, wherein he explained to me that if I was going to spend the summer tagging him for childcare while I "nip down to the gym" or "dash out to the store," his billable time would be severely reduced.
I don't know any couple with children for whom division of labor and leisure isn't an ongoing issue. "Be willing to renegotiate everything, forever," says one of my long-married friends. Ours was a good meeting, even if my new-found wings were slightly clipped. I had my own items to bring to the table, and I didn't come away empty-handed. Being able to sit down and have these exchanges calmly and openly is a mutually acquired skill we are both proud of, like a retirement fund that has done well.
We've worked hard at it. If the slipcover situation doesn't get the better of us, my love and I will celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary in September. This past week of concentrated for-worse-and-better-ness has given me several occasions to appreciate how much equity we've built up in our relationship over the last decade. For a couple who started out with more libidio than emotional intelligence, more barware than communication skills, and more codependence issues than a Dr. Phil show, we've done alright.
Take last Monday night. For Memorial Day, our crowd decided to rent the neighborhood pool and do a potluck supper. I had mentioned it to Patrick several times over the weekend, but when the time came to wake him up from his nap and load the van, he appeared ambushed.
"Are you expecting me to go?" he said, groggily.
"Yes, I told you, it's a family thing," I said. Not the Parents Without Partners Picnic.
I thought that last bit, but I didn't say it. Witness the triumph of the teeth over the tongue.
Marriage therapist John Gottman estimates that a substantial percentage of problems in any long-term relationship are essentially "unsolvable", and that successful couples learn to live with them in a way that is healthy. (You can read more about it in this interview with Gottman). One of our unsolvable issues is the ocean of discrepancy between our social appetites. Patrick is an introvert from a family of introverts. His nuclear family was very close-knit and rarely socialized with non-relatives. Not that I am judging or anything, but to me that makes him some kind of sick weirdo.
On the other hand, my family of origin and I are boundlessly extroverted. Put any of us at the center of a social gathering and we glow like lightning bugs.
He's an innie. I'm an outie. It took us seven years to figure this out and no amount of pushing and pulling on each other is ever going to change it. My idea of a compromise is one jointly attended social event a week. He feels like one a month is an effort that requires him to dig deep, deep down. And then sleep for three days following. No two words strung together can strike terror and dread into Patrick's heart, or joy and anticipation into mine, like "theme" and "party". It's something we've had to learn to live around, and occassionally one or the other of us will trip right over it.
Like on Memorial Day. It would be nice to tell you I beamed with unconditional love and acceptance at my grouchy mate as we loaded the kids into van, but that would be a lie. I was annoyed, and he was annoyed, and we spent the first thirty minutes or so of the party quietly resenting each other for being the way we are. The difference between now and then is that we are aware of what it costs to attack each other over those kinds of differences. It would be like cashing in the equity in our house to go buy crack. A long backslide for the sake of a short-lived rush.
We can't afford it. So instead of going on the attack, we quietly and respectfully gave each other some space. Space for him to wake up and warm up to the gathering, and space for me to work on that unconditional love and acceptance that I promised nearly ten years ago. And within the hour, it came shining through, like the sun from beind a cloud.
Sometimes unavoidably the pressure of daily life reaches a breaking point. Sometimes in the squeeze of work and childrearing we don't have much space to give. Yesterday it was my turn to be groggy and grouchy, after contemplating the stripped upholstery for the hundredth time this weekend, and I said something critical to Patrick. He reacted, I raised him one and overreacted. I don't want to say that doors were being slammed, because that would alarm my mother, but doors were being shut loudly and pointedly. I stomped off to the kitchen, where Patrick followed me to ask in a bewildered tone if we could reboot. I wasn't done being mad, so I said something shitty. The minute it came out of my mouth, I regretted it. Not an unfamiliar sensation for an extrovert.
"I'm so sorry, that was so hateful," I said tearfully. "All I meant to say was, you suck."
In about twenty minutes, we had gone from slamming to laughing. A summer storm, blown over as suddenly as it broke. Years ago, cyclones could spin out from a clash like that which would wreak havoc for days, set us down bruised and lost in the middle of nowhere, having to pick up the pieces. Pressure would build, the atmosphere would darken and we'd both run out headlong to meet disaster like a couple of fools. This is the dividend of ten years: the realization we can back up just as easily and quickly as our backs used to get up.