Marriage is, among other things, a collection of things said and not said; things that could have been better said, things that should not have been said at all; things whose meaning changed over time; things that were never said yet were; things that go without saying and things that do not; and things that cannot be unsaid.
The following six vignettes began as midnight ruminations, plucked from 25 years of marriage. Twenty-five years is a big slice of life. Perhaps it can be said that divorce is a life instalment retracted, or as our American friends might say, a life misspoken. For me, life is material. I hope I’ve chosen well:
01 My wife believed in the sanctity of the parent-teacher interview. I did not.
Parent-teacher interviews are a bit like performance reviews: there is nothing to say but everyone plays along to see if that nothing can be stretched out to a respectable five minutes. Well, mostly everyone. My view is: if there is nothing to be said what are we doing here?
When our kids were going to school my wife was a public servant (she is still the latter, but not the former) so naturally took the view that any meeting is a good meeting. That means lots of engagement, exposition and eye contact whereas I would prefer to leave, or better still, not be there in the first place.
Unfortunately, not believing in parent-teacher interviews and actually saying so is treated with the same gravity as advertising the children on Gumtree.
The advice here is not to think better of parent-teacher interviews but to look upon them as an opportunity to brush up on your social skills.
02 In marriage small talk is a big deal
I’ve never had the gift of small talk, which is not helpful in a marriage, or parent-teacher interviews.
At times when I have felt that I really needed to say something in a particular social or professional situation my brain is so shocked by instructions to pronounce on the weather or the football that it assumes it’s been hacked and the words that emerge from my mouth have been encrypted for my own protection – at least that’s what it must sound like to anyone listening.
I get that small talk has a purpose. I really do. I’ve written columns about small talk; I’ve even talked to my therapist about my inability to engage in small talk.
I used to watch my in-laws do small-talk with each other and it would always be the same script: pater-in-law would kick off with something about the weather, usually involving northerly winds. Back and forth, back and forth until something takes and a conversation would begin.
Pater-in-law would kick off with something about the weather, usually involving northerly winds.
My mother-in-law in particular placed great reliance on small talk (and presumably still does). She abhors silence between two or more people. Even the millifraction of silence between crisply enunciated words is a challenge. The result could be a panicked non sequitur on embalming techniques in ancient Egypt or a selection of her great aunt’s favourite soup recipes. Not infrequently she would muddle competing gambits and the result would be either transfixing or fathomless, and sometimes both.
My wife was of the “it’s only weather but it would be impolite not to discuss it” school. Which is to say, if two people, particularly two people married to each other, are sitting in silence, why not break the ice with a commentary on the prevailing humidity or the El Niño effect.
I was and remain of the “if you have nothing to say don’t say it” academy. This made for some very quiet moments in the marital bathroom, over breakfast and in any situation involving unavoidable proximity. Unfortunately, no small talk tended to mean no big talk, which in a marriage can be a problem if only one of you is into companionable silence.
03 Did I say that? Actually, no, I didn’t
It was a parent-teacher interview that gave rise to a risible canard (by which I do not mean a corgi).
Sitting with my son before his English teacher, apropos of an essay that my boy had written to less than popular acclaim, I suddenly found myself being lectured on the secrets of successful writing. Hoping this was a passing reference I merely smiled at the advice that ranked somewhere between clueless and clichéd. But on she went, and on.
Was the teacher aware that I was a man of letters (which should have been evident from the freshly stamped mail I was holding) and that I was going to miss the 6 o’clock collection? But that’s an aside. I wondered if she knew that I was a journalist, in which case her twee lecture on the “power of words” was surely superfluous. Or did she not know? Don’t teachers make it their business to know what their students’ parents do? Or did she in fact know and was trying to make some barbed point about journalism today?
These are the kinds of rumination I reported back to my wife that evening, whereupon the legend was born that I had thundered to the harried teacher, “Don’t you know who I am!” I could think of few things that would embarrass me more than people believing I had said such a wanky thing.
I’m thinking of having a t-shirt made that says: “What do you mean you don’t know who I am?”
04 When yesterday’s banter becomes tomorrow’s fighting talk
As the delicate flower of marriage withers the grapes of grievance grow with unseemly vigour.
By the time separation occurs the prosecuting partner has such an exhaustive catalogue of faults that not only does one struggle with the specific cause of the breakdown but one has to justify to friends why the marriage ever took place at all.
Fortunately, friends understand and will generously confide that “we never did like him/her” by way of support. Let’s not be shy, “him”.
No wonder divorcees seldom reconcile. By the time a divorce has been granted the warring parties are frothing at the mouth and/or organising divorce parties.
“No wonder divorcees seldom reconcile.”
An indicator of a failing marriage is that observations once greeted as markers of wisdom, intellect or comedy genius suddenly become grating reminders of everything you hate about your once adored partner. One doesn’t see these transitions in real time and by the time one does one realises he has been hoist with his own petard; no matter that your petard had until recently been much admired.
I could cite many instances of finding myself in this situation, but I shall reflect on a particular favourite.
When I would return home from a speaking engagement my wife would ask how the engagement went. I would remark that it was “a triumph” and she would laugh at my immodesty and I was happy to be part of the gag. At some uncharted point my wife came to hate my declaration of triumph even though it was a self-deprecating boast. (Although, as the old saying goes, “many a true word is spoken in jest”.)
Initially I thought it was simply a change in the routine. And then another dynamic came into play. When I realised that she really did hate me saying my speaking gig had been a triumph, that it made her angry with me for being boastful and arrogant, rather than change the routine (say, by having a real conversation) I wilfully scratched the blackboard.
05 Silence is not golden, but some things should be left unsaid
Spouses have to exercise some discretion when it comes to unflattering observations or assessments about their mate. In a successful marriage, or even just a plain old fashioned enduring one, some things are best left unsaid.
If, for illustrative purposes only, telling your spouse that one ear is bigger than the other is unlikely to prove endearing, is it really worth it? If your deliberations include the words “I’m going to say it anyway” or “what’s the most he/she can say?” stop your mouth now.
There will be times of abandon when a spouse may think it’s worth the roll of the dice. One might be angry about something else, or just bored, or just not thinking straight, or just thinking about Declan and/or Daiquiri in Accounts, but bugger it, this has to be said: “You know, I’ve never liked your cooking.” Or, “I don’t like it when you put your hand on my knee when I’m driving.”
Alas, I received both of these not so glad tidings, in situ as it were. The former was said on a belated “need to know” basis and was taken without (prolonged) offence; the latter was intended to wound and did.
06 A brief tale about middle-aged men in Speedos
One of my long-time peeves is middle- and codger-aged men in speedos. It is an abiding distaste which I have tapped into on several occasions in my columns, from warnings to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott that a politician who lives by his little red speedos will surely die by them, to horrified recollections of the boss who decided to wear speedos (once seen, never unseen) at his staff pool party. For the cantankerous humorist speedos are the eyesore that keep on giving.
My family generally spent our annual summer holiday in Merimbula, on the coast of southern NSW, where as a Fairfax employee I had access to a wonderful beachside apartment at very agreeable rates. Most years my in-laws joined us, they taking a separate apartment in the same resort. (My marriage broke down in the first week of January, one week before our scheduled Merimbula holiday. My wife and kids and her parents went anyway: discuss.)
“My wife must have heard my lip curl”
One afternoon, me, my wife and my father-in-law (a sweet and gentle man) were sitting on a mostly deserted stretch of beach when in the distance a solitary figure, a man in his 50s or 60s wearing speedos, appeared. My wife must have heard my lip curl because she was moved to remark on my disdain for middle-aged men in speedos, which I dutifully took as my cue to expound on the subject, borrowing liberally and at length from my own columns.
My father-in-law, who did not read my work, must have thought me quite obsessed on the matter and made do with the terse rejoinder that it was fortunate he decided to wear his board shorts to the beach. Later that afternoon I was volunteered to collect our clothes from the communal clothes lines.
The few items of clothes belonging to my in-laws included a pair of speedos.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter @DAngeloFisher