A few weeks ago, I blew out a tire on my way to a hair appointment. Only a few miles down the road from my house, I pulled my wobbling car off the highway and proceeded to call my husband. It was 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday, so I knew Michael wasn’t going to answer his cell (on weekends, his phone doesn’t move from our bedside table until coffee has been consumed). And I have AAA. Still, I dialed and dialed and dialed his number, until I was sufficiently upset with him, and sobbing on the side of the road. Eventually, I gave up and cried on the phone with AAA while they searched for my out-of-state member number for half an hour. When Michael finally called me back (donut safely in place) I started one of those fights that’s already escalated before it even has a chance to start.
“I’m sorry I didn’t answer my phone,” he said to me. “But you have AAA right? Couldn’t they come fix your car?”
“Yes,” I sobbed. “But I wanted you here to help me.”
And in that exchange lies the argument that Michael and I have been repeating for nearly thirteen years. For those of you who have been reading for a while, you may recall my ongoing meditation on the art of small kindnesses in marriage. The Cliff’s Notes version goes something like this: two years ago, as we approached our fifth marriage anniversary and more than a decade together, Michael and I found ourselves settling into a sort of chiding familiarity with each other. In laymen’s terms: we weren’t being very nice. It’s not that we were being mean, exactly, but we weren’t going out of our way to make the other feel supported and loved. We took each other for granted. Worse, every time I witnessed another couple being extra nice toward each other (usually online where fantasy and reality overlap in ways that make my head spin), I would fall down an insecurity rabbit hole, and frustratedly wonder out loud why we couldn’t just be more like that. Which, sadly, wasn’t as productive as I imagined.
So last year, we set out to with a mission to be kinder to each other. It started with a cup of coffee on the counter one Saturday morning. And it’s morphed into a way of being with each other that involves a lot more generosity and mindfulness.
But it isn’t just about being nice.
There are No Small Kindnesses
Ultimately, what I’ve realized is that all those insecurities were never really about coffee in bed or flowers just because it’s Tuesday. It was about wanting to feel like partners.
Until a few years ago, Michael and I had been peacefully coexisting as lovers in a legal bond, coasting through our twenties and never taking our marriage too seriously. This was motivated in large part by my own insecurities about getting married young, and feeling like we needed to live out the freedom of our twenties, which everyone said we’d be sacrificing in marriage. Things weren’t bad. They also weren’t great. They just sort of… were. Then, seemingly out of nowhere and all at once, that wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted more. I wanted to be capital-P Partners. And partnership, it turns out, takes work. Or rather, effort. And like anything requiring effort where there previously was none, it hasn’t been easy.
Yet, as I look back on the past few years cataloged in essays, I can see improvements. In some cases, it’s been as simple as outsourcing our problems: We downloaded apps to keep us accountable. Our groceries get delivered to our house once a week. Someone helps us with the yard. Other shifts have required bigger commitments: I quit my photography business because I was tired of constantly putting my marriage on the back burner. Michael agreed to try couples counseling so we could sort out some of our recurring arguments. But mostly there have just been a lot of conversations. About what partnership means. About what we can reasonably expect from each other. About how to effectively communicate our needs. And what I’ve realized is this: there is no such thing as a small kindness. Every gesture we make to ensure the happiness of the other is a big deal. Even if it manifests itself in the seemingly innocuous details of our everyday life.
To Love Is not to Possess
But it’s also not that clean and simple. As I sat in my car on the phone with Michael arguing about my busted tire and dramatizing my sense of abandonment, I was fully aware that he wasn’t wrong. Were I single, or he out of town, I would have simply figured things out on my own. I would have probably still cried on the phone with AAA (I’m a Cancer, it’s what I do), but I wouldn’t have needed him the same way. And that’s what I’ve had the hardest time sorting out, as we move from married people to partners. Because partnership, as I’ve come to understand it, means considering the needs of someone else on the same level you might consider your own. Partners have each other’s backs. Which sounds reasonable enough in theory. Except, what happens when your needs don’t match up with your partner’s needs? And where do we draw the line between showing each other kindness, and expecting too much from each other?
Truthfully, I don’t know where the line is yet. But I think it’s possible that this struggle with give and take is both the great reward and the great challenge of partnership. Cleaving oneself to another means that our partners become responsible, in part, for our happiness. But it also means not allowing our partners to become the sole source of said happiness. And it means keeping ourselves accountable to that balance.
As we figure out this balance, I’m reminded of one of the readings we chose for our wedding, the poem “To Love Is Not To Possess” by James Cavanaugh, which goes:
To love is not to possess,
To own or imprison,
Nor to lose one’s self in another.
Love is to join and separate,
To walk alone and together,
To find a laughing freedom
That lonely isolation does not permit.
It is finally to be able
To be who we really are
No longer clinging in childish dependency
Nor docilely living separate lives in silence,
It is to be perfectly one’s self
And perfectly joined in permanent commitment
To another—and to one’s inner self.
Love only endures when it moves like waves,
Receding and returning gently or passionately,
Or moving lovingly like the tide
In the moon’s own predictable harmony,
Because finally, despite a child’s scars
Or an adult’s deepest wounds,
They are openly free to be
Who they really are—and always secretly were,
In the very core of their being
Where true and lasting love can alone abide.
Perhaps, though very young at the time, we knew we’d need the reminder not too far down the road.
Time Is On Our Side
We still haven’t figured out the perfect give and take in our relationship, how to meld love languages and communication styles. But we’re trying. We’re getting better at the small kindnesses. We’re working hard at being partners. And most importantly, we’re getting better at being kinder to ourselves, and our marriage.
Two years ago I picked a huge fight and predicted the inevitable doom of the universe (aka our relationship) over an article on the Internet about being kinder to each other. (Two years ago I picked a lot of those fights.) A few weeks ago, I cried in my car for a while and fought with my husband for a bit. But then I did something I never would have done two years ago. I let it go. I stopped seeing a small bump in the road as a sign of a huge chasm in our relationship. And I’m learning to see more of these bumps for what they are: opportunities to get better at this. We’ll figure it out next time.
And maybe that’s the most important thing I’ve learned—that we don’t have to be getting it right all the time and we don’t need to have it figured out right now. As long as we are figuring it out, together, as long as we’re progressing in a direction that’s better than it was yesterday, then we’re getting there. And looking back on the past two years, I can see we’ve already come so far.
How do you define partnership? Do you see it as an ongoing process, or an end goal? What acts of kindness do you demonstrate to show your partner you care?