I never realized my husband was so attached to our living-room rug-or could even have told you what color it was-until I brought a new one home on trial. All of a sudden, he was waxing nostalgic-practically teary-eyed-over the now-fraying and threadbare red carpet we’d had made when we bought the apartment in 1975. It had a “bold, masculine” look (i.e., geometric pattern), he opined, as opposed to the “feminine” (more ornate and curvy) pattern of the Oriental with which I intended to replace it.
I interpreted this application of gender adjectives to the aesthetics of floor covering as going beyond the normal husbandly resistance to change, signaling that the new rug was somehow a threat to the territorial/sexual status quo. Not unreasonable, since his office, such as it is (desk, Smith Corona typewriter circa 1959, foothills of papers), occupies the “public” space of the living room, and the sofa is his “office” couch. The diurnal struggle over turf-the ebb and flow of advancing and retreating papers, and the land-for-peace negotations pertaining thereto-constitute a major orchestral theme in the contrapuntal music of our marriage.
Moving or redecorating-any disruption-can cause problems, but so can staying put. “Your problem,” said the super when he came to help me remove the old rug, “is you’ve been married too long. Everybody else has split up, moved out, gotten divorced once or twice, divvied up, or thrown out the furniture and started over.”
In Talking It Over , the first of his two brilliant fictional dissections of a modern marriage, Julian Barnes has Gillian, the exasperated heroine, complain of her husband, “Oliver, like most men, is fundamentally lazy. They make one big decision and think they can spend the next few years sunning themselves like a lion on a hilltop.” That next few years can stretch out to 20 or 30. The lion doesn’t want his hilltop moved, redecorated, landscaped, challenged in any way. My husband long ago-as a child at a nature film-found himself identifying with the king of the jungle, so assured of his power that he had no need to exert himself, but could sleep away the day contentedly like the cat he is. Our living room, with the proximity of sofa and desk, had proved the perfect accommodation for such royal inertia.
Inevitably, the atmosphere grew even testier when Elizabeth, the friend/organizer/decorator who’s helping me with the current sprucing up, suggested (with my approval) the possibility of moving his desk-now against the wall in the middle of the living room with a splendid view-to a more inconspicuous corner. The proposal was made in the most diplomatic manner possible, hedged with hypothetical and modifying clauses (“If you don’t like it … ” etc.), but the lion wasn’t fooled. Two women ganging up on a man. Turf threatened. He didn’t roar, but a dangerous silence descended. There are times in a marriage to hold your ground, and times to give way. Every marriage is an ongoing power struggle whose exact nature-the balance sheet of wins and losses, grievances and humiliations-is kept hidden by common if unconscious consent, until and unless a breakup or litigation forces it into the open.
In another of Talking It Over ‘s La Rochefoucauld–like aphorisms, Oliver says, “Marriage always consists of one moderate and one militant.”
Yes, but when it’s working we don’t get stuck in either/or roles, but take turns at them. Indeed, one of the great appeals of marriage (or enduring couples, whether gay or straight) is that it allows for such a safe and enjoyable expression of duality within each of us: moderate and militant, male and female. I once wrote about my “mismatched” marriage: his Greek heritage, where the women hunt and gather and put in 20-hour days while the men sit around cafés drinking ouzo; my WASP one, where the men do the heavy lifting; both of us waiting for someone else to do the work. The piece got a huge response, letter after letter describing similar marriages. And I realized that everybody thinks their marriage is a mismatch, not just black and white or Jew and Protestant, but Irish Catholic and Italian Catholic, early riser vs. late nighter, anal vs. slob.
The dialectic is necessary: The mating dance survives and thrives on the oppositions woven into the myths of our partnerships.
I went to My Big Fat Greek Wedding to see how it compared to my skinny little WASP one. In the adaptation of her one-woman show, Nia Vardalos is of course the Greek female, raised to marry, cook and reproduce males, whereas my husband was one of those hopelessly spoiled and idolized male offspring. In this reverse mirror image, my filmic counterpart was Ian the WASP (John Corbett). Each is retreating from the monotony of his or her particular world-the vulgarity of one, the blandness of the other. But poor Ian is finally overwhelmed by the avalanche of the Greek extended family in full-attack mode, going so far in immersion as to get baptized. For us, however, a Greek wedding was never a possibility-there wasn’t enough time in the world. And as bride, I got to call the shots: brief wedding, skimpy hors d’oeuvres, lots of booze.
We don’t tell the whole truth about the different trade-offs that constitute the his-and-hers power dynamic of a marriage, partly because they’re things we don’t talk about (money, looks, brains, status), and partly because they change constantly as we take turns at playing master and surrendering spouse. Nor can losses and gains be easily tabulated, since one party, if smart, is always ready to wrest triumph from the jaws of defeat.
Take redecorating: It is threatening in that it symbolizes the domestication of the male, reminding the husband of his precarious toehold as a beast of the jungle who, in the domestic preserve, is always in peril of being marginalized to a figure in the carpet. But once the rug was installed, it became, overnight, a fait accompli , a thing of joy-comfortable, homey, praised as if it were his idea all along.
This was the new reality, from which any deviation would now be seen as anathema. The living room is once again his domain; the lion is sunning on his mountain top. All’s right with the world.