A Serial Dater’s Thoughts on Marriage

1 08 2011

I’ve taken a break from dating for most of July, and I have to say I feel a little off my game. After an MRI at the beginning of July showed my uncle’s prostate cancer had spread the full length of his spine and caused a fracture of his second lumbar vertebrae, I packed up my trusty little Jetta and drove out to the Tri-Cities with my middle son, K2, to help my aunt and uncle. (All three of my son’s names start with K, so for the blog, they will be K1, K2, and K3, oldest to youngest.)

It’s never easy staying in someone else’s home for an extended period of time (longer than three days, right?) but our stay allowed me time to make some observations about my aunt and uncle’s marriage and to think about the things I would want for my own life moving forward.  Now, as a woman with a checkered dating history, 4 marriage proposals, one long-term relationship where I was engaged for 5 YEARS before finally calling it off, and a marriage that only lasted 3-1/2 years, I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on marriage.  I have no background in sociology, psychology, or any other study of human behavior, so these are simply my ruminations after a stay with a married couple who have managed to make things work for 47 years.

Terms of Endearment:  My aunt and uncle have their own special language. My uncle is originally from France, so they call each other “mon chéri” and “ma chérie.”  The way they actually say this to each other, however, is quite different.  My aunt usually says, “Sherry!”  Yes, it comes out in a rather loud, high-pitched voice, sounding as though she’s a chef in a busy kitchen requesting a cheap cooking wine. She needs to project her voice, you see, because she’s either yelling from across the room or from another room.  Despite the volume, my uncle will take his time in responding to her, depending on how engaged he is in la Tour de France, a soccer match, or the PGA Tour or whether or not he’s decided to take out his hearing aid. 

My uncle has always been much more soft-spoken. It’s not how he says things but what he says that’s important.  He sort of mumbles, “ma chér.”  The “ie” part never seems to make it all the way out, and he doesn’t say it nearly as often as my aunt. This wasn’t just a result of the pain meds he was given either; it has always been this way.  Both of them typically use the words to initiate a request. I would guess that the ratio of “Sherry’s!” to “ma chér’s” in their household is about 4 to 1, and these terms of endearment are used at least thirty times per day between the two of them.

For my STB ex and I, the term of endearment we used was “baby” or “bebi.”  It got said so much that one time, after listening to us play a board game for several minutes, one of my friends stopped us and said, “You have to stop that.”

“What?”

“You two have to find different names for each other. I can’t stand it, all this baby, baby, baby stuff. Just stop!”

Now, I know there are some women who feel that the use of terms like “baby” and “sweetheart” are demeaning, and in some ways, I have to agree.  If a man I have just met starts calling me baby, I’m going to assume that he is trying to run a game on me. Either that or he can’t remember my name and thinks I won’t notice if he calls me “baby.”  Yuck!  But in intimate, long-term relationships, I like the use of terms of endearment.  In the case of my aunt and uncle, “Sherry!” and “ma chér” have become part of the special way their communication has evolved over the past 47 years. That special language that develops between two individuals is just one of the elements of the glue that keeps people together.

The bottom line: I want terms of endearment in my next long-term relationship.

Picking Your Battles:  For all of the times my uncle did not utter “ma chér” in relation to my aunt’s requests for “Sherry!” he made up for it by saying, “Oh, my god.”  This is a phrase my uncle probably mutters under his breath in a heavy French accent at least 25 times per day.  It is said in the same way I would say, “Oh, for fuck’s sake!”  Basically, it means he thinks my aunt is being ridiculous, but he’ll do whatever it is that she wants anyway.

My aunt and uncle are avid gardeners, and since my aunt is not supposed to lift anything over 5 pounds, and my uncle has a fractured vertebrae, my son and I tried to help them with some simple gardening tasks.  My aunt was very concerned that the tomatoes my uncle had planted from seed had blossom end rot, and she had a spray she wanted to use to fight off the disease.  Every time she mentioned it, my uncle would say, “Oh, my god.”  He had his own list of things he wanted to see accomplished while we were there, and the tomatoes were very low on that list.  They were high on my aunt’s list, however, and she kept insisting that the tomatoes needed to be sprayed.  The most I heard him say about the tomatoes was at dinner one night, he finally said, “I should just throw those tomatoes away.”

To which my aunt responded, “But you’ve worked so hard on them.” (You see, it’s a vicious cycle.)

While I was in the garage one afternoon, helping them organize some things, my aunt finally got my son out in the garden to spray the tomatoes.  My uncle came out to the garage and asked where Aunt D was. 

“She’s outside showing K2 how she wants the tomatoes sprayed.”

“Oh, my god,” he said, shaking his head.

“It takes longer than one season to change the pH of a soil,” I said.

“Yeah, but once she has in her mind that she wants something, you can’t stop her,” he said.

He shuffled out to the garden.  (You may be wondering what a guy with a fractured L2 is doing up and about anyway, but it’s hard to keep a good man down, and he was flying high on pain meds. I had to keep reminding him to take it easy, and every time I got him back in his chair, my aunt would yell, “Sherry” again.)

In the car, on the ride home from the Tri-Cities, my son confessed that as soon as Aunt D had gone back in the house, my uncle had told him not to bother with the tomatoes.

“What should I do with the rest of this spray?”

“Just dump it here in the gravel.”

For the past week, my aunt has been sending emails out to the family raving about the work we did while we were there, and how good the tomatoes look now that K2 sprayed them.  Apparently, “Oh, my god,” has some sort of placebo effect, but see, they never fought about it.

In a twisted, covert sort of way each of them has figured out how to let the other one do as they please, or at least THINK that they are doing as they please.  There are no big fights, no drama. They save their battles for the things that are really important, like fighting cancer.

Commitment to a Partnership: Finally, for all of the requests of “Sherry” that my aunt needs throughout the day, she’s really on top of things.  She’s coordinating all of my uncle’s cancer treatments, discussing wills and trusts with a lawyer, making sure my uncle takes his medications, massaging his back, washing his hair, and stealing apricots and making him apricot jam, his favorite.  (I will need to tell you about our apricot hijinks later this week.) My uncle has always gardened, cooked, fixed things around the house, and maintained their cars.  My aunt says she doesn’t know what she will do when he is gone, but I don’t think she’s giving herself enough credit for everything she is doing for him. Each of them is fully invested in the partnership they have created, and it’s both beautiful and comical to see in action.

In the months since my STB ex moved out, I’ve said several times that one of the things I learned about myself from being married was that I could be a really good wife.  Preceding marriage, I had worried that maybe I had gotten too stuck in my ways to be married, but once I was finally in it, I was fully invested.  I was less worried about the day-to-day minutiae and more focused on long-term planning for our future together.  I could never understand why my husband resisted conversations about buying a house, building our financial future, or anything requiring a long-term investment.  I now know, of course, that long-term was not something he was particularly concerned about.

The bottom line: I’m a team player, and IF I ever decide to be married again, my partner would need to be just as committed to the partnership as I am.  Married or not, I really do want someone I can trust with whom I can grow old.

I worry sometimes that relationships like the one that exists between my aunt and uncle are a thing of the past.  Are we all too self-absorbed now to give part of our lives to another person like that?  For so many years?  I hope not. What are your thoughts on marriage?

Photo here.

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