Sunday, May 09, 2010

Yes, Dear

At church this past Sunday, a friend was clearing my place after dinner and when I gave a friendly instruction, he joked, "Yes, dear." We all laughed and he told us all that he had been well-trained by his ex-wife. We laughed a little more and he said, "No, I'm serious, she was like a Howitzer. The only thing I could do was say, 'Yes, dear.'" Then, he walked away and our conversation continued, altered a little by his interjection. Personally, I am always a little uncomfortable laughing at jokes that reinforce those gender stereotypes pf the overbearing wife and the hapless husband. My friend has great comedic timing and I love him, so I do laugh. However, I've shared before how much I fear becoming the Dear of "Yes, dear." These kinds of jokes hit a nerve because I know that I have the power of a Howitzer and I know that out of insecurity, I sometimes bring it to bear on Jacob. So, I told a story to my friends at church to redeem the story of my friend's ex-wife. Who knows, maybe she was just like me? Maybe she feared what would happen if she gave up total control of the influences on her life, even over little things like the food she prepared or the home she kept. So, in empathy for this ex-wife, I told a story about my experience. I told my friends that Jacob and I have been fighting a lot about food lately. I told them that I like good food and Jacob doesn't. (I also have pretty good comedic timing.)

So, I set up the story: On Saturday, I made cookies for our friends' party. I used the Cook's Illustrated recipe for perfect chocolate chip cookies that involves browning the butter and hand-whisking the ingredients. You have to whisk for 30 seconds, then let it sit for 3 minutes and repeat that 3 times. I really played up the labor involved to make the punchline dazzle. I offered a cookie to Jacob hot out of the oven and offered to get him a glass of milk. I warned him that he only got one since the recipe only made 24 cookies and I wanted to make sure there was enough for the party and I didn't want him to be disappointed later when he couldn't have a second. When he said he wasn't ready for a cookie, I was cool with that but because soft, warm cookies are so good, I offered again when the second batch came out and the third batch came out, just in case. The cookies turned out perfectly: crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, even once they were cool.

An hour or so later, Jacob wandered into the kitchen and ate his cookie. I asked him if it was, indeed, perfect and he agreed that it was good.

"I like them softer, though."

When I explained that they WERE soft because the butter had been melted and the size of the cookies created the perfect tension for rising, he asked if I couldn't have just taken them out of the oven sooner. I am not proud to admit that I went ballistic. I had worked hard on these cookies and he wanted some shitty under-baked mall cookie? Or worse, he wanted something filled with chemicals like super-market Soft Batch?

I shouted. I cried. I crumbled up a cookie with my fists to show him how fucking soft it was, leaving only 21 left for the party.

I told this story to our church friends with a tone of incredulousness at my own overreaction and self-deprecating humor. They roared with laughter in appreciation and horror. They asked how Jacob responded. I said he was perfect: that he held my rigid body and tried to calm me down. That he pointed out that this was probably not about cookies. That he hugged me again. That he kept insisting that he had a right to express a preference while still trying to soothe me. That he never said, "Yes, dear."

I don't like abusing Jacob' patience like this. I fear I am damaging us somehow. And I keep trying to fix it but I keep failing.

I considered stopping the story there. I'll be honest, though, I like to control how other people think of me and I didn't want them to think poorly of me upon further reflection during the car-ride home. Also, a small part of me wanted to be totally honest with these members of my spiritual community.

So, I told them (like I'm telling you) that recently I approached my therapist about this. I admitted that don't like being this person and that I fear that this person will push Jacob away. I want to be a person that makes space for the needs (and preferences) of others. I do not want to be a person who uses her weapons to mold the will of others to my own. As I told Jacob later, he is amazing and this inspires me to try to be amazing, too.

At this point, another friend interrupted and said, "You seem to be the last person I would expect to be in therapy."

I smiled and said, "That's how you know it's working." I have been with the same counselor since my divorce and it has made all the difference. I usually see him twice a month now, but with this new spiritual agenda, we will be seeing each other once a week. He said to me, "This is not going to be fun" and so far, he is right.

When they tell you that marriage is hard work, I think this is what they mean. Are you willing to take the time and the energy to become a new person? Are you willing for the parameters of that new personality to be formed around someone who is not you? It seems like this is the work it takes to have a sustainable marriage. I'm sure it's easier for some couple than it is for Jacob and I and maybe for some couples it's even harder. That's OK.

At a wedding last night, the couple asked my friend to read Khalil Gibran's On Marriage, which encourages a couple to "let there be spaces in your togetherness,/ And let the winds of the heavens dance between you." I absolutely agree with that but at the same time, people with personalities like mine (and maybe other types, too) need to err a little in the other direction and learn how to let their partners get closer, to allow those spaces to become less than arm's length.

After this poem that moved both of us, I leaned over and told Jacob that it was OK that I liked good food and that he didn't. He protested a little, not knowing me well enough yet to know that I was repeating a joke that is not very nice at its core while being emotionally moved in order to remove the venom of the joke. In that moment, it was so clear to me that my love for this man and his love for me was more important than our differing preferences for food. Art often uses juxtapositions of contradictory or unexpected images in order to communicate a message about one or both of the objects. I was immersed in this huge awareness of this bond between us and the juxtaposition of that feeling and my joke communicated that the joke was tiny and ridiculous and NOT TRUE. Unfortunately, since emotions are internal and words are external, I was the only one who received the communication. I smiled at Jacob's protests and apologized and told him I didn't mean it because all he could hear was the repetition of the joke.

Man, is that a microcosm of intimate relationships or what? Every word spoken is surrounded by unseen feelings, layers of associated memories, and sub-conscious sabotage that often makes us say something other than the truth we should be saying. These invisible and inaudible inflections make our speech also unintelligible to people if they need to know any nuance beyond the literal meaning of the words, like the difference between French spoken in France and the patois spoken in the former colonies of France. It is the work of the lifetime to learn enough about another person to truly understand what they are trying to say.

Jacob is worth that effort. In fact, I am excited at the prospect of knowing and being known. I also think the journey will be highly satisfying and, in fact, fun. I will become a different person in order to hear him better. I'm sure that he is changing for me, as well.

There is a Mary Chapin Carpenter song that goes, "It's too much to expect but it's not too much to ask." I think this is exactly the posture we must take toward one another. When I expect him to agree with me and try to manipulate him to do so, I become the Dear in "Yes, dear." If he does the same to me, he becomes a chauvinist. Neither archetype is appealing. However, if Jacob asks me to make space for him in my daily activities such as cooking, I can make the choice to become a person who lets him in and cares for him. This is the type of person I want to be. I am grateful that Jacob continues to inspire me to be that amazing person.


Jessi said...

Thanks so much for sharing this.

Christy said...

Ha... so I have been doing something new lately: making homemade pizza, with the real whole milk mozzarella, whole wheat crust, fresh veggies, herbs, etc. Matt has forever eaten cheap frozen pizza, on top of which he sprinkles cheap powdered parmesan. I have really struggled with his desire to deface my homemade pizza with the sprinkle crap. He unknowingly sprinkles away while I go through half of this blog post in my head. :)

Katherine said...

As someone who has their own control issues potentially stemming from a previous loss, as well as a giant perfectionist streak, I hear you when you say:

"I fear I am damaging us somehow. And I keep trying to fix it but I keep failing"

And what I keep trying to tell myself is that I can't "fix" it. No matter how inconvenient, it just isn't that simple. So, if you can, stop trying to "fix" it, and focus on (a) appreciating what you have in this moment, and (b) what you can do to work toward a more harmonious team - which is what it sounds like you are doing anyway. Or put another way, stop being so hard on yourself.

Although I am not sure I would take this advice so well if it came from a stranger, so... yeah.