by Elizabeth Zelvin
Thank goodness my husband and I have learned to get along together in time to be cooped up together in our New York City apartment during the pandemic. It could have been disastrous, even dangerous, because we both agree that we’re completely incompatible. I thought a new tank top billed by the retailer as dove gray had a purple tint to it.
“It’s green,” he said.
“Green!” I said. “You’re out of your mind. It’s your Irish eyes.”
He didn’t say a word in retaliation about my being Jewish because then I would have accused him of being anti-Semitic.
Luckily, we joke about what we used to fight about. Not ethnicity, we really are kidding about that. But we fought about money, the kids (his and mine, also incompatible), which of our exes was more impossible, which of our mothers held a grudge more tenaciously—all the usual inflammatory issues. Now we have excellent conflict resolution skills. We’d better: it’s taken us forty-four years together to be able to negotiate our differences calmly—as I said, just in time for the pandemic.
Plenty of couples can’t do this. They don’t know how to do the work, or one longs for a more harmonious relationship but doesn’t have a willing partner, or—one of my theme songs as a shrink who also writes murder mysteries—thinks life would be perfect if only the other person would change. I read and watch a lot of material about relationships that lead to murder—in only a few of which the murderer and murderee are cooped up together, as so many of us are, thanks to COVID-19—and I spend a lot of time gnashing my teeth and tearing my hair on the sidelines. I’m like the audience at the traditional British pantomime, where the TSTL Principal Boy is about to get knocked over the head, and the spectators shout, “Look behind you! Look behind you!” which of course Aladdin or Prince Charming fail to do.
“No!” I cry. “Walk away! Can’t you see he’s dangerous?”
Or, “Don’t believe him! He’s lying the way he always does.”
Or, “Get a therapist, moron. Stop bellyaching. And while you’re at it, lay off the booze and try an AA meeting.”
As a therapist, I don’t call anyone a moron. I don’t give advice. I don’t tell anyone to leave. It’s their decision to go or stay. I don’t say, “Stop complaining.” I get paid for letting them complain. But I can suggest a couple of ways to avoid potential mayhem.
Forget the word “should.” Completely. Sentences that begin, “You should” are by definition toxic and inflammatory. “He should” and “She should” express expectations of your partner that are, as a popular saying puts it, “premeditated resentments.l “I should” is even worse; it’s a formula for low self-esteem that can set you up to be either the victim or the bully.
Holding onto a grudge is not a virtue. Some people never get it. I wasn’t kidding about my husband’s mother and mine. We’ll never agree on whether a Jewish mother or a Catholic mother is the better grudge-holder. Instead, we’ve learned that neither of us has to win.
When you stoke a fire over this stew of past resentment and keep it simmering for years, any chance spark can ignite it. In an already abusive relationship, it can get ugly fast.
Here in New York, during the pandemic, murders are down by 25 percent, but domestic violence is up. People confined to their homes have nowhere to go when the pressure starts to rise. Not everyone even has a door to slam when tempers fray and being able to put a bit of distance between you might make all the difference.
New York’s Governor Cuomo has us calling this moment out of time the Pause. He says “lockdown” is for snipers and school shootings. It’s a good reminder not to behave like snipers or school shooters. Instead, we pause. We remember we love each other. Maybe we’ll be stronger, wiser, and closer when this is over and the new normal emerges.
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