The Answer Is…I Have No Idea

In a comment I posted recently, I mentioned that I had met my wife when we were both juniors in high school and that we later (in 1974) were married and continue to torture each other to this very day as we approach our 42nd anniversary.

One of our writers asked what was the “secret” to having stayed together for so long, and I hope I can give a reasonable response. It won’t be complete or in some cases helpful. Sometimes I think, when it comes to relationships, there is an awful lot of luck involved.

We were celebrating year number 36 at a swank hotel in Coronado, eating appetizers and having an afternoon cocktail, when Mary asked me, “Did you ever think we would still be married after 36 years?” In one of my shining moments as a partner, without preparation or pretense, I honestly answered, “It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t still be married after 36 years.”

So there is something about commitment and expectation that makes a big difference, I suspect. I wrote earlier about how Mary and I first met at a youth retreat and my first impressions of her were that she was strong-willed and looked terrific in the jeans and snug t-shirt she was wearing. For me, it was a powerful combination. I did have to wait around a bit, dating friends of hers, until she ditched a tenuous boyfriend, and I could swoop in. Yeah, I was the rebound guy.

But for all intents and purposes from age 18 to age 21 when we got married, we were each other’s everything. She was extremely faithful, and I never found the wild oats that I guess I was supposed to sow. One time, I put our romance on hold for about two weeks to give me space to consider if I might have a vocation to the priesthood (I’m a recovering Catholic), but I happily realized that giving up my affection for women was not an acceptable compromise and our relationship intensified quickly.

So, right. Longevity. I might be completely off on this, but I think the sexual freedom that young people have enjoyed over the past few of decades (we just missed that particular wave) has made them a little uncertain about the viability of a long-term commitment. The number of serious partners that young people now have between the ages of 20 and 40 seems to make them feel unsure about the possibility of a union that will last a lifetime.

Believe me. I’d love to have a wonderful, guilt-free affair. Truth is though, I can’t even be unfaithful in my dreams. No, I’m serious. I have turned down the advances of beautiful women in my dreams and hated myself for it in the morning. I am a terrible liar, and I find myself feeling guilty about things that I have only thought about doing.

It has not been easy. We pretty much lost ourselves in the 25 years we dedicated to child rearing. Our children continue to mean everything to us and continue to challenge us. It turns out that being the parents of young adults is just as tough as dealing with the terrible twos.

Both of us worked in demanding jobs that we loved. I cared deeply about becoming the kind of teacher that could, on a good day, change lives. As hard as I worked, Mary worked harder. She spent incredibly long hours as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. Her workdays seemed to have no end. All of that took a toll on us as a couple. And while we certainly went through periods of time where we felt more like roommates than lovers, we persevered, believing that eventually the bond we had initially enjoyed would return.

In retirement, we are now healing. We’ve identified some of the dynamics that have continually driven us apart and are now much more aware of each other, appreciative of each other, loving toward each other. We still have work to do, but now we feel like we have the space and time to make things special again. It doesn’t hurt that she still looks great in jeans and a tight t-shirt (yes, I really am that shallow).

I do believe that relationships can last. I’m not sure I’ve done the subject justice. Maybe our combined stories will weave the tapestry that creates an answer that satisfies.

 

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Men: Why It’s Important To Keep Your Mouth Shut

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Even though this group is short on male contributors (and therefore readers), I wanted to share this piece–sort of as a public service.

Please remember my previous disclaimer. I love women. Love, love, love them. They are wiser, more beautiful, more loving, and more compassionate than men are. I have many more female friends than I have male friends. So, I hope you will still be talking to me after reading this. Or even better—leave a comment and tell me if, how, and/or why I am wrong. I will offer you my sincerest apology.

But, I’m not wrong. Not about this.

There will be times, many times if your relationship is long-term, when your female partner will come to you needing to talk. She will come to you with a problem about her friends, her work, the next-door neighbor who annoys her, her physical or mental health.

She will be distressed and clearly in need of your compassionate attention, and as a good friend and partner, you will listen patiently, occasionally uttering sympathetic noises (they don’t have to be actual words), indicating that you really care about her dilemma and that she has every reason to feel as though the world is ending and that she is currently, at this moment, the most justifiably unhappy person in the world.

Once she has exhausted herself, she may then look at you expectantly. And now, you must be very, very careful, my friend.

As men, we like to fix things. We are hard-wired to it and conditioned by our society to assess a problem and come up with a solution. If you have been smart enough simply to listen and let her talk uninterrupted, congratulations. But while you’ve been waiting for her to finish, undoubtedly you’ve been thinking about how to fix her problem, thinking about her best course of action. Her solution, you think, is painfully obvious to you.

If you are smart, rather than suggesting any practical solutions, your best play here is to shut the fuck up.

Why? Why not help her with her problem and “fix” it like you would a dripping faucet or squeaky door? After all, she wouldn’t be sharing all of this if she didn’t want your input, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Your solutions are the last thing she wants right now. Why? Because she already knows the solution, already knows what she has to do next. Remember, she is smarter than you.

You look confused. This is normal. Try to get used to that feeling. Embrace it.

All she wants from you right now is for you to empathize with her, to agree with her. In a pinch, you can even repeat things she just said to you with added emphasis to show that you were listening, that you understand, that you care.

In fact, as spontaneous and anguished as her recital may have been, you may be the third or fourth person with whom she has had this exact same rant. She most likely has approached her girlfriends first, and they’ve already sliced, diced, and dissected this problem over wine, chocolates, and ice cream. They will have tried to sooth your partner with affirmations and oddly communicative woman noises that we (males) cannot duplicate or understand, and they have supplied her with the kind of comfort that only calories and alcohol can bring.

Even knowing this, you will have to battle your impulse to help her slap a patch on the problem. If you find yourself start to say something like, “Well, you know, you could…” or “It seems to me like the best thing to do…” or even worse, “Well, if I were in your place, I’d certainly…” put both hands around your throat and squeeze until you are unable to speak.

Make all of your responses as non-specific as possible. Remember, she’s hurt, unhappy, and angry. Take some comfort that it is not because of something you have done. “That’s terrible,” “I can’t believe this,” “You have every right to be upset,” are all appropriate. You can use any of these more than once because it doesn’t matter what you say. What matters is that she thinks you are listening, that you are concerned.

Finally, she may even articulate what she feels is the solution to her problem and what she plans to do. Your job is to agree enthusiastically. Maybe now it’s time to put your arm around her, offer her a glass of wine, take her out to dinner. After all, she’s been sorely wronged by life, and she sought you out to be her person of the moment. You are one lucky guy. Just try to keep your mouth shut.

Hating the Dating

For a while there it seems like we were getting a lot of stories about dating. It’s been like a wave and most of them seem to be horror stories of some kind. You are all reinforcing the notion that I have had for some time now that if ever I were to become single again, either through divorce or unfortunate accident, that I would happily embrace the single life.

First off, I’ve been out of the dating scene for over 40 years, and it now seems like the use of on-line services is a must. So that means I’d have to create a profile right? Something with just enough honesty, but emphasizing my good points and minimizing the bad ones. I tried unsuccessfully to get on a site and look at what the elements of a profile were, but I’m guessing it would go something like this.

Interests: To start with I’m interested in all things outdoors, such as rock-climbing, running marathons, backpacking, surfing and BASE jumping. I’m interested in all of these things and think anyone who can do them would be a real blast to hang out with. I just can’t physically do any of these things any more. So my actual interests run toward napping, reading, movies, concerts, music of all kinds, napping, gardening, small backyard projects, napping, beer, eating out and travel. Did I mention napping?

Personal qualities: I am patient, except for when I am not. I have a good sense of humor—or at least I think I am funny. I am suspicious of spontaneity, generally expecting some kind of disastrous outcome. I love being around free-spirited people, I am just not one of you. I am filled both with a sense of adventure and a sense of impending doom. I am often confused.

See, I can feel the left-swiping starting already.

I’ve mentioned that I don’t show or share emotions easily because, as vulnerable as I can be in my writing, I’m afraid of them in real life. I have this unfortunate habit of developing a crush on nearly any attractive woman who is nice to me. It’s not anything I act on (in most cases) but the fact that those unruly emotions can burst so easily from me scares me, and to begin dating full of hope and expectation just to be crushed by rejection eventually leads me to feel that being alone would not be so bad.

And not getting rejected could possibly be worse! All of the uncertainty, complexity and commitment? I’ve been trying to make that work, more or less successfully, for all these years, but would I really want to start it all over?

A plan is already beginning to form in my mind just in case. In one scenario, I see myself getting rid of the house, downsizing to a small apartment in an area full of bars and restaurants, getting a much larger television than I could possibly need, and maybe a cat–really independent cat who hangs out in the apartment just so I won’t feel like I’m always talking to myself.

In scenario 2, one of those attractive women who is nice to me casually mentions that she is looking for a roommate, preferably male, and I end up with a companionable person, without commitment or expectation, who is pleasant to look at and nice to talk to. Sort of a replacement for the cat in scenario one.

My very best wishes to all of you who are out there doing the dating thing. I admire you and hope that you will soon stumble across a really nice, hopefully sane person who shares your interests and personal qualities, or at least is willing to tolerate most of them.

 

Just A Few Things I Don’t Understand About Women

Day 11

First, let me say that I love women. Love them. Could not live without the lovely friend and partner who has been my wife over the past 41 years or any of the women I’m lucky enough to have as friends. And this writing group seems to be populated by so many brilliant and thoughtful women. It has been a pleasure to get to meet you all. In fact, the fact that I get confused by the behavior of women is probably entirely my fault.

Have I put in enough disclaimers that I can broach this subject now?

Gift giving. I have always thought that on any occasion it was best to give your friend or partner something that you know that she wants.   So, early in our marriage, when I the electric wok that I purchased for my wife as an anniversary present was met with less than enthusiasm, I was confounded. I knew it was something she wanted. She had said so repeatedly. To explain her disappointment she actually sat me down and told me, slowly and using small words, that kitchenware of any kind was just not an appropriate gift for special, personal occasions. Honest to God, I had no idea. Where was the manual for gift-giving procedures?

Christmas gift giving seems to be more easy-going. Three months, three full months, before a recent Christmas, my wife saw a hanging lamp in a favorite boutique shop that she declared to be the perfect replacement for a dated chandelier-type lamp that had hung in our dining room for years and years. However, she declined to buy it at the time, and I swooped in like a shark. The very next week, I went back on my own, bought the lamp and put it away. On Christmas day, I saved it for after she had opened the more personal gifts (having learned my lesson from the wok debacle), and she seemed truly surprised and delighted as she unwrapped it and opened it up. Hah! I knew it! Perfect gift, perfect surprise! Then she made maybe the most contradictory statement I have ever heard any woman say, “Gosh, honey, this is great, but just because I say I want something doesn’t mean you have to rush out and buy it for me.” WHAT!!?? I thought it was EXACTLY what we were supposed to do. I thought it was exactly what the attentive and thoughtful spouse would be expected to do after 40 years of careful observation. Hmmmm.

Those three little words. Every partner cares about three little words. However, I suspect that the exact words may be gender specific. For me, there is nothing more heart-warming, nothing more life-affirming than hearing my wife whisper in my ear, “you were right.” On the two or three occasions per year that this happens, I usually feign deafness so I can have her repeat it once again, just to extend the satisfaction of the moment.

The expectation of the power of mind reading. As a high school English teacher I worked primarily with female colleagues and individually, I could hold my own with them. But once they assembled in a friendly group, they would all begin talking at once with lots of gesturing, head-nodding, eye-rolling. I would watch them smiling, frowning, smirking all in quick succession all leading to a lull and a sense on my part that something had been decided. Finally, as the token male I would be asked, “What do you think about it, Tom?”

“About what?” I’d ask.

Ah, thank goodness I get to stop at 500 (actually 600) words. I suspect I am in enough trouble already.