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We were two exquisite wooden ships trying to get close to each other on a meltdown of ocean. Couples at the church where we met warned us that it wasn’t the right time. They couldn’t picture either of us with anyone else, but we were going to be a lot for each other and needed first to be enough for ourselves. Basically, mess up the timing and you mess up the person. This sort of thing. Married 30, 40, years, these couples. They’d know. We even agreed while indulging each other’s eyes that they were right. Each breakup and reunion we’d repeat it, like the campaign slogan our relationship would have if it were running for office.
During Take Two, he nearly fell off my roof while helping me deal with a bedbug incursion. We couldn’t burn the wood from my bed frame because it had been treated with arsenic to avert termites. But we still had to dispose of it and the best way, apparently, was hucking the planks into the backyard from the eave that ferned out and then sharply down from my bedroom window. He had also previously hung an extra bar in the awkward frustum of storage space kept behind an osteoporotic door in the southeast corner of the room.
Between Take Three and Three Point Five, we Skyped from 4:00 p.m. in Belfast, where I had been exploring what it was like to travel alone for two months, to 4:00 p.m. in Seattle, where we lived. He said at the end that he wanted to marry me and, out of lack of preparedness for such a declaration, I clapped my laptop shut, didn’t open it again for three days and tried to enjoy my cursory visit to a friend in London.
Three Point Five began eight days after my return stateside. It should have been Forever Point Done since the M-word had, after an admittedly psoriatic four years, been broached but it ended instead in complex flames. A woman from our old church got some alone time with him while I was in a counseling session and shared her concern that he was less in love with me and more addicted to me, that this couldn’t be good for either of us and that he really needed to remedy this as swiftly as possible. I didn’t hear that background story until six or so weeks after yet another hasty and clunky breakup.
One of the breakups after that ended with me slapping him in public. Saying the M-word again and still not having a ring. That sort of thing, though it wasn’t like I planned it. His glasses evacuated his face. “I deserved that,” he remembers saying.
There is nothing gratuitous to note about Take One. It only lasted two weeks, three days and 4.5 hours.
Take Five ended in marriage, though there were three premarital sessions – each of the extra ones our pastors had graciously (and, to be honest, sternly) offered – where it could have just as easily gone the other way. His icy emotional detachment made my vulcanologist’s-goldmine reactions seem sheerly apocalyptic. Others, including supporters, had a hard time seeing past the appearance of aggressive bully kicking helpless puppy, probably because it’s easier to understand how anger is scary than how passivity is scary. When a concerned fellow parishioner took me aside to express her concerns about my “passive-aggressive bouts,” I agreed.
“I am indeed passive aggressive: passivity makes me aggressive.”
And so we aggressively pursued staying on track for our wedding. I left the last-name question up to him, partly in efforts to be sensitive to the fact that he did not grow up anticipating he’d ever change his name and partly in hopes of pushing him to make a truly-him decision. I didn’t see why I should have to give up something to get married while he would, by most accounts, only be gaining something. So the options seemed to me to be keep our given names or both change to a new one, retaining our given surnames as second middle names. He thought for two and a half months about it and then, before we’d picked a new name, decided that sharing a name trumped cultural norms. We made the announcement to the families. My dad, who is probably the cause of hippies, totally dug it and instructed us to ‘righteously party on.’ My impending father-in-law complained about the way we had informed him (a bombastically careful video explaining our rationale in between overtures of loyalty and love to him) and then was silent for long enough that we started to worry about his actual attending the wedding.
Which, as far as I know, did happen as planned, with both dads present. The one rule we managed to follow in all of this was the one everyone said to us in the eight-month runway to our public covenanting: our first year was indeed the hardest. At least it better have been. Four months after our wedding, our pastor summoned me to an urgent lunch with his wife, which we then mosied on through until they leaned towards each other, whispered, and she got up and walked out of earshot and eyesight. He then confessed firewalling “feelings of affection” for me for the past four and a half years, prefaced by, “I’ve never met anyone as good at getting people to love them as you.” He and his wife, our pastors, had known us for over half a decade. They didn’t have their own children, these pastors, so we, and I in particular, were honorary adoptees. They spent hundreds of hours, big and small, counseling and consoling me through childhood baggage that was hideously over the weight limit. Our pastors helped us hobble through the normal amount of premarital work, then through those extra sessions, still limping, half because of my baggage and half because my husband’s had gone unattended for so long, and then officiated our wedding as a team. His wife was even our coordinator. He wrote my walking-down-the-aisle song, played and sang it for the occasion. These pastors. One of them now confessing some dauntingly deep and long-held feelings for me.
We had to leave the church, my husband said when I told him. And then he went quiet until the next morning. This is the part of our relationship before we started thinking we needed a bridge but were equally nascent about how to construct one: I’m on the one side of this resplendent but ravenous ravine where emotion is the clear path through ebullient trees; he’s on the other where the forest is the feelings. This may map pretty much directly back to interior versus communal processing. I was mad and hurt and seethed with betrayal right away. I wanted something done as quickly. My husband needed to stroll about the woods…loudly. He is also self-taught in peacekeeping as a means to de-escalate emotions, his or anyone else’s, and this has looked a lot like avoiding them to me. He’d tell you he thinks the best thing is for everyone’s feelings to be calmly, and if someone involved wasn’t there to do so for themselves, he’d present various hypotheses on their behalf.
Of course it wasn’t my fault, he said. Of course the pastor was the one who committed a colossal boundary fail. And of course he believed my denial of any Scarlet Lettering. But they really did care for you, too, he said. Our pastor really did genuinely love you.
Yes, I said. That was, in fact, the exact problem. Our married pastor loved me. I took my husband’s lack of he’s-on-my-turf-dom as distressingly low levels of care for me, and his attempts to understand the pastor’s thoughts – all guesswork at that point – as defending a guy who technically was coveting his wife. Maybe there’s a reason our marriage runway was so uneven and why we sat on the tarmac for so long, I started to think. It was intolerable to not be stood up for; one symptom of Oldest Child Syndrome is an overactive if-you-don’t-it-no-one-else-will gland, which often leads to being overly reliable and appearing as if you don’t need defending. Another is the propensity to believe that not being heard is remedied by raising one’s voice. My husband shuts down around shouting and big feelings because there were both in stinking, heaping helpings all over his childhood. There’s also the pursuer-withdrawer dynamic but what they don’t really tell you about that is that the pursuers only do their thing to demonstrate their own needs and that withdrawers generally don’t follow.
I pursued my husband right into a hermetic hut with four stonewalls and one stone roof right there in our first apartment. And then I dogged him some more. I was successful at getting his theories of others’ thoughts – which included everyone’s but mine – to stop, at least on the outside. We were unsuccessful at any sort of bridge construction. Which was fine, maybe, because it turns out that exquisite wooden ships can’t use bridges. What exquisite wooden ships need is clear, deep water. And some patch work.
We went to separate corners for the latter, though we bungled even that. We had been talking about taking a timeout but on Feb. 14th, he went through the motions of putting together an overnight bag and spent the night, then the next and the next and the next at a mutual friends’ place. The precipitating scrimmage, held in the kitchen, was grueling; I had been yelling a while when “I felt no love for you on our wedding day” corkscrewed out of his trembling, color-drained lips. I wrenched the purple sapphire off my finger, pressed it into his hand and continued shouting: “Give it back when you’re actually ready for this.”
I had to stay in that house and cook in that kitchen for the next four months. A friend had a room open up in her apartment and I moved in that scorching, scabrous summer. She had all these boat-working tools she didn’t know about, probably because they were things like taking pictures of purple wisteria on her way home from jogging around the lake. Or ambushing me with a dryer-warmed bed sheet to wrap up in. Or asking questions that assumed only that I wanted to keep my word I gave my husband and he wanted to keep his word to me and did not assume that separation was always the first step toward divorce.
This all might seem like not enough to bind up a damaged ship. But what was going on the whole time was witnessing. My husband and I had traded off giving each other the promise of love, honor, cherishing, fidelity, forgiveness; our best and worst (on one of our premarital assessments, we both tested as realists on a scale of optimist to idealist). She was one in a sea of witnesses to that exchange. Those questions, those sheet wraps, the wisteria; they’re testimony. They’re pretty countercultural, too: she gently, with humor and humility for what ended up being a year of separation, held us to our word. Which was, in fact, to take life’s sandbars in whatever weather together even as the clunky, fragile vessels we are.
We had our first anniversary celebration, a stiffly polite evening at my friend’s apartment while I was still living there. She had graciously made plans to be away that evening, but left pictures of wisteria bouquets above the kitchen sink, as well as one on my pillow, with a handwritten note that read: Words that are edited and revised over and over are easily read; good words are carefully chosen before they are said; you’ve given each other the best words you can yet and I was in the front row so I won’t forget!
We made pesto smoothies – it was an accident but we’ve done it every year since – and watched the then newly released film Lincoln. It sounds sterilely intellectual, and that was the point. It was the first ‘meeting’ that we did not spend the whole time together Rolodexing through the changes we absolutely could not live without the other making immediately. Probably, we agreed later, it was because we had seen others’ process of deciding which amendments are worth a war.
It’s important to discern carefully: they say that two-thirds of all marital conflict is unresolvable. This doesn’t mean that our rutting and crashing around was good, only that such things are inevitable and that working towards stopping them would not be as effective as figuring out how not to fall apart when they happen. In fact, when it comes to ships, working to avoid collisions means actively working to stay away from each other. It’s the shallow shores and sneaky sandbars we want to avoid.
Of course, we will run aground again, but maybe the intent of marriage is a kind of ‘stuckness’ after all. The difference between a good marriage and a bad one is when “stuck” means “safe.” All the while, the point isn’t personal happiness, which you hear all the time but I didn’t believe it until I realized that the only person on earth that I covenanted with was not making me happy hardly ever and I actually expected all our fiery fighting would change that. But wood burns. Witnesses are water, a sea that helps two ships stick together as they hit wave after erstwhile capsizing wave.