The Ties that Bind

© Bruce Allen 2017

If you are fortunate enough to enjoy a predominantly happy marriage for decades, the fruit on the backside can be wonderfully sweet. Few people tell you this when you’re suiting up to exchange your wedding vows. In the beginning, you’re all eyes and skin and dreams, most of which don’t hold up well over forty years. In their place are these elegant moments that help us appreciate the life that is given to us and what we’ve done with it.

Even if we fall short of our dreams, there is something in me that says we’re allowed to, that it is the chase and the perseverance and the falling short that teaches us who we are. As seniors in our own family, we have the advantage of hindsight, and are still able to influence the thinking and behavior of our kids and grandkids. Those sweet, rare occasions when we make a positive, indelible impression on the life of a child are gifts beyond measure, especially to someone like me, whose main long-term concern is being forgotten by my family. I don’t give a rip about being forgotten by The World, just my own family. How to survive in people’s memory banks for longer than two generations. What will the grandkids’ kids learn about their Nanny and PopPop?

Here’s an insight. The stories they will tell about their Nanny will be funny and will emphasize her willingness to believe stuff, her loving, upright nature, her gentleness and consistency, her being there as a safe harbor when things might get tense with The Parents. Their stories about their PopPop will be about his generally futile attempts to corrupt them and his long, boring stories about when he was a kid. How he could bang on the piano and occasionally, quietly tell them inappropriate jokes.

Sweet. But as to our grandkids’ grandkids, probably next to nothing. Sad.

Another pleasure, a non-intuitive one, is having family responsibilities that one enjoys. There is no one I would want as Nancy’s primary caregiver more than me. I get to serve her, to drive her, to make things easier for her, some of which is scut work, at which I’m highly proficient, while some of it is “learned intuition,” knowing how she likes things, her meals and her schedule and so on. I am certain there are men she has worked with over the years whom she has dazzled with her Jersey and professionalism and insight and who must have wondered, at some point, “What must her husband have going on to keep up with HER?” Sweet. My goal–duh–is to relieve her of much of the drudgery, allowing her time and energy to heal, pray, snack and talk on the phone.

It was the right decision, to let our daughters survive their teens in order that they might someday present us with grandchildren. This sweetness I’m trying to describe is there again each time “the girls” (or their husbands) demonstrate good, loving parenting skills. Each time the grandkids reflect the receipt of good, loving parenting skills. Each time one of the grandkids complains that mom is more strict than the other moms. Each time they engage in the Movie Ratings Debate. “Why does it have to be PG?” “My friends have ALL seen it, and it’s only PG-13!” Each time they argue over after-dinner chores.

I can’t get enough of this stuff. This is exactly the kind of stuff about which Nancy was setting the bar 30 years ago and their moms didn’t like it then either but it was the right thing to do and PopPop would comfort them by suggesting they go write their congressman. What is left unsaid is, “And you’ll be happier and a better person as an adult if you ’embrace’ high standards as a child.” Best of all, I’m not even ALLOWED to get involved. Sweet.

So here we are almost 45 years later with glasses, skin that has sagged, and dreams constrained the way a football team’s playbook gets compressed in the red zone. Despite the challenges God has placed before Nancy and me, we have a seemingly endless source of these sweet moments, many of which are courtesy of our daughters and their families.

I was an only child and never knew my grandparents. I have become a big fan of this whole extended family thing, although I find it difficult to maintain over long periods of time. Short bursts are great; I’ve found I’m kind of a five day guy when I’m visiting. Here, in Hoosierville, kids and grandkids can stay as long as they want. There’s plenty of room, our local daughter’s family is somehow almost always available to get involved, and it’s all good. Plus I figure it’s important that they all get as much one-on-one time with Nanny as possible. Sweet.

This is the good stuff they don’t tell you about when you’re getting married. This is the stuff people need to know to survive those years when the kids are growing up and married life is way more work than fun. This is the kind of stuff that makes old age and arthritic knees and wigs such minor inconveniences.

These are the ties that bind.


We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

Happy New Year, couples.  Yes, we’ve been in hiatus for months, dealing with a number of issues ranging from travel and health concerns to a relative lack of inspiration from many of our usual contributors.  Now that 2015 is upon us, I am hoping for some renewed energy and relying on The Holy Spirit to provide it to all of us, with a tip of the hat to Walt Kelly

UnhappyA recurring theme in this blog is that successful marriages are not about finding the right person as much as being the right person.  When things go wrong in our lives, it is not unusual to blame others–employers, spouses, friends, bad ju-ju, etc.  Yet, in most cases, we have only ourselves to blame, which is inconvenient in that it forces us to change our behaviors and/or our attitudes toward the things that comprise our lives.

I direct your attention to a recent article published in Huffington Post (yes, them again) about a failed marriage, written by the now ex-wife.  In a nutshell, her ex lied to her, cheated on her, and finally abandoned the family.  Some time later, in therapy, she realized that her own foibles were at the root of much of what went wrong in the relationship.  I encourage you to read the article, but let me summarize what she refers to as the “four huge mistakes I made” that led to the breakdown of the marriage:

  1. I put my children first.  While it is a holy obligation to care for one’s kids, it is easy to allow them to become a place to escape to when difficulties arise in your relationship with your spouse.  This particular issue typically afflicts wives more than husbands, but men are not exempt, either.  This evokes the instructions we get while waiting for a plane to take off, that we are supposed to affix our own oxygen masks before taking care of the kids.
  2. I didn’t set (or enforce) boundaries with my parents.  While many of us are blessed with parents who live nearby and love interacting with and helping out with our kids, for some spouses this can become burdensome.  Our spouses married us; they didn’t marry our entire families.  For some spouses, when this occurs, it is a hard conversation to have, telling your spouse that you want/need some space from your inlaws.  That conversation, however, pales in difficulty to the one in which you tell him or her you’re moving out.
  3. I emasculated him.  The author’s reflections on this subject are straight out of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.  Talking smack about our spouses with our friends simply adds fuel to the fire, stoking our own rage and setting the stage for gossip which can work its way back to the spouse.  “I hear your wife said you’re lousy in the sack” is not something I want to hear while waiting on the first tee with my golfing buddies.  Reading Gottman’s book allows us to both recognize these deadly sins and offers concrete advice on how to work through them.
  4. I didn’t bother to learn to fight the right way.  The notion of “fighting fairly” is one that intrigues me and is, again, a subject to which John Gottman devotes a lot of attention.  All couples are going to disagree at times, and a number of these disagreements can escalate into fights.  Learning how to fight fairly–my wife Nancy is better at this than I am–provides opportunities to turn these arguments into understanding.  Keep in mind that, when it comes to arguing, your objective should not be to win; your objective should be to recognize the root causes of the fight and change behaviors in order to avoid them in the future.  We need to seek understanding rather than victory.  In the long run, winning is less desirable than creating win-win situations.

The title of this post is one of Pogo’s lasting contributions to western society.  When holding_handsdifficulties arise in our marriages, we are encouraged to reflect on how we have contributed to the problem, rather than taking the easy, shortsighted way out and simply blaming everything on our spouses.  It takes two to tango; the reason cliches are cliches is because they are generally true.  Let us pray the Serenity Prayer and look inside ourselves before berating our spouses for their shortcomings.  More often than not, the enemy is us.