In our late 20’s, Anthony and I went through a rough patch. We’d been married a couple years, but we’d pretty much been together since our sophomore year in college. I think now that it was a trying time, though I don’t remember thinking of it that way when we were in the moment. Anthony was working full-time on his Ph.D. I was in my early years of lawyering and was in the office 6 days a week at least. I worked a lot of hours. We partied hard and drank too much. We golfed together.
That last bit is a true crucible of a relationship, from a lot of angles. Thoughts for another day.
Anthony and I fought all the time over big things and small, mostly small. I can’t think of a single issue we argued about that was important. But the fighting was becoming definitional, draining the joy out of us. One night after another conversation devolved into nattering at each other, Anthony said it aloud as we lay in bed: “Maybe we should separate, or get some counseling. All we do is fight.”
I was paralyzed. I stared up at the dark ceiling, and for a moment I couldn’t decide which would be worse, living apart from Anthony or having to go to a marriage counselor. There had to be another option.
What we came up with was quite brilliant, I think, and a fair reflection of Anthony’s pragmatism mixed with my desperation to sidestep the therapy-or-lose-Anthony algorithm. We decided to (1) stop fighting, and (2) fake being happy around each other.
The rules were simple. When we woke up in the morning, we had to smile and say good morning, whether we wanted to or not. Same smile rule when we said good bye or hello throughout the day. If we caught ourselves fighting, we had to stop. We were allowed to tell each other when we were breaking the rules. We had to comply with the other person’s directive to put a smile on or to cut that fighting shit out. No fair defending yourself or claiming exceptions.
It really didn’t take long for things to sort themselves out. The smile rule became comic relief quickly, because we looked very silly with a rictus smile glued on our faces. So the fake smiles became real again soon enough, and the happiness was real too. The fighting took longer to cure, because we had formed some bad habits together. But we must have listened to each other, because the constant bickering was gone soon enough too.
I often think back to that episode in our life together and wonder how in the world we did it, without any help. It would be easy to say that “love” carried us through, but if I think hard enough I really can’t wrap my head clearly around what that flat-voweled four-letter word is supposed to convey. I think what made it work was something more basic, something like respect or diplomacy, because we each had to respect the other’s directives and discover some boundaries on what we could reasonably expect of each other—
Oh god, shut up, Carla. Everything I was just saying is a bunch of mumbo jumbo words, and whenever I start sounding like that I know it’s time for a self-head-slap. It’s exactly the kind of blubbing that can trash a healthy relationship, and exactly the kind of talk talk I couldn’t bear to face in counseling. Honestly, Anthony and I just needed to stop fighting and start faking happy. We already could hold a conversation and tolerate each others’ farts with good humor. Once you clear those hurdles in a relationship, it’s all easy, isn’t it?