Have you ever had a fight with your spouse? Have you ever had a fight with your spouse and it's the same fight you've had hundreds if not thousands if not millions of times over the course of your relationship? Have you ever gotten so "good" at this fight that as soon as the topic is mentioned, you just skip the fight part because you already know it by heart and go straight to the being mad at each other part, arms crossed, not speaking?
It's called gridlock and it's a real bitch.
Alex and I love each other very much but man, we are sick of "that one fight." Our fight tends to sneak up on us when we least expect it. An innocent comment made by one of us while out for a nice walk on the beach will trigger the anger of the other and suddenly we're scrambling for pieces of driftwood with which to bludgeon each other. Similarly, there were several romantic dinners ruined over the years because I suddenly wanted to smash his face into his mashed potatoes.
The same thought always goes through my mind as this is happening: "What the hell is going on? We were laughing five minutes ago, how did we get here so quickly... I DON'T CARE PUT FACE IN POTATOES."
As my astrologically inclined friends are quick to point out, both Alex and I are fire signs and live up to the reputation of two fire signs in a relationship. Neither of us seems willing nor able to back down from imminent marital conflict. We both just roll our sleeves up -- "Oh, it is ON" -- and paw at the earth like two bulls about to charge.
(The good part of being fire signs? The making up part. Being firey has its privileges, trust it.)
Here's where I'm going with all this -- Alex and I attended a marriage seminar a couple weekends ago. The marriage workshop was run by Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, who are the preeminent marriage researchers in all of the world. Over forty years of research have given the Gottman research team the ability to predict divorce with over 90% accuracy after observing a couple in conversation. That's an impressive fact but it also instilled some fear --we were afraid of walking into the seminar and having the Drs. Gottman point at us and yell, "DOOMED!"
It wasn't like that, thankfully. The Drs. Gottman are funny and their information straightforward and accessible. Alex and I got a lot out of it. We're doing very well at Building Love Maps and Turning Towards each other, and trying hard to avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse while focusing on Soft Start-Ups*. We're down with Gottman.
*A Soft Start-Up should be a personal statement about the speaker only, and not involve any judgment of the other person. For example, instead of this --
Me: I'm so sick of your sh*tty-ass driving, you're a goddamn lunatic on the road and a menace to society. Pull over now and let me take the wheel before you kill us all, jerk.
I should say:
Me: You know, I feel really anxious when I'm not in control of my personal locomotion. Would you mind pulling over and letting me drive before you kill us all, jerk?**
**Dang. Botched it. It takes practice, people, I'm working on it.
The second day -- the day that addressed gridlocked conflicts -- was a hard one for all who attended the Gottman marriage workshop. There were many tears and defensive postures, many silent couples who couldn't even look each other in the eye. A few people stormed out. Many, including us, had to wave our blue "Assistance Needed" cards in the air until a roving Gottman-trained therapist could get to us and talk us off the anger ledge. Marriage, yee-haw.
In the middle of all this longstanding pain and marital suffering was a pair of newlyweds. They couldn't have been more than 22 or 23 years old, the seminar obviously given to them as a wedding present -- or perhaps a wedding prerequisite -- by a concerned parent.
During our "break-out time," when each couple retreated to private corners of the room to work on Gottman-prescribed relationship exercises, the newlyweds made out. I mean they really made out. While other couples cried, and glared, and sat in silence, they giggled, she sat on his lap, they groped. But what they were really doing was pissing off the sea of middle-aged couples surrounding them whose marriages were in various states of disrepair.
By the end of the seminar, the newlyweds had succeeded in uniting the other 200 of us against them. You would see embattled spouses walk past them, nudge each other, smile and whisper, "I give 'em two years." Seasoned couples glanced at other seasoned couples and rolled their eyes in unison -- which is a sign of contempt and one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse so all of our relationships with the newlyweds are likely headed for rupture. Good riddance, insensitive jerks.
Here's the good news we took away from Gottman: conflict is not bad. It's healthy. It's important. How you handle the conflict is the key to staying married. I won't get into the details but here's a summary of the seminar:
bludgeoning with driftwood = bad
smashing face into mashed potatoes = bad
all the stuff they taught us to do at the workshop = good
donuts = delicious
Alex and I stayed at a downtown hotel for the seminar weekend. Our trusty and loyal babysitter, "Saint Babysitter," stayed at our house with the kids. I debated beforehand whether or not to show her our house alarm system but ultimately decided to do it. I thought she would feel more secure in our strange neighborhood if the alarm was on while she slept.
Saint Babysitter let Oscar out that night before she went to bed. When she let him back in, she unknowingly did not close the door firmly enough to latch completely. Then she set the alarm and went upstairs.
An hour later, a strong wind blew the front door open and the alarm went off. Saint Babysitter came running downstairs in her pajamas to see the door standing wide open at 1:00 a.m. The alarm was blaring so loudly next to her head she wondered if she'd ever be able to hear the faint whisper of wind through trees again.
Saint Babysitter made a terrified tour of the downstairs to check for intruders hiding behind curtains. Finding none, she went to disarm the system but her hands were shaking so badly she had a hard time shutting it down.
Our security company, noticing our lengthy alarm, called our cell phone contact numbers but as it was 1:00 in the morning, both Alex and I were asleep and didn't answer. Back at home, Saint Babysitter took a few deep breaths, reset the alarm, and went back up to bed. She was rattled but relieved it was over.
Twenty minutes later, as she was drifting off to sleep, the alarm went off again. After promising herself she would never, ever come back to our hell house if she survived the night, Saint Babysitter ran back downstairs to find three large men in the entry hall. They boomed, "Who are you?" and she yelled back, "Who are YOU?"
Our security company has a key to our house, you see. When we didn't answer the monitoring station's calls but they could see the alarm had been turned off by someone, they sent a team to our house to save our sorry asses from whatever circumstances had befallen us.
Saint Babysitter noticed their security company uniforms and realized who they were but they were not so convinced about her. She told them she was the babysitter. They asked her name and, unfortunately, her name is the same as my name. They looked down at the papers in their hands then looked back up incredulously as if to say, "What the hell kind of sick game you playing at, lady?"
The security team grilled her at length, took pictures of her and her drivers license, walked around the house, even poked their heads into the kids' room to make sure they were OK (the kids never woke up, oh to sleep like that again). Finally satisfied, they left. I don't think Saint Babysitter even attempted to go back to sleep that night. She just sat in the entry hall on an uncomfortable chair, hyper aware, vigilant, twitching.
It's good to know our monthly monitoring fee is going towards a system that works and will protect us from well-meaning babysitters far into the future. Also, Stella the parakeet can now mimic the sound of the alarm and does so often.
We spent last week on the Olympic Peninsula for the kids' midwinter break. Upon our return, we learned Alex's grandmother passed away. It was not unexpected but it's awfully sad all the same.
Your family is going to miss you, Francoise. You were a force of nature. Oh, the stories they're going to tell about you at your funeral! There will be more laughter than tears, and that's the best way to leave 'em, so nice work.
the incomparable Francoise
(with the incomparable baby Lucien)