Marriage is a funny business. Occasionally funny-haha, but mostly not. To the best of my knowledge there is no such discipline as Marriage Science, which is a pity because mastering the science might lead to a happier world.
Loyal and occasional readers may recall that I have on several occasions documented the impact of undiagnosed depression on my life, and most notably on my marriage. But that’s not the basis of this reflection. It’s just normal, everyday stuff that people stuff up.
And by people I mean mostly men; and by mostly men I mean me in particular.
It’s obvious now that during our 25 years of marriage there were red flags aplenty. Most marriages, of whatever composition, can deal with a certain number of red flags, and the number varies from marriage to marriage. But when the number of red flags starts to resemble a birthday parade for Kim Jong-un, then you’re in trouble.
In listing Ten Things That Really Pissed Off My Wife, by which of course I mean my ex-wife, I can’t be sure that my Ten Things correspond with her Ten Things (and Counting). We don’t have that kind of post-divorce relationship. There’s never been a debrief.
6 January 2020 marks six years since my marriage broke up. The break-up happened a few weeks short of our 25th wedding anniversary. Divorce came later, obviously, but I do not have the date fixed in my mind nor do I retain any paperwork related to the event.
In those six years my wife and I have met once. I could look up the date, but I’ll let a guess suffice and say that it was a couple of years ago. The occasion was Jerry Seinfeld’s Australian tour. I sent her a text asking if she’d like to see his show and she texted back ‘yes’. To say that attending Seinfeld together broke the ice of our estrangement would be a complete and utter over-statement. I possibly over-compensated in my quest to demonstrate that I was an agreeable human being again (OK, that’s a depression reference), and she was perfectly congenial. But it all counted for naught. We remain irretrievably and completely estranged.
Knowing my wife, she has obliterated our 25 years together; it simply doesn’t exist anymore. She’s always been very good at compartmentalising. For me, life is one continuous chain, an unbreakable series of links. That makes her the smart one. (For example, I understand that she still wears the beautiful pearl necklace I gave her, I think when we were courting, but possibly one of my “just because” gifts early in our marriage, and she will do so without any conflict of emotions.)
Over the past six years I have trawled through every second of our marriage. More fool I. The happy upshot is that I can be sure that despite it being a hard road for my wife there was a lot of good in our marriage, not least our three sons. The other result of my cogitation is that I have been able to square up to my failings.
My Ten Things are not big-ticket items. They are failings of the “nuts and bolts” variety, the failure to keep those little cogs well oiled; cogs seemingly insignificant in themselves, but which over time contribute to the whole machinery of marriage grinding to a halt when not properly tended to.
So here we go:
01 “How do you like the new recipe?”
My wife is an excellent cook, but she’s not one to stick to a culinary repertoire. She likes to experiment with new dishes from recipe books, which I gladly encouraged. It was my practice to buy her a selection of books for Christmas, and these selections usually contained at least one recipe book, so she amassed quite a collection. When a recipe was not to my liking I would say so – this almost exclusively involved lemon rind. Unfortunately the number of recipes involving lemon zest seemed to bunch up towards the end of our marriage, which proved unhelpful. (For the record, I only rarely cooked after my wife revealed, a few years into our marriage, that she did not like my cooking. Too much olive oil, I suspect.)
Lesson: the answer to the above question should always be: “I love this new recipe!”
02 “Why do we have to bring wine?”
I know it’s the custom to bring wine to dinner parties, but my view of the dinner party is that the host or hosts are saying to their guests: ‘Welcome to our home, I hope you enjoy the selection of food and wine we have chosen for you tonight.’ I argued that flowers should suffice. My wife generally compromised: we would bring flowers AND a bottle of wine. What my wife initially took as being an eccentric point of view eventually became very annoying.
Lesson: there is only one acceptable question, in almost any circumstance, but especially this one: “Red or white?”
03 “Just one dance…pleeeease?”
I don’t move to music. I simply do not. It’s not a philosophical or intellectual objection to dance; it’s just that no part of me moves to music. I like music, a lot, but not in a jiggly way. For some reason non-dancers seem to pair up with people who love dancing. Or maybe most people love dancing. My wife is an excellent dancer and I always enjoyed watching her dance (ie, with somebody else), but it ultimately meant that there were lots of things we didn’t do and lots of places we didn’t go because of my cultural handicap.
Lesson: It’s not easy for committed wallflowers, but dance like nobody’s watching.
04 “I prefer to eat my pizza with a knife and fork, okay?”
In any relationship there are only so many times one can gently mock their partner for eating pizza and fish & chips with a knife and fork. The result is that the mocked party either declines placing an order for take-away or disappears outside with tucker and cutlery.
Lesson: eat your pizza and shut up.
05 “She’s my oldest friend.”
I thought my wife’s best friend was as dumb as a cardboard box. (Ditto her second-best friend. What the hell, No.3 was no prize either.) I was polite and agreeable, at least to begin with, but eventually I stopped pretending that I liked her friends. (My wife also disliked my friends, but I agreed with her.) On paper they were very intelligent, but in practice they oozed stoopid. As I became more and more preoccupied with my own issues I became less tolerant of fools and in particular these fools. I can’t be sure but I suspect that I came to curl my lip at the mere mention of their names.
Lesson: Love her, love her friends.
06 “Where’s your wedding ring?”
I took particular delight in buying my wife’s engagement and wedding rings at Kozminsky’s and they looked beautiful on her. As for my wedding ring, I could take it or leave it, but I thought it was the right thing to wear it. Unfortunately, it was slightly too big for my finger and I was forever playing with it. This can either become an absent-minded habit, in which case there is no harm done, or it drives one crazy. I was in the latter category. It took several years before I took it off and I have to admit I was surprised at how much it hurt my wife that I did so. So it went back on, and over the years it came and went and eventually my wife stopped caring. And I regret to say that the ring is now lost.
Lesson: If your wedding ring is too big, have it adjusted or super-glue it on.
07 “You never ask how my day was.”
It’s true. I didn’t. I assumed that if she had something to tell me about her day she would tell me. I also tended to avoid clichés like the plague. The whole “Hi honey, how was your day?” seemed a bit too Dick Van Dyke (although I was a big fan). But of course communication is not just about what you say, it’s the fact that you say it at all, the fact that you take the interest to ask. Communication is also about mechanics. I’m terrible at small talk, but small talk has its purpose; the first question(s) a journalist asks is very likely clichéd, or small-talk in nature, but it eases both the interviewer and interviewee into the substance of the conversation. It never occurred to me to apply the principle at home.
Lesson: Ask how her bloody day was.
08 “You don’t hold my hand anymore.”
I don’t specifically recall deciding to stop holding hands with my wife, but it is true to say that I’m not a big fan of holding hands and at some point I stopped. Some couples hold hands through hell and high water, even if on occasion it means causing pedestrian traffic jams. But I understand their resolve: they’re a couple and couples hold hands. My wife definitely noticed when I no longer reached for her hand when walking in public. Occasionally she would take my shirking hand or ask me to hold hers. Holding hands is a symbolic gesture; there’s nothing particularly rational about it. It’s a demonstration of affection. Not holding hands doesn’t necessarily mean a relationship is under strain, but it probably suggests it’s seen better days.
Lesson: some things that aren’t strictly necessary can still be important.
09 When silence is not companionable
Most young couples, perhaps when sitting in a restaurant, will whisper gleefully about the older couple eating in silence. “That will never be us,” the garrulous young lovers promise themselves. But two people comfortable in each other’s silence can be and probably are perfectly happy. Or at least satisfied. The problem is when one member of the couple does not welcome the silence. I have never been troubled by silence. If I have nothing to say I prefer to keep quiet. But a predisposition to silence was magnified many times over by depression. It must have been like being married to a rock.
Lesson: relationships need noise as well as silence.
10 When the ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ kisses stop
At some point the peck on the partner’s cheek to signify hello and goodbye becomes perfunctory. That won’t concern most people; it’s the nature of ritual, a symbol of abiding affection, a gesture of reassurance. But I’ve got a thing. (Well, many things.) As soon as I become conscious that I’m doing something out of habit or by rote, I recoil and desist, whether it’s the realisation that I’m repeatedly using a particular word or phrase, or that my wife and I are exchanging meaningless pecks because it’s the thing to do. Except that it’s not meaningless. I remember that first time when the peck was expected and, at my resistance, the proffering of faces did not occur. The chasm of that moment was palpable. Of course she was aware and of course she was hurt. I could have reconsidered my petty boycott at that moment, but I had a bug about the peck and we stopped, for the most part, kissing hello and goodbye. By the time I realised how corrosive my decision was, it was too late to rectify the damage done.
Lesson: pucker up, that peck on the cheek is more important than you think.
I don’t sound very nice do I? So many sore points in a relationship fester because they are not seen to as they become apparent. If I may mix my metaphors – my wife hated my metaphors – our marriage was on automatic pilot. That works at the beginning. Abundant, even extravagant, love powers the marriage along. However, self-aware couples know when it’s time to man the controls and guide the maturing relationship through the inevitable obstacles. My wife and I didn’t do that; we never got beyond the automatic pilot, which did good work over quite a distance. [Metaphor Alert] But when the rugged peaks came into view we just waited open-mouthed, in silence, full of dread, for the fatal crash to happen. I say “we”, and to a certain extent it was about the both of us: the lack of communication, the failure to identify and correct wrongs, the absence of courage to confront the unpleasant. But mostly it was me. I was the selfish and inconsiderate partner. My peccadilloes, perhaps forgivable in themselves, snowballed into something much more threatening. And yes, there were times when the meaning of those approaching peaks was obvious to me. But presented with the choice of fight or flight, my default position was the latter. On 6 January, my wife called enough.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is less maudlin on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher