I received dozens of submissions on failed relationships for Knowing Pains: Women on Love, Sex and Work in our 40s. We selected the best entries on divorce, infidelity, singledom and widowhood. But I wanted to round out the relationship mix with a story of a successful marriage. It turns out to be a hard subject to cover without sounding sappy and self-congratulatory. Kym Miller managed to tell the secret of her 20 year plus marriage with humor and insight in My Ambassador of Fun. Read on! Molly
“Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilt and I’ll show you a man.” Erica Jong
It started to creep in slowly, undetected, infiltrating our marriage and those once-blissful unions of our friends as well. Later I would refer to it as the “Who Had the Worst Day?” Contest. Our game started as all of life’s little chores began to multiply exponentially (who knew that the co-mingling of dogs, kids, and carpets could produce so much more than the sum of their parts?), pitting my husband against me for the title of who carried more of the burden. Somewhere in the busy shuffle, we each began equating our worth as a partner with the amount of struggle endured. After a few short weeks of novice sparring, each of us stood perpetually ready to slam down the buzzer and give the more convincingly pathetic response to “How was your day?” I had to get up at 5:00 with the kids! My meeting ran two hours late! The car stalled when I was eight miles from home! My flight was delayed for the fifth time!
Soon, the rules of this unspoken challenge, as they had painstakingly developed, seemed to dictate that we should find new and creative ways to be burdened. Within a few months, “waiting hours for a late repair man” or “nursing a cold” had become passé and would no longer win first prize. To be truly victorious, one had to be stranded on the freeway with two flat tires, or endure a triple root canal. Heaven forbid either of us actually find delight or frivolity in our day. Running laughing through the sprinklers would have been grounds for disqualification without even a free gift bag.
Surprisingly, most of the couples around us were also engaging in similar rivalries. I remember my friend Anna calling me, so mad she could barely get the words out. “You...it’s just so...you can’t believe it! I got back from a four-day business trip and...it’s so bad. The house is a wreck! I think all he did was play with the kids!”
“What excuse did he give?” I asked, attempting to determine who should earn more sympathy points.
“Oh, he said it was hard, really hard. Our dog threw up twice in the middle of the night. And then he gave me this pathetic look and told me he hadn’t had time to do any cleaning! Like I clean the house in my leisure time!” She moaned and then recounted how every moment of her trip had been taken up with work, advance Christmas shopping and learning to pay their bills on-line. After a pause and a sigh she added, “I did get to have dinner out but I still think I had it worse.”
In our marital struggle for supreme sacrifice, I’m not sure who was usually winning, but on one particularly angst-filled day I came to the disturbing conclusion that we were both losing. That morning found me desperately searching for the car keys while trying to herd two small children off to pre-school, only to discover that the keys were in my husband’s pants pocket, hundreds of miles away. Fueled by incredulity and then a desperate wish to alter reality, I stood, repeatedly pressing the “play” button on the answering machine, listening to his deeply apologetic admission that he had moved my car before leaving for his overnight business trip, inadvertently keeping the only set of keys. “So....” His message trailed off several times, because frankly, what could he say? He ended with a weak attempt to pull himself back into the competition: “I’ll probably just be eating in my room tonight so... you can call me whenever you like.” Ha! Like somehow room service could possibly compete with being stranded without wheels in Toddler town. Desperate as the situation seemed, a vague notion of victory surfaced. No way could he top this one!
But then the strangest thoughts, perhaps borne from the fatigue of constantly subverting pleasure, began to plague my triumphant victimhood. I didn’t want to be an irritated person all day. And what good would it do for him to be feeling so bad? Suddenly, all of this jousting seemed supremely suboptimal. What I actually wanted was to have fun, perhaps be a little silly, and maybe even become downright joyous. When had I let this escape from my day-to-day life? For inspiration, I had only to look at our two little girls who had chosen, during this brief respite in their mother’s haste, to spin around until they were dizzy and fall laughing onto the carpet. I can still remember the rush of awareness that knocked me back to my senses.
I picked up the phone and dialed. “You know what I want?” I asked.
“What?” The hesitation in his voice making it clear that he was bracing himself for a harsh reprimand.
“I want you to be my ambassador of fun, and I want to be yours.”
“What exactly does that mean?”
“I don’t know – it just came to me, but I think we could help each other. Like, what are you going to do tonight, that is really enjoyable?”
“Well... they did ask us if we wanted to go to a basketball game, but...”
“I think you should!” I interrupted, “And go out to dinner too.”
Warming to this amusing turn-of-events, he asked, “Well, what are you going to do today that’s fun?”
“You know I think these gals and I may just take a few days off from life and goof around a little, maybe take some walks, have some ice cream, that sort of thing.”
“That sounds good.”
“Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?”
Soon we began perfecting our new roles with written reminders like “Have a good time today” and “Don’t forget to laugh” and even suggestions like “Treat yourself to a special lunch.” While I rediscovered my flare for spontaneous outings, like whisking myself away for an afternoon movie, I noticed that my husband seemed to have a special guilt-free gift for incorporating more pleasure into his life without making it a grand affair. Let loose from the confines of our burdensome challenge, I would find him taking a nap on the living room couch, carpet unvacuumed, toys scattered everywhere, and the raucous tussling of our offspring filling the room. I couldn’t imagine ignoring all of these demands. How was he doing it?
After much observation I realized that in terms of pure enjoyment of life, men have one key advantage: tunnel vision. Take your average female walking through her house on the way to the back deck for a few moments of rest in the sun. The sight of one rag on the counter will send her mind to the pile of undone laundry beckoning from upstairs, a pen might be a harbinger of late notices if the bills aren’t paid soon, and a simple glance at the phone will remind her that it’s actually been four days since her mother called. Her journey to relaxation is so fraught with subtle interceptors – not to mention all the ringing, screaming, barking kinds – that her chance of actually arriving at “down-time” fades to a blip. Take that same house, with those same booby-traps, and most men can arrive at the sacred shrine (i.e., couch, beer in hand, game on) with fewer scratches than Indiana Jones. Why? Because their eyes never left the prize. Men have the genetic predisposition to focus solely on that coveted antelope and ignore the mice scurrying at their feet. Frustrating as it may seem, I think we women have a lot to learn from this sort of rapt attention. Sure, there are occasions when that clanging alarm needs to be heeded, but mostly it seems we are reacting to a hundred little calls to attention that actually could wait a day or two, or at least an hour, while we put our feet up, have something yummy to drink, and escape into a few chapters of a favorite book.
Years after our contest came to a sudden halt, and on the eve of our twentieth wedding anniversary, our new approach has firmly taken root in our relationship. When the answering machine shows way too many unreturned messages, and the lawn needs to be mowed, my Ambassador of Fun sets the example by taking a few moments to relax before tackling the to-do list. And if he finds me leaping through hoops of obligation, he will resort to long hugs or playful words to remind me to keep it all in perspective and make time to live a little. Sometimes when we know each of our days are particularly full we like to pull each other aside and ask with a mischievous grin, “So, what are you going to do today?” While neither one of us seems destined to take home the once-coveted pity prize, this life of conspiratorial fun has finally become its own reward.
What is your secret sauce for an enduring relationship? One habit that works for me and my partner of 17 years is continuing to be polite, saying please and thank you regularly, and offering a coffee refill to the other when refilling our own cup.
Molly Rosen www.knowingpains.com
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Kym Croft Miller (42) was raised in Alaska as a small shivering member of the Croft family. She eventually migrated to college in sunny Northern California to study writing and thaw out. After continuing her California hiatus by attending law school, Kym and her husband Tim moved to Portland, Oregon where they are now having a fine time with their three daughters and two Labradors. Kym is the author of several articles, as well as a juicy book proposal about the crazy year her family went without buying…anything.