Marriage is a collection of things said and not said…and you can quote me on that

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

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Diary of a divorced man: the long, hard road to single-mindedness

When I used to tell people I was separated their response would be sympathetic and consoling; now, when I say that I am divorced I might as well be announcing that I like my toast buttered.

Someone who is separated is accorded a sense of loss and hurt, of a life disturbed with uncertainty ahead, an understanding that the upheaval is recent and emotions are still raw. But with divorce, it is assumed that time has done its work and it is a case of “join the club”.

My own broken marriage of 25 years has taken this familiar path. For a year or so I felt the deepest grief. With crystal clarity I could see the marriage from my wife’s perspective. After living with an undiagnosed depressive for so long, my wife simply had enough. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression, a condition that had been present since my boyhood, she simply wished me well with the rigorous treatment that lay ahead. This was now my battle to be fought alone.

At first it was my wife that I missed dearly. My flowers and plaintive letters only strengthened her resolve. “This has to stop,” she demanded in one letter. “It’s over.”

But the overwhelming and lasting pain came with the loss of my family – our three boys – and the knowledge that I would not get a second chance to be the husband and father I had ceased to be in those last few years, a time when my depression plumbed to its deepest, darkest depths.

My remorse, growing self-awareness and greater control over my depression (with therapy and medication) would have no part to play in reprising my role as husband and father.

In those early days of treatment my psychoanalyst insisted that I had to be my first priority.

“You are no good to anyone, your wife, your children, least of all yourself until you regain your strength and confidence,” he stated bluntly.

“Now is not the time to concern yourself with reconciliation, and I can’t tell you if there ever will be a reconciliation, but I can tell you it will not happen until you are strong again.”

This was easier said than done, of course. I was overwhelmed by the knowledge of what I would be missing, the things I would no longer be able to celebrate as a family – the birthdays, the school events, the graduations. The milestones that one might normally take for granted. But I understood what he was saying.

There is nothing nuanced about a failed marriage

Occasionally one will hear of divorced couples that remarry after some years apart. It’s a happy outcome that speaks to an idealistic hope that wrongs can be set right, lessons hard won can be activated and corrosive behaviours of the past can be exorcised. It’s also a reassuring hope that time cannot erase the good in a relationship that is inevitably overshadowed by the heightened emotions and catalogue of hurts that invariably crashes a decaying marriage against the wall of no-return.

The worst of the trauma of divorce is felt by whomever is not the willing party when it is not a mutual decision, or when the mutuality gives way and at the eleventh hour only one of you is determined that the marriage must end.

There is nothing nuanced about a failed marriage. By the time the final act plays to its torrid and bloody conclusion, there is no room for forgiveness, doubt or sentiment. Every fault is magnified a thousand times, slights previously overlooked coalesce into a damning tsunami of recrimination and the patience of the angels gives way to an unbending determination to endure no more.

Marriages end for many reasons but the end usually comes when one of the partners finally decides ‘enough’. By the time that point is reached, the anger, bitterness and possibly even hatred is all-consuming. Tearful entreaties for another chance will fall on closed hearts. Perhaps the angry and unforgiving brick wall is necessary for protagonists to maintain their resolve.

As a married man, it always struck me as odd, not to say insane, when there was rare news of an estranged couple remarrying. How could a couple step back into the fire of a flawed union?

From my new vantage point of being single after 25 years of marriage my perspective on that is much mellowed. Not because it gives me hope in my own situation – my (ex-) wife seems positively energised by her liberation from me – but because I stand in awe of the power of forgiveness, the supremacy of love and the optimism of spirit that such a reconciliation denotes. (For those who come back together as a matter of convenience, without resolution of the original breaking points, they are very likely buying into a resumed hell on earth.)

Resilience after a long period of fragility

There are men capable of swapping one marriage for another, much as one would return a faulty toaster, but even after four years of separation from my wife this is an alien prospect.

On one occasion, some time ago and to my own surprise, I attempted to initiate a romantic relationship, a venture that was politely declined. And recently I did ask someone I met at a dinner party to lunch, with romantic intent, but that invitation was also declined. Fortunately, in neither case did I find this a crushing experience, which speaks well of my resilience after a long period of fragility.

For those who viscerally feel the pangs of divorce there are various strands of emotional hurt but the overwhelming feeling of rejection looms especially large; doubly so in the case of pleas for reconciliation (or for that matter forgiveness) that are flatly denied. So, I’m rather pleased with myself that having dipped my toe in the waters of romantic possibilities I did not lose a leg to a ravenous shark.

Life does go on; maybe not the life you had envisaged for yourself, and maybe with more ebbs and flows than you would like, but a life of new beginnings, fresh prospects and good friends nonetheless.

I live in the country (Macedon, Victoria), a one-hour train trip from Melbourne, surrounded by gum trees, a spectacular array of bird life and occasional visits by a family of kangaroos. I am occupied with writing a novel (admittedly taking longer than expected, but now five chapters in) and a memoir (which is not the act of vanity that might suggest). Meanwhile, I sustain myself materially with a portfolio of freelance work, some of which is professionally fulfilling, much of which is tosh.

In more ways than one I find myself single-minded. And it’s okay.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is a columnist with The New Daily and is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

Calling myself names: people are often curious about my surname – this is how it came to be

Like all journalists my work involves speaking to a lot of people from a wide spread of backgrounds. While I ask most of the questions, there is one question that I am asked more than any other: “Where does your surname come from?”

I don’t mind being asked; it is, I suppose, an unusual double-barrelled surname and I can understand that it arouses some curiosity. Personally, I’ve never been tempted to quiz anybody about their double-handled moniker. I assume it’s either a traditional (or “heritable”) family name or a latter-day creation arising from marriage which may or may not endure.

My attitude to names is strictly aesthetic and I have never been fond of my original name Leo D’Angelo. It was never to my liking, but it was as a byline that it caused me the most irritation. I could never quite put my finger on my distaste for it; possibly because both names ended in ‘o’, but I think the closest I can come to an explanation is the name’s lack of symmetry.

When my wife and I decided to marry I suggested that we adopt a joint surname and she was agreeable. She was the Fisher.

We planned to marry in January 1989, immediately after which we were to travel to Hong Kong, where I was to join Far East Business magazine as deputy editor (I was with BRW at the time). To ensure that out passports carried out new names we went to the office of Births, Deaths and Marriages to make the changes – a remarkably simple process.

Adding my wife’s name to mine was a statement of my adoration for her but also an opportunity to recalibrate my name. It was a decision made much easier by the fact that I liked the name Fisher.

I put quite some thought into my new name. I decided that I would carry the two names without a hyphen. I also weighed up whether I preferred Leo D’Angelo Fisher or Leo Fisher D’Angelo. Again, the only consideration at this point was aesthetics and I chose the former.

When we emerged from the office we compared documents and I discovered that, contrary to our original plan, my wife had opted to make D’Angelo one of her middle names. I thought it an odd thing to do, but I considered the matter of names to be strictly one for her. As far as I was concerned deciding to retain her surname was entirely reasonable.

“If she really loved you…”

Our respective parents were not so sanguine. My wife’s father, a gentle but straight-laced fellow, was of the view that, as dictated by tradition, my wife should have adopted my surname. My parents, meanwhile, were apoplectic with indignation. “If she really loved you she would take your name,” they both argued. The issue was the only occasion that both sets of parents caucused to register their joint disapproval. Despite some lobbying, my wife and I stood firm.

In time my parents grew to love my wife, but the furore over the name was enough for them to view my marriage in very frosty terms.

Six years later, when our first of three sons was born, the matter of the name resurfaced. While I had my own reasons for adopting the twin-surname I was unfussed as to whether our children should carry my name. We agreed that they would be Fishers, with each of the boys having D’Angelo as their middle name. My parents stewed in silence.

My decision to become Leo D’Angelo Fisher was not without incident, comical and otherwise.

One editor, who knew me by my original name, initially refused to run my new byline – a matter not without irony – arguing that I could either have Leo D’Angelo or Leo Fisher, but not both. I had to produce documentary evidence that this was my name and that’s the byline I insisted upon. He eventually relented.

On another occasion, while we were living in Brisbane, where I was deputy editor of Business Queensland newspaper, my in-laws came to visit. At the time the newspaper was having a staff conference at Noosa, so my in-laws stayed at the same hotel. During an evening function I introduced the Fishers to Business Queensland’s publisher, an urbane American of considerable charm, who immediately assumed they were my parents. “What a great pleasure to meet Leo’s parents,” he gushed with great fanfare. After lavishing praise on “their son” it was considered too awkward to set the publisher straight. For the duration of the conference, the Fishers were my parents.

When my wife and I divorced after 25 years of marriage, the matter of my surname did not arise. As far as I was concerned it was a given that I would retain it. It was my name; it was my byline. And so it remains. I have not enquired whether my wife still bears her unusual middle name.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com