Here’s my first rule of marriage: Don’t leave.
It sounds ridiculous, right? Of course you don’t leave, because marriage means you stay. But that’s not taking into account the human “fight or flight” response. Sometimes, when an argument is just too painful, you’re tempted to choose the latter. One party storms out and whatever the small, smoldering marital issue it suddenly flares like a forest fire.
In the early years of our marriage, John and I were particularly bad about this. We’d both been divorced so flight was our most recent experience. This, I’m sure, is why a lot of second and third marriages fail.
One night we had a fight so vile, John got in his car and disappeared for a day and a half. I mean vanished. The man didn’t answer his phone or call me after he cooled off to say, “Hey, I’m going to take some time. But I’ll be back soon.” Nothing. So far as I knew the last thing I would ever know of him were two red taillights flickering and diminishing as he drove off into the night.
Now I can tell you what happened, because he’s told me. John went to a friend’s house and told him we’d had a fight and our marriage was over, so the man—being a good pal—handed John a beer and told him he could stay for as long as he wanted and did he need to borrow a truck so he could retrieve his stuff?
Ooooh, bad response. Now granted, it was our fault. We had the fight (rule number two is: Don’t Fight Mean) and John’s the one who left. I adore his friend, who was tossed into our stupid situation. But a beer, a bed and a truck? That only made the situation worse.
About six months later, John and I had another fight. Not as ugly. Slowly, we were learning to be better spouses. But I was angry and besides, I owed him for that time he’d disappeared on me. So I got in my car and I drove to MY friend’s house. I’ll call her Kate.
Kate is like the good witch in a Jane Austen novel. She believes in things like dust ruffles and fine China and she lives in a house so filled with books, you can’t put your hand down on a surface without finding something wonderful to read. Her cats wander, chewing on random floral arrangements. Everything smells slightly musty but also really good, like a library with a hint of lemon and rose and this lavender hand cream that Kate uses every six or seven minutes. Her skin is very soft.
I showed up on her doorstep near 9 and Kate fussed over me, which is exactly why I was there, of course. She said things like, “Come in!” and “Can I get you some wine?” and “Oh, you poor dear.”
Soon, I was ensconced in a chair with a frilly little blanket and a cat on my lap (George, I think). And I poured out my whole terrible story—which was so terrible, mind you, I can no longer remember what John and I were fighting about.
Kate listened and made all the appropriate noises. “Mmmm.” “How awful!” Then when I was done she put her hand on my knee and peered at me over the glasses perched on the end of her nose.
“Well, dear, you know I love you,” she said and I nodded warmly; the wine was just beginning to kick in. “But let’s face it, you can be a bit of bitch.”
There was a pause. Then we both began to laugh. “I certainly can,” I said and held my glass forward as Kate tipped the bottle. “You make a very good point.”
Kate is nearing 60 and she’s never been married, but her deconstruction of the situation was absolutely spot-on. If I wanted to stay with John, our fight was irrelevant. It would not (she is prescient this way) even be remembered in a year. But leaving him to wonder about my whereabouts? That was childish and it might cause a permanent rift. She said this to me as she picked up the phone.
“What’s his number?” Kate asked. Then she dialed and cheerfully explained to my husband that I was with her and we had talked and I was calmer and after she’d poured a few cups of coffee into me—to counteract the wine—she would be sending me directly home.
Neither John nor I ever left again, after that night. And Kate’s words stayed with me. I got to the point where even during the heat of an argument I could take a step back and say to myself, “You can be a bit of a bitch,” then gentle myself.
Marriage, I’ve discovered, is as much a daily decision as it is a state of being. It’s 24 hours a day of sticking around and trying to make things work. And it helps to be surrounded by friends who support that, pushing you to make mature choices even despite your lesser self.