The first marriage conference Tony and I attended was pretty much a fiasco.
Suffice it to say, our car was silent on the drive home. The window I rested my cheek on felt cool which was a good thing since my face was flushed from all the emotions simmering inside of me.
Was our marriage in trouble?
The problem was all the homework questions…about marital satisfaction.
After the first session, on a homework sheet, I ranked most of the marital categories—amount of time spent together, emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, etc.—as being fine, okay. Tony, on the other hand, graded us failing in just about every subject area.
“It’s like we’re roommates, not husband and wife,” I read on his sheet after we traded.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, I was pretty sure I knew why.
To my mind, Tony is a better “girl” and I’m a better “boy.”
This can be explained by our families of origin. Tony has four older sisters. I do not. Instead, I have three older brothers. In my opinion, being raised in a vat of estrogen helped Tony “get in touch with his feminine side.”
Tony shares stories of hanging out with his sisters and playing with their dolls (I sure hope he’s cool with me telling you this.). He can’t remember a meal without weeping. Someone was always upset about a boy or a dress or experiencing monthly mood swings.
It seems to me Tony was basically raised in a women’s study experiment. Which made him an excellent husband.
On the other hand, I don’t remember a whole lot of harmonious hanging out with my brothers.
My brothers and I burped. A lot. Really loud. And we tooted. A lot. We also talked about number two. All the time. In fact, when Tony and I were first married, he often asked, “Can we not make it through a meal without you discussing bodily functions?”
In addition, there were tons of fist-fights and wrestling matches. My smaller size forced me to be creative: I invented the sadistic tactic of rolling already-been-chewed bubble gum in my brothers’ leg hair and yanking it out with vicious force. Sucker punches also worked well.
All to say, I’m not the girl who begs, “Can we please hold hands?” Or, “Want to cuddle?” That would be Tony.
Which is why I got an “F” in physical intimacy at the marriage conference, I suppose. That and the fact I’m not a super duper hugger. Man-oh-man, are Tony and his family huggers. They’re 100% Italian. That explains everything, right?
My family rarely hugged. Did I hug any of them growing up? Because I can’t picture an instance. Perhaps I hugged Dad, maybe Mom. Like when I was getting ready to go back to college for fall semester or something. But yeah,
The people in my family are not fans of hugging.
There is, however, an exception to that rule.
One of my first jobs was as a cashier at Shoney’s Big Boy on Fifth Avenue in Huntington, Best Virginia. Boots Ruckle, a brash and sturdy gal with a mile-high beehive hairdo, hired me. She then trained me to work the massive and ornate old-fashioned cash register that required counting back change to the customer.
“Say their bill is $5.14 and they hand you $10,” she explained. “You give them a penny to make $5.15 and then a dime to make $5.25 then three quarters to make $6 and then four ones to make $10. Got it?” Ah, the good old days.
One day a new manager showed up at Shoney’s. I don’t recollect his name. I only recall he was tall and wide with good hair and a sunny smile. If I walked within three feet of him, he’d pull me into a super snug hug. Which may creep some of you out, but not me.
During my shifts at Shoney’s I invented reasons to walk within three feet of Mr. Manager for his hugs because I liked believing I was worth hugging.
Lots of people think I’m really good at talking, but in my younger years, when it came to discussing “Feelings, nothing more than feelings…” I totally flunked out.
I blame my mom. Dad too. And also my brothers. And I blame me.
My mother was emotionally vulnerable. My mother was also smart. Smart enough to get help for her condition. There were meds. And counseling sessions.
On several occasions I heard my mother speak to my dad in what I mean-spiritedly called, “psychobabble.” Mom said things like,
“Sometimes I feel so alone.” And, “Tell me how you feel. Please?”
Those statements should’ve elicited compassion in me. But they didn’t. Because I was spoiled and self-absorbed. Being the youngest child (and the only one of your gender) can do that.
At some point–and this is my impression–my brothers and I agreed without words to band against my mother. We perceived her as weak and in our wild and loud shenanigans, we were strong. The louder and wilder we were, the more we got away with our rowdy way of life.
I don’t remember our father ever taking Mom’s side, ever stopping our pranks or shushing our close to cruel comments.
My dad worked. Then ate supper. Next he went to the basement and enjoyed his hobby–ham radio– for hours. At 11 o’clock he watched the news while drinking one beer from a juice glass. After that, he hit the hay.
Those times my mother shared her feelings with my dad? I don’t remember him ever responding.
Which brings me to email.
On the Monday after the ill-fated marriage conference, I emailed Tony at his office. To break the silence between us. In writing.
To me, typing words on a screen felt safer than a face-to-face conversation. I could compose my thoughts, type them, read the words, and edit them, all before I hit send. Then Tony could do the same thing on his end. This would eliminate defensive interruptions, raised voices, and tears, probably mine.
For the first time in a long time—maybe ever—I told my husband my “Feelings, nothing more than feelings…”
I started out by apologizing for not being a hugger. “I’ll try to hold hands and snuggle more,” I promised.
I also explained how for most of my life I’d wanted to be like my dad and to me that meant being “strong and silent,” not raw and confessional. “I’ll make more of an effort to tell you how I feel.”
“I’d rather talk about this stuff in person,” Tony emailed back, “but if this is the only way you can do it for now, I’ll take it.”
For years, email was how I approached my husband with topics I felt cautious about, exposed. Subjects I thought might anger or hurt him.
Occasionally, one of our email exchanges would come up in conversation later in the day and we’d talk it through. Then one day I realized I’d begun to skip the email step when broaching potentially “hot topics” with Tony.
These days when I murmur, “There’s something I need to tell you,” Tony stops whatever he’s doing and gives me his full attention, knowing I’m going to let loose with some “feelings.”
Looking back, I’m thankful for the discomfort that marriage conference elicited over a decade ago. I’m also glad I dared to write what I couldn’t say. Most of all, I’m grateful for a husband who wrote back to say, “It’s a great first step.”
If you have something to say to your spouse (or anyone, really) but a face-to-face conversation seems almost terrifying, consider putting it in writing. It’s a great first step.
This one goes out to the one I love. Happy 30th (Valentine’s Day) Anniversary, Tony Bear!