At a recent wedding, my wife and I found ourselves among dozens of married couples on the dance floor as the DJ used a game to fete longevity in relationships.
You’ve probably seen this at a wedding before. Everyone who is married is asked to participate and the DJ winnows out the crowd by shouting out numbers — “Who’s been married 10 years? Fifteen years? Twenty?”
It’s an elimination process. It’s a slo-mo, kinda arthritic dance-off; the couple married the longest stays on the floor the longest and becomes the winner.
My wife Lynn and I found ourselves finalists. I scouted the eight or so other couples still in the running and saw we were probably the youngest. I had an idea — a plan to cheat.
I told Lynn I was going to mimic the DJ’s voice and shout: “Now, only stay on the dance floor if you’re still having sex!”
Lynn disagreed with that plan rather strongly. Her reaction is caught in the photo you saw as you started reading this.
We didn’t win. But we were among the last standing.
We have been married 36 years.
During those decades we’ve raised five kids and weathered some typical and not-so-typical challenges. We’ve learned to communicate pretty well by now. We’re often on the same wavelength. Sometimes I find myself telling her “That’s what I was just gonna say!” and vice versa.
But, recently, our psychic connection has developed some cracks. We’ve had more disagreements. We’ve argued, loudly, over things that should be trivial: A misplaced comb … an inadvertently shared toothbrush … whose phone is giving the best route to the restaurant … how Wifi works … who changed the freakin’ password for the bank and didn’t write it down?
It’s not that we’ve grown apart. We’re closer than ever. By that, I mean closer together, habitating in smaller spaces. We just downsized, again, after downsizing only six months prior. We have now moved from a four-bedroom house with a garage and backyard to a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor.
I’m disabled at 61 and my wife has become a travel nurse at age 60. We have picked up — and packed up — to move three times in less than a year.
This has given me an epiphany. It’s easier for spouses or partners to get along when you can hide from each other in a big house. Think of the popularity of man caves, gardens, SUVs, big porches, worksheds and even fancy SUVs.
Living in a smaller space, with few escape rooms, has caused some friction. Add the stress of moving, and the debate over what we really need and can discard. Try doing that after collecting things for about 30 years and see if you can actually name all the bric-a-brac, let alone discuss getting rid of it.
We’ve been forced to hone old skills: Precise communication, cheeriness under duress and close-quarter maneuvering without knocking each other over.
Still, we slip up and digress into conversations like:
“I thought you said you paid the garbage bill in California.”
“We didn’t have a garage there.” I answer over the deep rumble of the washing machine in the closet.
“Garbage!” Lynn tries to clarify; I take it as an insult and yell.
“Man, you don’t have to jump on me. I’m telling you the rental in California didn’t even have a garage.”
Silence. Exasperation. More silence.
After this most recent move, it’s become quite apparent to me that, despite our decades together, there are some things I can still learn about my wife.
Like the names of her cooking utensils, or at least the pet names she has given them. What she calls her clothes (summer stuff, hanging stuff, yes, yoga pants are different than tights). And what specifically drove her to label one giant moving box as “Hall closet, miscellaneous.”
The last time we had a hall closet was three habitats ago.
Writing on moving boxes — when to write on them, how to write on them and where to write on them — has been a difficult learning process all its own. I think it’s been tougher than premarital classes, birthing classes and that seminar we decided to take that year we were screaming so loudly at the kids we decided we needed some professional advice about communicating as a family.
We didn’t know most of the parents would be there under court order.
For some reason, when it comes to cataloging our possessions, my wife cannot understand that boxes must be marked — exhaustively and accurately — on all sides save the bottom. That’s because you never know how they might end up piled up, spun around or spread over the floor.
She, of course, argues that most boxes will be emptied out anyway so … ah, here’s the rub: We’re still hauling around so much stuff we don’t really need that we’re not actually sure which boxes we will be emptying out after each move, or when.
To be fair, my wife is not the exclusive problem. She has many legitimate grievances against me, too, as I try to adapt to our new lifestyle.
I tend to over-communicate, especially when other U-Haul trucks seem to be getting awful close to ours while Lynn is driving. On another front, I now realize I have been blissfully ignorant for many, many years about how food was prepared before I shoved it in my mouth.
I’m also pretty bad at paying bills.
Even though I’ve designated myself the stay-at-home lout responsible for many of the domestic chores, I’ve had to call on my wife for tutoring. I’ve had to endure several quasi-pedantic seminars about starting and canceling Internet providers, monitoring gas and electric companies for over-billing, using Yelp to help decide where to move, deciphering medical bills and insurance benefits and somehow reading her mind to figure out what brands of food are best.
I’m getting better, though. Someday, I’ll even answer those bank personal security questions correctly before being tossed off the system.
You have to admit they are tricky. Quick, who was your best friend in childhood? Quick now, Jesse or Paul? Don’t get it wrong! Three strikes and you’re bounced!
I thought being a newsman all those years was high-pressure.
Lynn’s getting better, too. She now does some of the things I at one time handled almost exclusively, like driving U-Hauls, carrying the beer and bringing home the bacon.
We also have a balm if we start to get overwhelmed: We think back to the really nerve-wracking times, like when all five kids had chicken pox at the same time, over Christmas.
There’s also a good side to all of this.
Moving at our age, while challenging, brings thrills. We’re out of the slow-moving and often judgmental Missouri after a decade — on to navigate city traffic and technology that changes as fast as the Missouri weather.
We’re also getting out more, mixing with the the fascinating, quirky, beautifully diverse human crowds of today’s urban centers.
It’s easy to retreat into your home (especially if it has lots of space) once you’re married, and especially when you older.
When we were younger, parenting our five kids forced us to get out and about and meet lots of people. Attending all those sporting, artistic and academic events, we couldn’t help but mingle with other parents, developing friends and forging relationships.
Now, living in a smaller place creates a different kind of forced socialization. You can only stay so long in a two-bedroom apartment, no matter how nice. Our Southern California apartment sat in a gated community. I blame my urban upbringing, but those prison-like bars created a primal urge in me to escape.
It’s good to get out of the house, try new things, see other people, especially those of similar age. That way, even with all my flaws, my wife can see how extremely lucky she is.
And yes, of course, “vice versa.”
Our adjustment problems pale in comparison to the thrills of our new adventure.
How important is it, anyway, that I cannot fathom how “hoodies and purses” can fill an entire medium-size moving box. Who cares if my wife cannot read any of the sloppy words I’ve scribbled on all six sides of the boxes I packed.
We’re getting through this, and, like I said, it’s brought us closer. Which has its perks, too.
The more your space is constricted, the more you bump into each other. And, sometimes, as most people with partners understand, a bump can lead to a grind, and a hug, then …
You get the picture. No need to get graphic. Especially at our age.
At the next wedding we attend, however, I will definitely have more motivation to shout out my ribald new rule for the couples longevity game.