Series I, No. 8 (1919) by Georgia O’Keeffe
My mother had an unexpected heart attack two months ago. It was awful and traumatizing and she has since recovered and is on the mend, thankfully. Nonetheless, it has changed both our lives, as I now take care of her, work a full time job, and try to attend to my other responsibilities. It has also changed my relationship to my husband of seven years. When I got the call to go to the hospital, I rushed over to be there with my mom. On the way, I called my husband — who was out of town on business — to share the news. He was very sympathetic and said if there was anything he could do, I should let him know.
Over the next few days, we spoke infrequently and our conversations were fairly superficial. He was still out of town and I was distracted by a new and challenging set of caretaking responsibilities. My family asked where he was and whether he would be returning to help support me. I did not have an answer for them. I began to feel angry and resentful of my partner's absence. But I also recognized that I was not communicating well. For instance, I had never told him specifically what I needed from him during this moment of crisis. He even told me to let him know if I needed anything, so how was he supposed to know what to do if I didn't tell him?
Once he returned, I told him that I had been hurt by our lack of communication during a difficult time, and I voiced those needs of mine for the future. His reaction was a mixed bag. He said he was sorry he couldn't be there for me when I needed him, but that he was very busy with work at the time and was out of town, and could not just drop everything to come home. All perfectly reasonable! At the same time, he said that he did nothing wrong, that it was unfair of me to lash out at him and blame him for being unsupportive, and that if I was going to attack him like that for something he didn't do, we would need to rethink the relationship. This was very tough to hear. I tried to clarify that I wasn't trying to do anything of the sort, and apologized if that is how it had come across. He shut down soon after that and took space.
That argument has since transformed into an icy tension at home. We continue to soldier on but talk even less now. We have not returned to larger, deeper conversations we had been having about the future and about having children. The superficial small talk stopped too. I have tried again to talk about these things without success. My initial resentment morphed into anxiety, and made me want to talk to him about our issues. His initial defensiveness morphed into irritation, and made him shut down and not want to talk about them. We've made little progress since then.
I feel at times like I am losing not one but two relationships now. That this person I picked is pulling away, or was never really there. That my needs are too needy, even when communicated. My family has a very strong belief that this is not the person for me, based on this and other incidents. My mother tells me that life is short, and not worth spending with the wrong person. It is hard to ignore that advice, but I am not so sure. I want to talk about this with my husband, but feel alone, and overwhelmed by this and the other parts of life that need my attention. Where do I go from here?
Mending Multiple Hearts
Your husband isn’t acting like a husband at all. He’s acting like a high school dude who breaks up with you because you got pneumonia and it made your face break out. You’re going through a major life crisis, which can bring out the worst in anyone, and all you did was say “Where have you been? I need you.” And instead of apologizing about the circumstances that kept him away, he told you that if you’re going to blame him for things that aren’t his fault, the two of you might need to discuss divorce.
To which I say: MY DUDE. Are you kidding me? Getting blamed for shit that’s not your fault is the bread and butter of marriage. What did you think you were signing up for here, a low-interest credit card? A booze cruise? Marriage isn’t a fucking booze cruise!
Or rather, marriage is a booze cruise that runs out of liquor and then runs out of food and then runs out of water and then runs straight into a tropical storm and crashes onto a rocky island and everyone swims for the shore and gasps for air on the beach and then BLAMES EVERYONE ELSE FOR EVERYTHING EVERYTHING EVERYTHING!
And then everyone cries and apologizes and starts to hack the boat apart with a machete the creepy captain had in his trunk and then some passengers build a shelter out of the boards and some other passengers build a fire with the smaller, splintered pieces and someone else spears a fish with a sharpened nail file and then everyone laughs together while they pick the bones out of the cooked fish, which is tiny but delicious, and then everyone falls asleep in a big heap, still hungry but proud of having made it through this harrowing mess without murdering each other.
And yes, ideally, you stay calm and you never blame someone for something that’s beyond their control or that they didn’t know was upsetting you or that they’re struggling to correct but they’re just not that good at it. But there are also times in a marriage when everyone is at their absolute worst, because the whole world feels like it’s gone tits up. There are times when you’re just hoping to survive.
And how do you survive? With honesty. You confess that you still secretly blame each other for the boat crashing and the fish being cooked badly, that you know it’s irrational but that’s just how you feel. And then you sit there sullenly, feeling a little angry even though you don’t WANT to feel angry anymore. And then you burst into tears. And then someone admits they hate getting blamed for things that aren’t their fault because that’s what their dad used to do and it makes them feel sick inside. And someone else apologizes but adds that it’s hard not to feel terrible and point fingers when truly harrowing shit is going down. Then someone else says they’re also sorry and you go for a little walk on the beach together and you find some nice shells and the wind picks up a little and you both silently hope that you survive.
Stressful life events make people nuts. That’s normal. Two married people in a tough situation will end up bickering a lot, and sometimes it will turn into a real fight. It sucks but it’s normal, because it’s very hard not to accumulate blame in a marriage. You’re a two-headed monster trying to make decisions together. Sometimes one of the heads thinks the other head is doing it wrong, and they’re not that polite about it at first. Why? Because they’re still stuck in the same body! It’s a very helpless feeling to depend on another living being for some of your emotional well-being!
And when you get a little older, if you happen to end up having kids and shared responsibilities and complicated work schedules, you depend on each other for a lot. You can be totally independent and averse to the two-headed-monster model of marriage, but slowly, you find yourself trapped inside a hideous monster body you didn’t choose, and all you can think is I WOULD NOT DO IT THIS WAY! I WOULD CHOOSE DIFFERENTLY! THIS IS FUCKING STUPID!
You aren’t even in the Gargoyle Phase of marriage and your husband is already acting like a total fucking knob. And even though I could go on and on about the importance of honesty and healing words, based on the evidence you’ve offered, I’m inclined to side with your mother and the rest of your family, who feel strongly that this man is a tool who will always let you down.
I say this because you’re in the worst crisis of your life so far, and he’s not giving an inch. He’s never said, “Oh baby, I know it’s so hard for you right now and I’m so sorry.” He’s never put his own defensiveness aside and said, “Let’s forget my being out of town for now. Sure, I still feel a little chippy about that situation because I’m a fucking ween but now I’m here to support you and get you through this.”
Now let’s be clear about one thing: All men are super defensive. I’ve never met a single man who wasn’t and I’ve dated like eight guys for a year or more. Every last one of them was nearly incapable of accepting responsibility for their bad behavior. I mean, sure, I was pretty bossy and I used to be very attacking when I felt wronged. But even when I played an angel for the sake of keeping the peace, most of them just couldn’t deal. They would gaslight the shit out of me every time I so much as hinted that they’d screwed something up.
But what you’re describing isn’t normal dude defensiveness. You’re describing a severely avoidant human being (also common and sometimes even lovable!) who is unwilling to rally to the side of his very stressed out wife whose mom almost died. It sounds like you’ve never really leaned on him because you’ve sensed that he couldn’t handle it. But I mean, how is this guy going to act when your booze cruise truly hits the rocks and starts to fall apart? Because listen up: IT WILL.
That’s the one essential rule of marriage you need to remember: The booze cruise always sinks. How strong a swimmer is he? Can she fashion a fishing rod out of some wood paneling and a little dental floss? Is he going to wipe the kid’s butt with dry leaves, or will you have to do it every single time?
Yesterday, my husband and I fought about something very dumb. We were moving a piece of furniture and it lurched to the side suddenly and I had this panicked feeling like IT’S GOING TO FALL! and also WHY IS MOVING STUFF WITH BILL SO IMPOSSIBLE? And then I flashed back to the hundreds of other times we were moving furniture and the same thing happened, and suddenly I realized: He never tries to keep the goddamn heavy thing we’re lifting STRAIGHT UP AND DOWN. He always just holds it at whatever jaunty fucking angle he prefers, EVEN WHEN IT’S AN 150-POUND COUCH!
I became physically enraged in under five seconds. I am, uh, pretty hormonal at the moment, plus I had a Homer-like swirl of cartoon scenes in my head where Bill kept picking things up and letting them fall sideways and I kept yelping IT’S FALLING! and OH NO! This was an epiphany. Suddenly I realized that it was ALL HIS FAULT!
Is my husband a bad person? Far from it! Was this his fault? Not really! I mean it’s his fault he’s a fucking dope who doesn’t lift furniture straight up and down and doesn’t warn the other person when he tips it sideways. But that’s not cause for rage, is it?
No. But shit happens. I was immediately mad and he was immediately mad that I was mad. So he hissed whatever sorry and I said wait let me explain why this is always so frustrating and he said I ALREADY SAID SORRY and I said LET ME SAY ONE SENTENCE ABOUT THIS AND THEN WE’LL BE DONE and he said NO, YOU’RE BEING IRRATIONAL.
So I walked away. And then an hour later we talked again — and got mad at each other all over again! I mean, my god! So finally I said, “Let’s just admit that you’re never okay with me being mad. I mean, that’s reality. I’m never allowed to be mad. We’re obviously not getting divorced so let’s at least try to accept reality.”
He was quiet.
And he said, “When you get mad, I get scared and feel like running away.”
This was a breakthrough. We hugged and I said that must suck and then we talked about how stressed we’ve both been lately.
But that was it. No one promised to never get mad again. No one said they’d never throw blame around without cause. No one vowed to never feel scared and never want to run away. Because that would be unrealistic. Our reality is that we’re bad at this stuff and many other things, too. Bill cannot break the ship apart because his wrist injury is flaring up again. I cannot take the hook out of the fish because it’s too gross. We are subsisting on fallen coconuts and sea slugs, but we love each other and we’re willing to try again every day.
Willing to try. Living in reality. Knowing it takes a lot to survive. That’s it. That’s a marriage.
I don’t know if your husband is willing to try. But that’s what you need to ask him. You need to stop asking yourself if you’re being to needy or asking for too much, and you need to start asking him if he’s willing to show up, willing to tell the truth, willing to admit his weaknesses and fears, willing to welcome the uncertainties and inconveniences and unknowns and grapple with them together. You need to ask him if he’s willing to grow up and be there for you, even when your needs seem a tiny bit irrational, even when it’s hard to pull off, even when it’s raining and cold and the fire keeps going out.
If he says no and continues to be a locked door, a brick wall, a fortress, and a total knob to boot, I want you to remember that you’re a big-hearted person and you deserve to be deeply loved. You showed up. You were willing and honest. And life is too short to be with someone who isn’t willing to try even when it’s very, very hard. You deserve love and devotion and kindness, the kind you’re giving to your mother right now, without complaint.
You want a full life with a grown adult who loves you like crazy. So keep fighting for that. Don’t accept less. This world is full of love, and nothing is more precious than someone who is broken and afraid but still willing. Nothing is better than lying on the beach together, in the cold sand, talking about the fish you’ll catch with your badly made spear tomorrow — somehow, some way.
Thank you for reading! My memoir about my marriage, Foreverland, comes out from Ecco on February 8, 2022 and you can pre-order it here and here and here. Send letters to askpolly at protonmail.com. Want more Polly?
CLASSIC HEATHER HAVRILESKY:
"Or rather, marriage is a booze cruise that runs out of liquor and then runs out of food and then runs out of water and then runs straight into a tropical storm and crashes onto a rocky island and everyone swims for the shore and gasps for air on the beach and then BLAMES EVERYONE ELSE FOR EVERYTHING EVERYTHING EVERYTHING!"
OMG all of this is PURE GOLD. But specifically "To which I say: MY DUDE. Are you kidding me? Getting blamed for shit that’s not your fault is the bread and butter of marriage. What did you think you were signing up for here, a low-interest credit card? A booze cruise? Marriage isn’t a fucking booze cruise!"
My ex-husband was like this...he eventually said "I have nothing left to give you" which honestly made me laugh because I kept thinking but actually you never gave me anything..because I understood on a basic level that he couldn't so I never asked.
LW trust your family on this one...yes families are often wrong about opinions of spouses etc. But a crisis reveals people like nothing else. Say good-bye, go to therapy and find yourself a real dude.