A few months back, the Man I Married and I had an argument.
After 25 years together, this wasn’t unusual. Our disagreements at one time could last a few days. That was when we had the luxury of putting our own emotions and needs first, before the Little Monster joined our family. Our arguments were usually about things like MIM leaving the gas tank empty when we shared a car, or his inability to let me know when he’d used the last of something before I went to the store. Although these quarrels might seem petty, MIM likes to remind me of what he learned in a college class: that most marriages don’t break up because of big picture disagreements like money or religion; they snap over things like toothbrushes. When MIM grabs my toothbrush (or comb, or soap) because he can’t find his and mine is handy, I totally understand the disintegration of a marriage; I much prefer it when he grabs my ass. A marriage counselor once wisely told us that some problems can be solved with money. Hence, MIM now stocks about forty toothbrushes, and we bought a second car—voila!, our arguments decreased.
What was unusual is that we had this particular quarrel in hearing of the Little Monster, who was in the next room. For three and a half years, we had been careful not to squabble in front of him. We figured he’d been traumatized by too much already, and we decided early on that we didn’t want to be responsible for any triggers in his troublesome behaviors. YOU ARE ENTERING A CALM AND STABLE ENVIRONMENT should have been stenciled on our front door. We hissed any grievances at each other only once the Little Monster was in bed, and we slapped our happy faces back on by the time he woke up the next morning. Quite honestly, we rarely had the energy to fight or carry it on for long when we did. We were a real team now, united on all fronts when it came to the Little Monster’s needs, and nothing else seemed much worth arguing about, anymore. Toothbrushes paled in comparison to the challenge we’d been given as parents.
This argument was brief and not even really explosive—it was more like a messy blurp when the spaghetti sauce gets too hot and that first bubble rises, pops, and splatters. Voices were elevated and tones of voice were not exactly lovey dovey. In fact the argument was about tone of voice, and who started using an unacceptable tone of voice with the other first. I called his tone of voice condescending, which started it, and he called mine mocking, which he said started it, and I agreed (compromise!) that I was mocking his condescension (which started it, on that I wouldn’t budge). But we didn’t shout, didn’t name call or swear, didn’t smack each other with plastic spatulas and ladles despite having them handy because of dinner prep, and we put the tension behind us quickly. We cooled off and the warm-ish words were done and over with in a minute.
The Little Monster broke out in hives at after-school-care the next day, just before we picked him up. The rash was gone by the next morning. The pattern repeated itself for the rest of the week, with mysterious red blotches appearing and disappearing for no apparent reason, but often right before he expected us to pick him up.
The Man I Married was positive that the hives were caused by our fight.
I wasn’t so sure. The Little Monster had arrived at our door with a white, bumpy rash much of the time, but it had disappeared—along with his clumsiness and quite a few extra pounds—with a healthy diet, exercise, sunshine, and lack of 24/7 cable TV on which he watched things like childbirth. The new outbreak of hives could have been caused by rug cleaner or grass at the daycare center, since he prefers to spend most of his time in various gymnastic poses on the ground rather than conforming to the upright-on-two-legs Homo sapiens thing.
He’d recently started eating the school’s cooked meat for lunch because the nutty Man I Married told him to, thinking it would be a healthy choice. When I heard this, I was naturally relieved that I could totally blame the hives on MIM for introducing a fake protein product full of salt and food dye into the Little Monster’s diet.
But we needed a definite answer about these hives, since it wouldn’t do to find the Little Monster unable to breathe one day while we were too preoccupied pointing the finger over why he had them.
So I took LM to the doctor, who diagnosed the rash as a skin irritation caused by something like scented laundry detergent, dryer sheets, or perfumed bath soap. The doctor waved away the notion that the allergy could cause LM’s airway to swell shut. As soon as I took the Little Monster to the doctor, the hives went away, never to return, before I changed any of the soaps. Of course.
Despite the doc’s diagnosis, MIM remained absolutely convinced that the rash was our fault. It was his medical proof that arguing is unhealthy. After a quarter century with me, he’s still not a fan of open disagreement, which his family never had. He had always told me with a sense of superiority that if there was a problem in his family when he was growing up, they would convene a Family Meeting to figure it out.
I was in awe of this method for years, clear proof that he was from more evolved stock than I, which gave him a lofty leg up in every disagreement that we had. More than a decade in to our marriage, I realized (as did he) that the Family Meeting was a sham. There was no democracy or meeting of the minds or round robin brainstorming. At the meeting, his mother would tell them all what to do, which they would obediently do after the meeting. Thus, there was never any disagreement. Like forty toothbrushes, voila!, problems solved. Then they would triumphantly and quietly go to the mall to buy bland decorations, bland clothing, and bland food. Thence they would return to a quiet home with no music or books.
My family, on the other hand, is vocal, whether happy or mad. Whereas MIM’s family would silently and stealthily not discuss the real problem, my family would loudly and dramatically not discuss the real problem. There would be stomping, yelling, crying, swearing, and slamming of doors. After we’d had enough of not solving the problem and not ever acknowledging the real issue, we would drink, swear, and laugh, feeling smug while boisterously reassuring ourselves that the rest of the world is made up of idiots. We then don loud clothing, make room on the messy table to eat spicy kim chee with Cheez-its and Gallo wine, and Dad blares free jazz on the radio and shouts out obscure time signatures.
Now that I’m a mother, I could become a huge fan of MIM’s mother’s method: everyone else should shut up and do as I say. Hm, tempting. Problem is, this doesn’t work so well down the road. Now that MIM is grown, the jig is up, and now MIM’s family is all about tense undercurrent and smug backstabbing of the offending party (always a female in-law).
At one of our first meetings with the Little Monster’s DSHS social worker four years ago, she voiced her concern, while she and LM’s current foster mother stared pointedly at me, that “family of origin issues” would very likely arise within a year of parenting to bite us all in the ass (not her exact words). MIM was like a rock star at those meetings, with his better fetchins as painted in our Home Study and his advantage of having the only beard in a room of nurturing women. The social worker also voiced her concern that I didn’t talk enough. True, I am likely the most quiet Munro, but my tartan is disgraced by the accusation.
Once again, I’d made the mistake of total honesty (which Munros are maddeningly devout about), and my clan, with its history of boisterous communication styles and alcoholism, didn’t look so hot on the Home Study. I had not sugar-coated my brothers’ troubled teenaged years, which seemed to prove that my family’s dysfunction was ruinous. The irony is that despite a different upbringing, MIM’s troubled teenaged years were an exact photocopy of my brothers’. The difference is that my family has a good memory (which we are happy to use against anyone who has wronged us) while his has amnesia. Plus they are sneakier…his parents still don’t even know about what MIM and his brother were really up to as teenagers, and none of that was in the Home Study.
My family is operatic, while his is a silent film, so both are histrionic in their own way. Neither is perfect, both are dysfunctional (I’d like to meet a family that isn’t), yet both sets of parents maintained long-term marriages and raised three successful children who contribute to society and are in stable relationships. So who is to judge?
But guess what? The social worker was right. Only she got the wrong family of origin. MIM’s family began to self-combust within three months of the Advent of the Little Monster and completely fractured within two years, because they didn’t agree with MIM’s parenting style but couldn’t talk about it (so, according to proud tradition, they blamed the female in-law, lucky me).
MIM’s tolerance of loud drama has increased with the Advent of the Little Monster, who is so talented at loud drama that he will someday be on a stage, bringing down the house.
With the proof in the pudding that the communication style of MIM’s family hasn’t turned out so well, I felt that it would be healthy to start disagreeing in front of the Little Monster—but in a style somewhere in between what MIM and I had grown up with. LM needed to learn that people could disagree without showing contempt, hurling insults, or hitting each other—which is all he’d seen—and that people could be angry yet still love each other and not get violent or leave. The women’s movement, among others, has shown us that healthy anger can show belief in oneself and the right to be treated with respect, and it can bring about positive change. LM had seen only two extremes: the “shut the fuck up, you fat bitch, here’s a taste of my fist” view and the other extreme of us, the forever mom and dad who never, ever disagreed, which leads to the idea that happy relationships are magic, not hard work full of discussion and compromise.
But since the hives, MIM and I still can’t agree on whether or not to disagree in front of the Little Monster.
So for now we’ve agreed to disagree.
The Strangler Fig: Stories by Jennifer D. Munro
Now on Kindle at Amazon.com
Six sensual, darkly fantastic tales that reimagine classics such as Dorian Gray, Helen of Troy, and The Yellow Wallpaper. The Erotica Writer’s Husband & Other Stories author turns to a darker eros with her new collection of haunting and magical tales, which have appeared in various fantasy, horror, and literary anthologies.
Cover image courtesy of Rhonda “Shellbelle” Renee © 2009, ShellbellesTikiHut.com