Any sound, lasting marriage will find compromise as its mainstay. Anyone who says otherwise is not married. “Compromise.” Yep. That pretty much sums it up. Beginning. Middle. Present-day. Future. All of them are inexorably bound to one another by the superglue of compromise.
When I think about it, it is completely bizarre to me that my husband and I are married. You would be hard pressed to find two more different people on planet earth. If there were people on other planets, you wouldn’t find two more different people there, either. What was it that brought us together? Has kept us together? I am utterly mystified. But it is partly the mystery of him that I love so much. The fact that I simply cannot plumb the depths of his weirdness is part of the joy and the attraction—it is also part and parcel of the endless exasperation.
If I were to catalogue for you the characteristics of my personality, the only thing you would have to do in order to understand my husband’s personality would be to pick the opposite characteristics of the ones describing me. I am meticulously clean—and not in a good way. In fact, it is difficult for me to live in a house with a child, because children equal mess. The only reason Little Boy and I are able to live together is because his baby messiness is eclipsed by the shining magnitude of his immeasurable cuteness. Which, frankly, makes me worry for the future of any children we might one day have who aren’t cute…if we have a child who isn’t cute and is totally messy, what will I do then? This is a question which floats around in the darkest recesses of my brain and which I would probably worry about a lot, if I let myself. On the other hand, is there any way J and I could create a child that we would not believe to be absolutely beautiful? I doubt it. In fact, it’s probably hardwired into human DNA—you know, the propagation of the species and all that crap.
So I am Martha-Stewart-clean—in fact, I could totally take over that woman’s job, if only someone would give me the chance—and Little Boy and J and Bishop (our male beagle) are a whirling dervish of filth, endlessly spinning through my world, leaving the stench of man-ooze in their wake. I walk through the house all day long, picking up the sticky, smelly droppings of the three of them, thinking to myself, “What in God’s name is this?” There is no correcting it. Believe me, I’ve tried. At least not with J—I suppose he is too old a dog. I am working on Little Boy and, so far, he seems responsive to the idea of being taught cleanliness. Even as I write this, I am rubbing my hands together and laughing an evil laugh.
So there’s the whole cleanliness is next to godliness/prince of the landfill paradigm. That’s pretty complicated. “How do two such people live together?” you might ask. And my answer to that is, of course, “I have absolutely no idea.” Next, there’s the fact that two artists are trying to live in the same house together, raise a child and work on their different art forms. I am an unashamed bibliophile. It took me many, many more years than I would care to admit to figure out that people are a lot more important than books. My husband, on the other hand, never sits still long enough to read. Never. I have never seen him read an entire book. We’ve been together for nearly a decade now, and during that time, I don’t think he’s ever finished a book. What? What?
When I was a girl, I spent many hours dreaming of the books my husband and I would one day read aloud together by firelight. There was a long list of them. I had it all planned out. I definitely didn’t realize that I would marry someone who would be a lot more interested in being outside, chopping the firewood to keep the blaze burning high and hot, than in being snuggled up to it, drowsily reading, inside, with me. On my list of qualifications for a husband (of course I had a list—all women have a list) “love of literature” was numero uno. In retrospect, I realize that other things like integrity, fidelity, honesty, kindness, etc., ought to have been higher on the list than “loves to read,” but I was young and…an idiot. So how did I, a writer, marry a guy who isn’t the least bit interested in books? I don’t have a clue. Pheromones?
Conversely, my husband is a composer. Music is the greatest passion of his life. He loves it in all of its forms. He is utterly open-minded about experiencing new things in music. He doesn’t mind going to pretentious music festivals because there is always the off-chance that somebody really good might show up. He wouldn’t mind it if there was always music playing in our house. My favorite sound in the world is silence. I really like music, in moderate amounts and in very specific forms. I don’t want to hear what new composers are writing (except for my husband) because they all seem to be writing something that doesn’t seem to me to actually be music. I go to concerts (think classically trained musicians/composers, not Keane) with J and sit…bemused. “This is music?” I think. I glance over at him. He seems to be enjoying himself. I think he understands what’s happening. He can appreciate what he’s hearing. I don’t understand what I’m hearing. I have no patience for the unfamiliar. He embraces it; maybe even revels in it. To him, new music is an adventure. To me, it’s a bad ride after eating a chilidog: I feel a wave of indigestion and know that nausea and possibly diarrhea will follow. He’s chilled out, laid back, just grooving to the…music?
Then there’s the way we relax. I relax like a normal person: we go on vacation, I lay in a lawn chair on the blazing sand, listen to the ocean, doze, read a book, cool off in the waves. I walk slowly down the beach, in the cool of the day, picking up the beautifully sand-polished white stones. Normal. My husband swims miles out to sea to frolic with the dolphins and jelly fish and great white sharks and killer whales. He runs up and down the beach examining this and that species of shell, of sea life. He wades out into water up to his neck, fishing pole in hand. He dives down to the bottom retrieving sand dollars and sand fleas and the occasional stingray. He sets up volleyball nets and plays ultimate Frisbee for hours. He never sits down. He never rests. He never stares out to sea, watching wave after wave crest and fall. If he’s awake, he’s moving. Even when he wants to relax. What? What?
There is no question in my mind that if J weren’t married he would be doing something like climbing K2right now. I, on the other hand, like reading a Jon Krakauer book every few years. He’s basically a Libertarian. I am just to the right of the left. He is theologically orthodox. I am theologically…evolving. He likes fishing. I cry when I catch one. He is in constant motion. I am still and quiet, almost languid. He is a “let’s throw a party” extrovert. I am a “one person at a time, please” introvert. He likes to travel. I am a full-time nester. He likes things free. My eye will always be drawn to the most expensive item in the store. Always. He wants adventure. I want order, structure—redundancy, even. He wants to climb a tree. I want to take pictures of it and lay on a blanket beneath it. He wants to live life to the fullest. I am a lot more likely to write about life than to jump into it. I am a southerner (for better or worse), born and bred. He is midwestern to his toes. He says yes. I say no. He says, “poe-tay-toe,” I say “poe-tah-toe.” It’s an old story; you get it.
So, what brought us together in the first place? I’m still not sure. I think that we had a really strong sense of respect for one another. That still exists. I thought he would make a really great dad. He’s much, much better than I thought he would be. I thought he was one of the most loyal people I had ever met. I was right. He was the most honest person I had ever encountered. I continue to be blown away by the only person I have ever met who always tells the truth. Always; even if it is to his detriment. He was the best friend I had ever had, the only person I knew who liked me precisely for being me without hoping I would someday turn out better. He, remarkably, still thinks I’m great and, for some reason, believes I have turned out very well. And the piece de resistance: we made each other laugh so hard. He brought out this ebullient silliness in me, which had just been fighting to get out, and which the serious, scholarly part of me had, for some reason, been beating back in. I wanted to be taken seriously. Now I know better. We still laugh until it hurts. We are utterly ridiculous together and we have an entire language of complete stupidity that no one else would ever want to fathom. When I am with him I am positively gregarious. People who knew me pre-J scratch their heads in wonder. I was never really myself until I met him. Isn’t that strange? I waited to be me until he showed up.
I think that’s probably the key to the whole enormous mystery of love and monogamy and all of that stuff. I think that we humans understand pretty well that we’re not quite whole on our own. So, am I saying that marriage is the only answer for an attempt at completeness? Am I implying that single people are fundamentally lacking? Of course not. We become more complete any time we engage in any sort of significant human connection, whether it be romantic or otherwise. But the cool thing about marriage is that it’s a built in life-long connection, until most of the rough parts of J and most of the rough parts of J-C arrive at a sort of smoothness, and we suddenly find that our constant compromises are a good thing, because we aren’t quite so rough around the edges as we were ten years ago. And, without those compromises, we would have become less human and more…alien. It may seem a strange choice of words, but I think it’s a good descriptor. Without J’s continuous grinding on the coarse stone of me, I would have become less and less able to relate to the world around me. I would have become like an alien—a stranger. J’s “otherness” reminds me of the great parts of me, while also reminding me of the parts that could stand some fine-tuning. It seems to me that this is where we get our old saying about our “better half.” And it is in the midst of our constant struggle to compromise that we have that opportunity—to become more like the very best version of ourselves.
Do I remember this often? No. Rarely. Mostly I just want my husband to put his bloody cereal bowl in the bloody dishwasher instead of leaving it on the bloody nightstand. But I think that somewhere inside of me, I am always aware of what is going on. I am in some way aware that with him I am a better me and that without him I would be less me-like. Does that make it easier? No. Less painful? No. More tolerable? Somehow, just a little. So we compromise: I put the butter knife in the dishwasher, instead of leaving it (like he would), greasy and sticky on top of the butter dish on the counter. He gets out a new knife and lays it on the butter dish, without saying a word. This is one of many silent battles. We’ve been doing it now for ten years. And I think that’s what has actually kept us together: our (perhaps mostly subconscious) realization that we become more and more ourselves in one another’s presence. More loving. More beautiful. More holy.
Ontologically, I understand this to be true, but on a much more visceral level, I really want my husband to go upstairs and clean up the “floor” (I know it’s under there somewhere) of his closet. Will I ask him to? Probably. Will he do it? Probably not. Will we kill each other over it? No. Of course not. We’ll do what we always do. We’ll compromise. And I know with absolute certainty that any person who is not willing to live with compromise is not willing to live in the reality of marriage. I would rather have a relationship (even one that by its very nature compels me to change) than dream about one. In the dream, things always go my way. But even in the best of my girlhood dreams about my someday-husband, I always woke up alone. In reality, I compromise. And when I wake, J is here with me.