Monday, February 14, 2011

The Heart of the Matter

My husband and I have reached an age and a familiarity with each other that provoke salesmen and physicians to ask, “How long have you two been married?” We usually say thirty years—just rounding up, but the real number is 29 years, 3 months, 3 days. Sometimes we add, “Why do you ask?”

The salesman said that we treat each other like newlyweds, that we are considerate of each other unlike most old marrieds he sees in his line of work. (Yes, he racked up points; we bought more than we otherwise might have.) In fact, I was very considerate and patient that day. Any woman who has taken a man shopping for clothes knows that he tries on clothes unwillingly and many men, mine included, prefer comfort over fashion even if comfort involves fashion that has long since passed from memory. So to prevent my man from walking out the door too soon, I was solicitous, cooing “honeys” and “sweeties” more than usual while shlepping one size after another back and forth between showroom floor and dressing room.

The physician and her nurse almost certainly asked because I was present during my husband’s exam and repeated what they said in my own unique and emphatic way. My husband, even with high quality hearing aids in both ears, has trouble hearing. Worse, even when he can hear, he listens selectively. For example, if he does not wish to change his behavior or follow through, he will deny that any advice or request or message was ever sent. Knowing this—and motivated entirely by the desire to be helpful, I swear—I reiterated advice that he had ignored, especially if it was advice I had previously offered, solicited or unsolicited. I’m sure the medical staff wondered how long my put-upon husband had been ignoring me.

In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver explains bonding as the function of biology and pheromones—at least for two of her characters, Deanna and Lusa—and she makes a compelling case. For months after I read this delightful novel, I was convinced that relationships of any duration are merely the result of animal instincts. I let the idea fade when I caught a whiff of my man after a particularly long workout on the elliptical.

Folks in much earlier ages were fond of believing that our eyes, windows to the soul, could draw us on to our destruction. Cupid fired his arrow, and we were doomed to fall in love, driven and perhaps even enslaved by Eros. For many other folks from earlier ages, love had nothing to do with romance, eyes or souls. Love grew after a marriage entered into for mutual benefits, including money, property, and prestige. Love was the result of a conscious effort to transform perceived flaws into felicities, according to Joseph Addison, who also advised men and women not to look too closely so that they might never see flaws in each other.

For my part, if pheromones attracted me to my mate, so be it. If his eyes drew me in, that’s fine. What interests me—and apparently others like Addison—is why we have endured so long, and I think one of the foremost reasons is personal honor. I take my vows seriously, and I know my man does as well. Although in the heat of anger or the winter of despair, I have contemplated life without him, I have emerged committed because once I said, “I do” love you, honor you, and promise to share sickness as well as health, poverty as well as wealth (I wish), and sorrow as well as joy until death do us part.

Yep, he’s still the one because of who I am as much as who he is. May you too have honor. May you be together 29 years and counting.