I have a theory on one thing that makes marriage really, really hard sometimes. It’s just one thing — not the thing — and again, it’s just a theory. I’ll tell you what I think, and you tell me if you agree. I’d like to call this one thing the false promise of a “sexy problem.” Let me explain.
Coming of age in the very early ’90s, my formative years were influenced by television more than I care to admit. The computer of 1990 had so very little to offer the delicate and still-forming synapses of a young mind. It held no weight. No water in that well (my, how times have changed). But the television — well, that was a whole other story.
I still remember the drill: My brother and I, after dinner and homework and showers, would race to the family room at 8:00 sharp, Monday through Thursday, to watch the evening’s “line-up.” There we would stay on our respective perches — me curled up on the couch among pillows and blankets, my brother stretched out on the rug — absorbing all these messages about what our lives would probably start looking like in a few short years. If we were to do this whole human existence thing right, it seemed we should be preparing ourselves to jump into an utterly exhilarating fray of drama and angst and sex and hi-jinks just waiting beyond the walls of our little home, beyond the streets in our neighborhood, a bit beyond our current circumstance — somewhere “other,” yet reachable and, apparently, inevitable. I could hardly wait!
While my brother was likely more interested in the half-hour sitcoms, I was a devotee of the Church of 90210. Brandon and Brenda. Kelly and Donna. Dylan. Hell, even slightly weird David Silver — these teenagers were it. The clothes, the cars, the houses, the day-to-day comings and goings punctuated by parties and palm trees and beautiful bodies and great hair. It was the epitome of cool — I loved to watch it all unfold.
My most favorite scenes, however, were always those that showcased the latest developments in whoever’s dating relationship. I still vividly remember a particularly “important” exchange between Brenda and Dylan: She, in a chunky, Autumn-at-the-beach sweater and eye-grazing bangs; he, with his sideburns and rolled-up sleeves and scarred left brow. They sat in his vintage car, parked on the sand in front of a low tide. They made out against the lyrical backdrop of REM’s Losing My Religion (oh, the foreshadowing). She digresses — something to the effect of it all being “too much.” He brings her close to his chest, trying to calm her fears (he’s so sensitive!), but then pulls away to make an impassioned pitch in favor of eschewing her parents’ wishes and continuing to have taboo sex with him (oh thank God he’s not THAT sensitive — perfect! And better yet, he WANTS her. Like, a lot). She breaks it off anyway. Fists are slammed into steering wheels. Tears are shed. The music swells louder as the scene fades to black.
Well, now, if this was what I could expect of my first real relationship with an almost-man — sex and conflict and tears and kissing and dramatic negotiating and being wanted and being expected “of” and expected “to,” all moving to the poetry of Michael Stipe — well count me IN. In like Flynn, baby! Nothing speaks to a young girl’s heart more than the potential to be smack dab at the center of a series of such sexy problems.
So, 90210 really planted the seed. And then thirtysomething watered it.
I didn’t watch it often, but every now and then I’d stay up beyond what was appropriate for a school night and take in the first half-hour of thirtysomething. Couples, all in various stages of commitment, lived out their slice-of-life trials and tribulations in some Philadelphia suburb. They were all attractive, they were all successful, and the conflict that fueled the movement of the show from beginning to crescendo to end was all — here it was again — sexy.
I especially focused on Hope and Michael, because their marriage seemed the most intact. They were what I pretty much expected to be one-half of someday. So I watched them closely, and this is what I learned:
A falling-apart fixer-upper house? Sexy.
Sure, contractors failed to show when scheduled, drywall cracked and crumbled into their morning Sanka, and bathrooms with leaky pipes and dated tile made evening baths and morning showers harried. But the chaos always seemed to serve as a vehicle for creating the kind of little “married moments” I was growing to envy: Cramped quarters in the kitchen? Why, simply a great excuse for Michael to slide thisclose behind Hope, grazing her neck with his five o’clock shadow, the big of his hand on the small of her back, while making his way to the toaster. Leaky toilets? Why, no more than a reason for Michael to be in the bathroom while Hope soaked away in the tub, he checking the flushing mechanism while calling out over his shoulder to contribute (contribute!) to the conversation, while she stretches a very long and very toned leg over the tub’s ledge, preparing to shave.
A near-toddler-aged baby? Sexy, of course.
Little Janey was little more than a prop, anyway. When she did demand screen time, it was usually just a writer’s ruse to make Michael have to wait for sex. And of course, this made him want and appreciate (appreciate!) Hope even more when she came back to bed. Having just tended to their little one, Hope suddenly became more than a warm and available body — she became a woman that someone else (even if just a baby) needed. She became someone whose attention and affection, because it could be so easily parsed in two at a moment’s notice, was worth vying for. Vying for. Sigh….
Work stress — of the “holy-shit-if-we-lose-this-big-client-we’ll-have-to-close-the-agency” ilk? You guessed it. Super, duper sexy.
I mean, clearly the threat of a layoff always serves to bring couples closer together. There Hope would be, an anchor of calm and reason, sitting propped against pillows, her freshly scrubbed face betraying not a wrinkle of worry as Michael paced the floor. Of course, he would eventually pause to look at his wife, which would (again, of course) give him a temporary reprieve from the stress of it all. And then he’d go to her, and rest his head across her lap, and make some real insightful comment while she stroked his hair.
So….this notion of being married and facing tough choices and less-than-ideal circumstances was incredibly appealing to me. I actually preferred to play out perceived rough patches in my future marriage whenever I’d daydream about “someday.” Because I “knew” how it would all go down:
I, in my chunky Autumn-at-the-beach sweater and eye grazing bangs would, likely in a moment of adorable female angst, say something to only slightly set said future husband off. Just enough for him to remember how much he actually cares for me once he stopped punching the steering wheel of his vintage car. We’d spend the next morning negotiating mirror and sink time in our charmingly dilapidated bathroom, him trying to figure ways to get accidentally-on-purpose closer to my neck and the small of my back, me totally knowing it. Duh. Later that night, after reasoning through the facts of the matter, we’d together discover — calmly and while each of us sported his pajamas (him in the pants, shirtless, me in the button-down-shirt, pantless — oh, yeah, because he of course has great abs and I have those long, toned legs. Duh again) — that no, losing the big client won’t cost you your job, it will just make things a bit “tight” for a while. But we’ll manage. I’ll offer to clip coupons and give up lunches out with the girls, and he’ll smile and say that’s not necessary, he’ll give up his gym membership. And then the baby will cry, disrupting the sex that I probably would have not liked that much because he was going to be selfish about it, but, because of that prop of a baby, I come back to bed to find a contemplative, appreciative man. Oh yeah, and some Morrissey song is playing all day, while it’s all happening. And end scene.
Okay, so , any of you who are married know that this notion of mine was just a house of cards, waiting for the first breeze to blow and knock it all down.
I have been married for more than 12 years now. Hurricane gale forces have rendered all 52 cards MIA.
There are no “sexy” problems. I repeat: no sexy problems. And with each passing (or lingering) problem I encountered in my marriage’s early years, I grew increasingly aware that I was ill-prepared for the reality of being bound for better or for worse to this one man. Even his great abs were no match for the leaky pipes and the crying babies; I could not have cared less about those abs when I was jolted awake for the 11-thousandth time in one night by a newborn in dire need. And no matter how toned my legs (not very, btw), nothing could detract from the wrinkled raisin eyes I was sporting thanks to lack-of-sleep. I’m sure my husband wasn’t completely enthralled with me either. Oh, and while we’re at it, having been through many a home renovation project, I can assure you that drywall falling out in chunks above your head does NOT make one wish their spouse would slide up close behind them to graze their shoulders with his or her chest. God, no! Such unnecessary touching feels remarkably clumsy and completely annoying. And agitating and murdery.
As for the incredible bone-crushing stress that haunts a house when the husband can’t find peace at work…..oh, that one is particularly bad. Late nights “discussing” work rarely happen, as real-life husband is not as communicative as fake-life husband. There is no head-resting or hair-stroking as real-life husband prefers to swallow his stress like a jagged pill and go to sleep stoic and quiet, leaving real-life me to lie awake listening to the crickets and the frogs outside my window, staring ahead into the darkness wondering how long before the days inside our home will return to a normal cadence. Blinking back tears at the thought of my babies being at the mercy of our adult situation that was not meticulously scripted by a professional writer who knows that it all will end well by the end of the season. No, there are no professional writers here. No actors or producers or good lighting guys who can make things look sexy even when they aren’t supposed to be. This is real, real, alarmingly real life. And nothing can really prepare you for it, especially if you got most of your expectations for “how things go” from tv (or from books or movies or fleeting glimpses into only the good parts of other people’s lives). Yikes.
So, what do you think? Are we unwittingly corrupted by false notions fed to us by media or other sources? Do we expect things we shouldn’t? Are we using a faulty compass? How does this happen? Are women more susceptible to this than men?
Oh and for the record, and for a return to a little levity, even Michael Steadman couldn’t stay sexy: