Human behavior fascinates me. I love to observe people and wonder about what makes them tick, why they behave as they do, how their relationships developed. Not surprisingly, I once thought about becoming a psychologist, but soon realized I was more suited to the role of observer than interactor. And so I read (and write) about the intricacies of human nature, rather than attempt to help people solve their dilemmas with it.
When I first met my in-laws, I was a bit dumbstruck by the dynamics of their relationship. He, almost 20 years her senior, was paternalistic, gruff, and very conservative. She had perfected the role of disappointed woman, nothing or no one ever being quite equal to her expectations. Their interaction was almost entirely negative. They never called one another by name, and were always quick to point out the flaws in the other partner. At the time of our first aquaintance, they were nearing the third decade of their marriage, and so I wondered whether it had always been that way between them, or if it had evolved from nearly 30 years of disappointments.
My mother in law worked full time, which was a bit unusual in the 50’s and 60’s. She was an executive secretary (to use the vernacular of the times) at Ford Motor Company. As I watch the tv show Mad Men, I realize how much the atmosphere of that office mirrors her stories of working life. She always referred to herself and the other secretaries as “girls,” as in ” I was filling in for Mr. Smith’s girl while she went to lunch.” She had worked prior to her marriage, and throughout the ten years before my husband was born. When he was 2, she returned to work, leaving him with a neighbor across the street. “I guess I didn’t have to work,” she would say, “but we sure couldn’t have had the things we did if I hadn’t.”
Money was a major issue in that family, and it defined and symbolized a great deal about that most interesting relationship. It seemed strange to me, coming from a family where money was comfortably plentiful and shared with ease and grace, to see a married couple with such distinct distrust of one another in regard to finances. All monies and expenses were quite strictly divided between them, each one maintained their own private checking and savings accounts, each one kept track of their own expenses for long distance phone calls, household goods, etc. I assume the costs associated with child rearing were equally shared, but all other costs seemed to be split down the middle, in the manner of roommates.
When I recall them, there is one moment that seems to define this odd dynamic. In 1993, in the midst of my father in law’s last illness (he had been diagnosed with leukemia, and was not expected to live more than a few weeks), I was driving my mother in law home from the hospital one day.
“Do you need to stop anywhere along the way?” I asked, wondering whether she might need groceries.
“Well, I could use some stamps,” she answered. “I think he (meaning my father in law, because they always referred to one another by pronoun and not by name) has some in his desk, but he’ll have a fit if I use them.”
Wow. Even now, writing those words, I’m dumbfounded by them – that a couple could live together in marriage for almost 50 years and have the kind of relationship where they begrudge one another postage stamps.
Incidents like that remain in our memories and say so much about our lives and our selves, don’t they? They stand out to our children, our friends, defining stages in our relationships and strengths or weaknesses in our character.
In my own marriage, there are many defining moments, and I’m happy to say, with much more positive results. I’ve often wondered how Jim came to be the thoughtful, considerate spouse he is, having never had the opportunity to observe that kind of behavior in his own family.
“I determined from a very young age that I would be nothing like them,” he has told me. And he has been quite successful, in terms of treating his family with generosity, caring, and concern. In the early years of our marriage, he traveled often for his work. I hated that – hated being left alone, being unable to contact him easily (this was long before cell phones!). In 1985, he was sent to China for three weeks, and I was just devastated by the thought of him being so far away (it was actually Outer Mongolia, and phone service was spotty at best). Before he left, he arranged to have flowers delivered to me once each week, complete with cards he had written himself. I still get teary eyed when I think of that.
A lovely defining moment.
Small things in relationships speak volumes, don’t they? And the big things are even more telling.
Over the past couple of years, Jim has been unable to visit his mother…he just stopped going one day. And so I would dutifully go every week or two, even though she really didn’t know who I was. When I was tempted to be angry with him, I recalled the time 20 years ago when my parents were in the midst of their divorce – that awful time, I still think of it – and how absolutely wrecked I was by the whole thing. Jim took control, taking my mother to countless appointments with her attorney, going to court with her, when I simply could not bear it. He stepped in without a word from me, and simply handled it.
A defining moment indeed.
Because I’m interested in human behavior, tell me, what are some defining moments in your closest relationships? What are some of the defining moments you’ve observed in the relationships of your family or friends?