A good friend of mine, half of one of my favorite married couples, thinks that people who get married after only dating for a short time are at a disadvantage because, as she puts it, “they haven’t been through the shit together yet.” When I first heard my friend say this, Julie and I had been dating for about a year, Julie was still in grad school, and we were getting ready to move in together. I remember looking at our future with excitement and almost relishing the opportunity to get through some shit together.
I got my wish almost immediately.
We moved in together in May, and shortly after that Julie got the news that her father was diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer. The whole situation was obviously awful from the get go, but it didn’t make it any easier that we were across the country from her family. This meant she had to get all the information through other family members who gave her information filtered by their own emotional reactions to it, leaving us to have to google and sift and draw our own conclusions based on what they could provide. I felt helpless and removed.
I respond to challenges by getting in there and fixing something, so obviously I went looking for something to fix. I couldn’t help cook and keep vigils during chemo and doctors appointments, so I settled for giving Julie endless suggestions for ways to… fix… cancer? I suppose unsurprisingly, Julie did not find this soothing.
I kept thinking back to what our friend had said. I assumed that her advice had alluded to fact that hard stuff would happen, and we would lean on each other and learn how to support one another, and become better communicators, and fall in love all over again and again because the strife would drive home the point that we were on a team, together. Instead, it seemed like hardship was pushing us further and further apart.
More months went by, and Julie’s dad went into remission. We started spending time together because we liked each other again, and not just because everything sucked and we couldn’t imagine foisting ourselves on anyone else. Date nights were reinstated. But sometimes in the middle of the night I’d lay awake and worry that we hadn’t learned anything at all. That more shit would come someday and we’d learned absolutely zero about handling it together.
It was the cat that made me consider the possibility that I had misinterpreted my friend’s point of view. My cat, Mustache, and Julie had mostly ignored each other when we had separate places. When we moved in together though, he would bite her for no reason so she was constantly on edge. Julie felt (understandably) that she should
feel protected in her own home. She didn’t think she could live with the cat. I felt very strongly that pets were family, and they trusted me (us) to take care of them always once we’d taken them home. It felt like an impasse we couldn’t surmount. Julie thought that the cat needed a new home, or maybe that she did, and I finally conceded with a heart full of angst. No one answered the adoption pleas I sent out over social media, so the cat stayed, and the tension built. And then, it didn’t, but so gradually, we didn’t notice. And one day, months after we’d moved, Julie looked up at me, while the cat snoozed contentedly in her lap, and said, “Remember when we almost broke up because of him?” and we both laughed. It seemed so long ago, and such a ludicrous thing to lose each other for.
Now when I think of what my friend said about marriage, I think about the cat. We’ll go through hard times again. We’ll communicate badly, and one of us will feel shut out, and one of us will feel helpless, or we’ll both feel unappreciated, because we’re human and, god willing, life is long. We’ll get better at handling some of it, and some of it we won’t. But we’ll have an example of something we endured. Something we struggled with and felt deeply about, but didn’t make us walk away from each other. We’ll know from experience that when things aren’t going well, we can outlast until they are. And while Mustache is the one that made me see that, it’s something we’d been doing all along. It’s a hard lesson for a fixer, but sometimes doing nothing and trusting that we’ll make it through is the best action we can take.