The Secrets of a Good Marriage

Mj 618_348_bad boyfriend better husband
Illustration by Christian Dellavedova

In my thirties, at an age when many of my friends felt their lives were just beginning, I felt mine was over. I was a man who had found love at a young age, got married in my early twenties, and thought I had the perfect life. I was a rock critic who got to spend every waking moment listening to the music I loved, living with another writer who shared all this music and joy with me. It all changed abruptly, when she died suddenly, in May 1997. Without her, everything was different.

When I started dating again, after three lonely years as a widower, I learned that I did not know much about how to be a boyfriend. Let me rephrase that. I knew nothing about how to be a boyfriend. I have no idea why I was so shocked about that – after all, I’d spent my twenties married. But I was devastated to learn that (brace yourself for a surprise) starting a new relationship is hard. Being a boyfriend is much, much harder for me than being a husband. There isn’t even much overlap in the skill set.

I am an Irish male. If you know anything about Irish males, you know there’s something we usually have in common: We don’t want to talk about it, whatever problem “it” may happen to mean at the moment. “Not talking about it” is one of our specialties, right up there with “talking about everything else except it.”

We like to imagine the women in our lives count on us to be dependable, resilient, cool in a crisis – yet that is partly why they can also find us exasperatingly cautious. We don’t ask for help. We like to ignore our problems and hope they go away. A few years ago, my Uncle Dermot back in County Kerry got gangrene on his leg and didn’t see a doctor for six months. He just kept working the farm and waiting for the leg to get better. When it turned purple, he finally showed it to my cousin, who dragged him to the hospital. They managed to save the leg. To Uncle Dermot, this proved he was right to put it off until the right time. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t relate.

The men in my family take pride in not losing their shit, and my early conception of what it meant to be a man as opposed to a boy had largely to do with managing your temper and handling your grievances one at a time. (Little boys – they’re petite rage queens, or at least that’s how they seemed back when I was one. When I try to remember the boys from elementary school, they blur into one long ‘Real Housewives’ marathon.)

When I was into my teen years, my grandfather had one of his buddies from the New Haven Railroad over for tea. When I came in to say “Hi,” the railroad guy said something along the lines of “Your grandson is very tall.” My grandfather said, “Yes, and he doesn’t fight, either.” He nodded proudly. This was a very strange comment to me at the time. This was the way old Irish men talked when they were bragging about their grandsons? He was proud of me for not getting into fights? I was under the vague impression that this was one of my more eccentric character quirks. He didn’t say, “He doesn’t drink,” or “He doesn’t smoke,” or “He gets good grades.” He said, “He doesn’t fight,” and that blew my mind at the time. In my grandfather’s eyes, that meant I was a man.

Eventually, this was how I came to see husbandhood. Part of the job is keeping a cool head and not overreacting to temporary crises. Again, I’m not trying to defend this pathology. I’m just trying to be explicit about it. And I’m aware it’s a pathology that can make for a truly terrible boyfriend. It’s one of the reasons I’d rather be a husband.

After all those years as a husband, and a few as a widower, I decided to try couplehood again, even though I wasn’t sure I was ready yet. I’d been on the shelf too long. The grief still clouded my heart. But I met a really cool woman who lived across the country. On weekends I flew out to the Midwestern city where she resided (let’s call it “Minneapolis”), except we had this fundamental incompatibility (let’s call it “me being a bitch”). Was I out of practice, or just still hung up on the past? Either way, I had never experienced relationship troubles like this, and I was a total amateur trying to resolve them. She was a good person. I was a good person. We didn’t get along. It was a shock to me after years of being happily married: failing as a boyfriend. What a letdown. It must have been how Michael Jordan felt when he left the NBA for baseball, only to discover he couldn’t even hit the minor-league curve.

On Sunday nights I flew back to New York in a miserable mood. At the Minneapolis airport, before my flight, I would drift over to the game room with the South Park pinball machine. I began making excuses every Sunday so I could get to the airport earlier. I would spend hours at that South Park machine, with my carry-on bag and my boarding pass, and think, “Maybe this is who I am now. I used to be good at being somebody’s husband. I made a woman I loved smile for a few years. I had a nice run, but it’s over. This is me now. The guy who’s good at playing pinball in airports.”

After we broke up, she mailed me a present for my birthday: a box of brownies. Not a baked batch of brownies – a box of Duncan Hines brownie mix. A strange gift, maybe, yet it was an incredibly kind gesture, and it made me really happy. I displayed the box on the kitchen counter, where it brightened up the room for a few days. In a way, it was the ultimate compliment – a sign that someone saw unbaked potential in me. Even in my shaky emotional state, somebody had high hopes for me, to the point where she could picture me taking on a project like opening a box of brownie mix and shopping for eggs and finally turning on the oven I used for storage space. But it was not to be. When my birthday rolled around, I spent it at home alone, in front of the TV, watching Britney Spears and LL Cool J host the American Music Awards. Midnight came. I was 35. I threw the brownie mix away.

All the things I thought I had already learned about love? I didn’t know a thing. I was going to have to learn it all over from scratch.

Fighting is one of the boyfriend tasks that I have failed to master. I suck at fighting. I have never really learned how to talk and be mad at the same time. If I have angry words to say, I need time to rehearse. I can’t improvise when my head’s dizzy with adrenaline; I have to cool down and then write out a script. I found this trait very difficult when I was trying to be a boyfriend, because in my experience, boyfriends and girlfriends often spend a lot of time fighting. Husbands and wives seem to spend a lot of time avoiding fights. This might be a bad thing, for all I know, but it seems to be part of why I like being a husband better. That’s just a limitation that comes with the mentality I got from my grandfather: If you freak out over trivial everyday grievances, how are you going to handle real problems?

Nobody tells you how scary it is when you become a husband. There’s a strange culture of silence around the whole experience. This is partly because, well, we don’t want to talk about it, do we? And it’s partly because it’s all too scary to talk about. When you marry somebody, you are guaranteeing that you will have real problems, a future full of them, the kind that involve death and disease and grief. As husbands, we have planned on major anguish. We can’t afford to use up our patience all at once, or over things that aren’t all that important. I know other husbands are afraid of this stuff. I have been afraid of it too, and when bad things really did happen they were even worse than I could have imagined. My nightmare came true, and I can’t tell any husband he should be less afraid. Our fears are totally justified.

As the then-married singers in the band X put it in “Some Other Time,” one of the all-time most useful songs about how to be married, “We can draw the line some other time.” Even if the married couple who wrote the song ended up divorcing a few years later, it has been a source of comfort and sustenance and wisdom for me. In a perfect world, it would be universally acclaimed as a classic, but then, it’s a song about living in an imperfect world, as half of an imperfect couple. The couple in the song stay up all night talking each other out of breaking up. They have lots of good reasons to fall apart, but why waste tonight? There’s no rush. They’ll always get another chance to fall apart some other time.

Sure, you could draw the line and say, “That’s it, enough is enough, I’m sleeping on the couch tonight.” But in this song, the man and the woman decide to stop talking about their problems and just stick together for one more night. Who knows, they could be dead tomorrow. Maybe tonight they can just keep each other cool, until that panicky feeling subsides and in the morning all the anger just looks like another silly dream. The song tells you that there will always be good reasons to break up. Deciding to get married doesn’t make those go away; it just forces you to keep riding them out.

There’s a great old garage-punk song by the Music Machine called “Masculine Intuition” that really nails it. The husband in this song stresses out over things that never used to bother him. He’s ashamed to fuck up in front of his wife, he can’t live up to all his promises, and the only feeling he can trust is his masculine intuition, which tells him, “Keep coming on strong,” whatever that means. There’s something lonely in that angst, just as there’s something traumatic about loving somebody until death do you part. It rips you up just to feel that intensely, to tell that person, or tell the world. That does savage things to your heart.

I was down at my parents’ place in Florida once and I met this couple who’ve been married over 50 years. They were high school sweethearts. He was telling me about her in the pool. “Something she still doesn’t understand about me is that I’m good for about 300 words a day. When I’ve gone through those, I’m done. Fifty years, and she still thinks I’m holding out on her.”

He didn’t sound like he was complaining – more bemused, as if he were describing something funny about her golf swing. She was at the other end of the pool, so I couldn’t hear what she was saying about him. I’m sure they weren’t resolving anything, and I’m sure they don’t care.

Something I really enjoy about the company of older couples is that they really have given up on getting everything right. They don’t sweat the imperfections. Sometimes it seems like they’re good at just plain ignoring things that younger couples get fixated on. They don’t need to keep discussing the relationship – they can’t spare the breath. And I guess that makes sense. Marriages, by their very nature, reward dogged persistence. The longer you stay married, the more you have to give up on the idea of perfection.

Husbandhood suits me because I like thinking long term. I like trusting someone not to lose their shit. I like being trusted not to lose mine. I like knowing that if today wasn’t so great, tomorrow is another day. I like knowing that these days will stretch out into a future so long that we will have lost count when we hit the thousandth or the ten thousandth, knowing that our problems will be temporary ones, knowing that there will be more time together. I like ruling out panic as an option. I like knowing that I can count on my wife to stand strong with me when we face hardship and loss that we have guaranteed we will face. There are always excuses to give up. There are always reasons to draw the line. But we can draw that line some other time.

My wife now, who I met in 2003, brilliantly proposed the “no housework together” rule, which means if one of us gets the urge to vacuum, the other goes for a walk. We also both hate grocery shopping, so we stick to a strict policy of going to the store alone. The supermarket brings out the least attractive side of my personality, the side that gets stressed out when people clog the frozen-foods aisle or park their carts in front of the peanut butter. Do I want my wife to see me like that? Not if I can help it. And I can help it. Whatever annoys me at the supermarket, I leave it there. Sure, we could learn to enjoy going to the supermarket together. Or scrubbing the tub. And we could also probably learn to have tedious discussions about the relationship. There are lots of annoying things we could do. We just don’t. We’re not rookies. We’re lifers.

From the book, ‘Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke,’ which will be published in August by It Books. Copyright 2013 by Rob Sheffield.

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