My wife and I were at church, sitting near the back, filling out a Facebook questionnaire. It was a list of questions that people had been sharing for Valentine’s Day that began with the prompt, “In honor of Valentine’s Day, all couples: Make this your status and answer honestly. Just for fun.”
Our three kids were, surprisingly, being quiet, and so Mel and I whispered the answers to each other as someone spoke from the pulpit. It started out simple enough with questions like, How long have you been together? (13 years) Who’s older? (Mel). But then it got into some questions that each of us seemed to always know the answers to, but had never openly discussed, and I got the impression that this wasn’t meant to be filled out as a couple, but rather by one individual.
“Who makes the most mess?” for example. Mel whispered the question into my ear, and then she looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“You,” she said without hesitation or remorse or any varnish whatsoever.
“Have you seen the kitchen counter?” I said. “That’s all you. ALL. YOU.”
“What about your side of the bedroom?” She said. “What’s all that crap?”
We went back and forth, listing messes, until finally we agreed on the answer: “We are equally messy.”
But in my heart, I knew that wasn’t true. I’d lived with this woman for well over a decade, and although I loved the hell out of her, I knew her tactics. I knew about the clutter pile next to the microwave. I knew about the mess of hair care equipment with wadded, hairy, tangled cords strewn about the bathroom counter.
From my perspective, I was a clean freak in comparison. But thinking back on this moment, she seemed to have the same dirt on me. She knew about the pile of dirty laundry on my side of the bedroom, and the crumbs lining the gear-shifter in the car I drove to work every day, and the empty soda cans I leave in the bathroom, well, you get the idea.
“Who’s the worst driver?” Mel asked, moving on to the next question.
“You’ve had more tickets,” I said.
“I’ve had one ticket. You never use your blinker and get lost all the time,” she said. “And you speed.”
“Ten miles over is hardly speeding. No one pulls you over for that.”
“It’s not about getting pulled over,” she said. “It’s about the law. And you’ve had tickets!”
We quietly bickered over several questions: “Who hogs the bed?” “Who’s better with computers?” “Who is the most sensitive?”
None of the questions were necessarily revealing or groundbreaking. No one admitted to any mistrust or misdeed, or some long, scandalous affair. It was more of us realizing that, after several years of being together, we’d started to irritate the crap out of each other in some pretty petty ways. Our conversation didn’t always stay in whispers. Both of us used rapid hand gestures, and with each question, at least one of us rolled their eyes and scoffed. And every once in a while, the people in the pew in front of us turned around to look at us.
One answer in particular I found very revealing: “Who has the worst temper?”
The only answer we could agree upon was, “I’m just going to say we are even so we don’t get in an argument ;)”
And the more I think about that answer, the more I realize that, as sarcastic as it was, we probably answered it correctly. They say that opposites attract, and I can say honestly that Mel and I fit that bill. She’s into gardening while I find it boring. I’m into distance cycling, and she’s into leisurely strolls. I’m an English nerd, and she’s a science person. I love meat, and she’s a vegetarian. Honestly, if you were to compare a list of likes and dislikes, there’s no way we should have ended up together.
eHarmony would never match us. No way.
And yet, here we were, 13 years in, and outside of hogging the bed, still happily married, with three kids and a mortgage. And I think this stupid Facebook questionnaire showed us why.
By the time we finished, we were both laughing, but in a “glad we got that done, now I borderline hate you, but we are in public, so I have to act civil” way. Mel posted the sucker, and we went back to paying attention to the church meeting.
It wasn’t until later, when I looked back at the list online and thought about the way we argued, that I realized we are, more or less, the same person. Because the fact is, we are both messy people. Not that we live in filth, but we both make our clutter piles. We both leave our dishes in the sink. The same can be said about hogging the bed. I sprawl out, while she sleeps at an angle. We are both good with computers, but in different ways. Neither of us is a great driver, but we aren’t terrible either. They say it’s the little things. Well, when it comes to the little irritating things, Mel and I were obviously a match made in heaven.
Ultimately, though, this is the reality of long-term marriage. We’ve been together for so long that we know all the good, bad, and ugly in each other. But the really sad part is, our good, bad, and ugly is all pretty relative. So much of what irritates me about my wife at this stage in our relationship is a reflection of what irritates me about myself. And when I think about that, I go cross-eyed because it’s so oddly introspective that I have no way to fully explain it.
What I do know is that this is where the power of choosing comes in. You have to look past all that petty shit — all the stuff that you both do that is stupidly irritating — and pay attention to the stuff that really matters. Not that you shouldn’t veto the deal-breakers: infidelity and abuse.
But this is the same thing we all do with our kids. We can see all the irritating traits we gave them, but we also have the ability to look past all that to see the good too. If a marriage is going to work, you have to look past who hogs the bed, and who leaves clutter piles, and who snores in the night (that would be me too), and look at how often they help with the laundry, or get up in the night with the children, or bring flowers.
You have to look at the way they love your children, or the way they listen to what really stresses you out, or all the way they send “I love you” text messages during the week. So much of marriage is about perception, or at least it has been in my marriage.
Ultimately, marriage is living with someone long enough to become irritated by them, and so you have to figure out how to look past all that. And while I haven’t done it yet, when I get home tonight, I’m going to tell Mel that I love the hell out of her for all the reasons that make her wonderful, and I’m not going to dwell on her couple traffic tickets or the mess she makes in the bathroom.
I’m optimistic that she will say something similar to me about how she loves me even though I suck at folding laundry. And those of you irritated by those simple, day-to-day, elements of living with someone, I suggest you do the same.