Shortly before my wedding three years ago, my father sent me a photocopied page of advice titled “How To Be A Good Wife.” Supposedly, it came from a 1950s-era high school economics book. It might as well have been the Stone Ages.
“Take 15 minutes to rest so that you’ll be refreshed when he arrives” home from work, it said. “Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair.” It’s the least a good wife can do to “be a little gay and a little more interesting” than all the stiff suits he sees at the office.
“Have a cool or warm drink ready for him,” the Good Wife Guide suggested. “Arrange his pillow, and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soft, soothing and pleasant voice. . . . Try to make your home a place of peace and order where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.”
Whatever you do, say nothing to upset him. Never complain about the laundry, vacuuming—or anything else. So he’s late for dinner. So he forgets your birthday. Consider his stress, his strain and just zip it.
Funny, that was just what I had in mind the day, not long after our wedding, when I sat down at the kitchen table with a legal pad full of chores for Dave and me to divvy up. Sure, it was a classic nag-meets-obsessive-compulsive move—I’d actually estimated the amount of time per week each unwanted activity took, in the interest of maximizing marital equality—but everything I’d read in the Good Wife Guide told me that to break out of the 1950s, I had no other choice.
Dave, of course, mocked me and my power play. He neutralized my neuroses and said he’d do the laundry and the dishes. For the rest of our lives.
As for the ribbons in my hair and after-work worshiping, well, it’s been three years and he’s still waiting.
But I do vacuum. I scrub the toilet and tub, much to my disgust. I love to cook and have been known to whip up seared Ahi Tuna and roasted garlic mashed potatoes after a 10-hour day at the office myself.
I took his name but kept mine, too. I endorse his outside relationships with Bob Dylan and fishing. And from the start, we’ve taken one separate vacation a year, for marital mental health.
I don’t know. Maybe the home-ec books would call us nontraditional. Maybe they’d think we’re doomed. But who takes home-ec anymore, anyway?
On the desk in our home office sits a framed snapshot from a Saint Patrick’s Day party outside the Turtle Creek Apartments, circa 1992. There’s me, with wild, curly (ribbon-worthy) hair and shamrocks painted on my fingernails. And Dave, wearing a dingy baseball hat and a four-beer grin.
That he has his arm around me belies our social status that fine Indiana afternoon.
We did not date. We were not “friends with special privileges,” that most familiar of Notre Dame dysfunctions. We were just friends. Friends joined by mutual geekdom (working at The Observer). Friends who would finally figure it out and fall in love when we were least likely to succeed.
I don’t advocate the long-distance relationship for all couples, and certainly not for those in their early 20s, the time in your life when you can least afford it. But if you must indulge in this sort of romantic entanglement, I offer this modest advice: Get a good phone plan. And by all means, sign up for one of those airline Visas, so you can earn frequent flier miles while going into debt for love.
After the fateful first kiss—the one where you hope it’s not like kissing your brother, because if it is, you not only lose a potential boyfriend but also your best friend—we spent the next two years attempting to further careers, and couplehood, from afar. Every month or so, I’d fly from Tampa to Philadelphia or he’d head south to see me. Every night, we tried to build a future over the phone.
Over two years, I got to recognize the crew on those Friday night flights. The day I realized one of the attendants had become pregnant, had her baby, gone on maternity leave and returned to the air, I knew we had to make a change. Life was passing us by, literally, at 30,000 feet.
Now, moving for “her man” is a delicate subject for today’s modern woman. Especially when there’s no ring involved, no promise of a ring, not even tepid talk of ring-shopping trips to be taken in the next fiscal year.
Sometimes, you just go on gut. And if you happen to get a great new job and a big raise in the process, well, at least you won’t feel like a complete loser if the relationship implodes upon arrival.
And so I found myself in Philadelphia, living a block from where Betsy Ross supposedly sewed the flag, wondering if, or when, Dave would come back.
That’s because a mere year after settling into a supposedly normal relationship, he got transferred out of town. Promotion for Dave. Demotion for us. Suddenly, we were back to late-night phone calls and whirlwind weekends.
My friends had to be shaking their heads. One by one, they paired off and married, and here we were, entering years four and five of a long-distance goal-line stand. Our careers were cooking. Our relationship seemed strong. But we had different area codes and no hope of changing them.
Finally, Dave took a plunge of his own. He proposed in 1999, when we were still living apart and had no idea if, how or when, we’d get together after getting hitched.
I had an inkling it was coming. In my ongoing obsession with equality, I’d insisted on coming up with the male equivalent of an engagement ring for him. So for weeks I’d been driving around with a new fishing rod wrapped up in my trunk, just in case.
Several years ago, at a friend’s wedding, the video guy came around to all the tables, asking guests to give the happy couple advice.
“Marriage is an endurance sport,” I declared, clutching a glass of champagne. “Stay hydrated.”
Hydration comes in many forms these days, now that I’m an old married lady myself.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as making his favorite green bean casserole with dinner, because face facts: He’s never going to like asparagus, no matter how I dress it up.
Sometimes, it’s as excruciating as trying to slay your inner nag, to say nothing as the laundry piles up, knowing that Dave does things his way, in his time.
He’s not me, you see. And if you do nothing else in your marriage, resist all urges to try to turn your spouse into you. (Really, deep down, would you want to be married to yourself?)
“Embrace the chaos,” Dave likes to say when he sees me cringing at the dust on our dresser, and while he’s joking, I’ve come to see it as our marital motto. Embracing the chaos is accepting each other for who you are, respecting each other for what you’re not. It’s a way of life, a survival code.
I can’t say I know what a perfect marriage looks like, but ours sure seems solid. We laugh a lot. We talk, we listen. We try not to ignore each other or get too irritated too often, but hey, no one’s perfect.
If marriage is about two people coming together as one, it’s also about not losing yourself (and your self-respect) in the union. I’ve seen those couples who dress alike and sit so close at dinner they could cut each other’s steak. I weep for them, and for who they used to be.
So let the home-ec teachers scoff. It may have taken us nearly six years from first kiss to “now you may kiss the bride,” but eventually we made it to that walk down the aisle. That’s the easy part. Marriage, that’s a marathon.
Monica Yant Kinney is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is married to David Kinney ‘94, a political reporter for Newark’s The Star-Ledger.