Last week I was flipping through some magazines at the salon while I waited for my hair to turn blonde, and I came across a quiz designed to help you figure out if your marriage is something called sustainable. It asked you to describe how you knew when your spouse was the one, and then asked you to answer a bunch of questions with always, often, occasionally, or never.
Here is an excerpt of a few questions with my answers:
- We frequently discuss issues and when we do, the manner in which we discuss issues is completely respectful and not harsh.
(Um, I don’t have an answer for that.)
- When I reflect upon the fact that I chose to marry the person I did, I feel such peace.
(Yes, peace. Nothing but peace.)
- My spouse rarely does or says things that frustrate me.
(Always. I mean never. He rarely never does anything to frustrate me.)
- Although we have our own opinions about many topics, it is rare for my spouse to say or do things that make me truly angry.
(Uh huh. If you say so.)
- I frequently talk with my spouse and discover new or interesting facts about him/her.
(Yes! Just the other day he came home and told me he bought 297 bars of Irish Spring at Costco.)
Marriage is sort of weird, isn’t it?
I mean, I knew Joe for a little over two years when he asked me to marry him. I said yes, and we agreed to spend exactly, oh, I don’t know, the rest of our lives together. We were in our early twenties, so the rest of our lives could easily translate to sixty years or more.
In other words, what were we thinking?
Joe proposed on Easter Sunday in 1996. We’d driven home from college together and then went our separate ways—he to a big, boisterous holiday with a thousand kids and some weird dish called Easter pie, me to a quieter house with just my mother, brother, and sister.
Throughout the day, my mother henpecked and interrogated, demanding when—if!—he was ever going to propose. She used expressions about buying cows and drinking milk and getting things for free.
So, on the ride back to my apartment, I picked a fight with him. I couldn’t bring myself to ask if he was going to propose anytime soon, so I basically wheedled and complained about everything except the issue of commitment.
By the time we walked up the dank stairwell into my apartment, we were barely speaking. He followed me into my small bedroom behind the kitchen, and I burst into tears.
“It’s just my mother said you’re never going to ask me and I can’t wait any more!”
“Fine,” he said disgustedly, taking a small box out his pocket and tossing it onto the light green bedspread. “Here it is! Will you marry me?”
If that isn’t the most romantic story you’ve ever heard, well, I don’t know what is.
I never really told anyone this. For years afterward, when people asked how we got engaged, I just smiled and said breezily, “Oh, you know, he asked me in my apartment.” I did it in a way that suggested fairy tale proposals were passé, that we were too serious and in love to be bothered with roses or candles or beguiling questions stuffed into fortune cookies.
But really, I felt embarrassed and ashamed. Secretly I worried a proposal born out of an argument was probably not the most auspicious start to a marriage.
A year later we took Pre-Cana; classes the Catholic Church require before you walk down the aisle towards the altar. Every Tuesday for a month, we met with a group of similarly engaged young couples to talk about religion, holidays, and how many kids we thought we’d have.
(He thought we’d have four kids, and I was planning on two, in case you were wondering.)
The petite blonde leading the discussion counseled us to avoid keeping score in our marriage, that it was unproductive and unkind.
Oh, yes, I nodded my head sagely. No score keeping. Keeping score bad. Love good.
I’m pretty sure on the way home from that particular Pre-Cana meeting, I complained that I did the dishes more than he did.
These are the things I didn’t know about Joe until after we got married:
- He loves buying things in bulk.
- His favorite holiday is the Fourth of July.
- He gives the silliest presents.
- He snores.
This past summer we had a big argument. Over spinach. I know, right? We were finishing up dinner with the kids, when 8-year old Charlie said he couldn’t finish his spinach because he was full.
“No, Charlie I think you can finish it. Come on, just a few more bites,” Joe said.
“Ok buddy, but no ice cream,” I interrupted.
“He’s eaten it before, let him finish it.”
I looked at Joe. “I think he’s done, it’s not a big deal.”
Slowly the other kids got up with wary expressions and brought their dishes to the sink. Charlie stayed behind, pushing his lump of spinach from side to side while he waited for the verdict.
Two months later, when I look back on the disagreement, I can almost add subtitles to our exchange.
“No, Charlie I think you can finish it. Come on, just a few more bites.”
(I’ll handle this, he takes advantage of her too much.)
“Ok buddy, but no ice cream.”
(Who does he think he is? I cooked the meal, I can decide who eats it.)
“He’s eaten it before, let him finish it.”
(Why are you interfering?)
“I think he’s done, it’s not a big deal.”
(Stop making a big deal about it.)
“I don’t like to make an issue about food.”
(My father used to make us sit at the table for hours until we ate every last bite and I hated the way that felt.)
“Carrie, I’m not making an issue about food.”
(I know this is about your having to sit at the dinner table and finish the ketchup off your plate when you were little but that’s not what this is he’s fine he can eat it he likes spinach stop letting him play you.)
It doesn’t take an advanced Ph.D to see it wasn’t about green, leafy spinach at all—it wasn’t about Charlie’s nutrition or wasting food or ice cream for dessert.
We were keeping score.
Phoebe once told me that marriage is the art of combining your DNA and RNA—essentially, genetics and memories and experiences and perceptions and behavior—with your spouse’s DNA and RNA. Like flowers growing together in a wild and colorful garden, you can either make room for the brilliant yellows and reds and purples, or you can let the wily weeds of resentment and bitterness and anger prevail.
These are the things I know about Joe now:
- He cannot tolerate traffic.
- He is easily the most forgiving person I have ever known.
- He is quietly funny.
- He is happiest when he’s with the four children he planned to have and the one he didn’t expect.
How would I describe our marriage? I would describe it as good. Aside from my children, it is the single most important relationship in my life.
Are we happy? Most of the time. As the years tick by on the calendar, we seem to learn how to tick each other off less and less.
At this point, I’m nearly certain we’ll come to the end of our lives together. Oh, there will be heartbreak and tears, frustration and fiery arguments. There will probably be disagreements over parenting and vegetables; again and again our resolve to prune and tend and weed will be tested.
But somehow, we will figure out how to make my memory of ketchup and his desire for mealtime order grow alongside each other, like two flowers blossoming in the warm summer sun.
I think that’s what the magazine meant by sustainable.
These are the things I know about marriage now:
- Even the most unromantic proposal can turn into a good marriage.
- Keeping score is unproductive and unkind, but oh-so-tempting to do.
- Marriage is ordinary, extraordinary, and most importantly, it is ours.
As for the first part of the quiz—where it asked when I knew Joe was the one for me—well, I didn’t fill it out. The truth is, I never had a light bulb moment–an exact second in time when I knew that I could marry him and no other.
But still, I know it.
I know it every time I reach into the linen closet for a new bar of soap. I know it every Fourth of July, when he rummages through our messy garage to find the extra-large headphones so Jack can tolerate the loud boom of the fireworks. I know it every time I look at my engagement ring, with its small ring of diamonds around a sapphire.
And I knew it one hot evening this past August, when I stood at the sink scraping Charlie’s spinach into the garbage disposal, and Joe sidled up next to me with a small smile.
“Tomorrow night, let’s just have corn instead.”