It's Complicated: I Am the Spouse With a Short Fuse

This is one in a series of five essays focusing on how people have navigated difficult times in some of their closest—or most critical—relationships. In this one, the writer is a self-described human pressure cooker, while her spouse is more of a quiet Instant Pot.

illustration of people in windows of apartment building

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

When I return to our grocery cart, there’s a Hubbard squash in it, lying atop the pasta and the cereal like a warty blue toad the size of a small planet. My husband and I have a mutual suspicion of winter squash. Also, a friend of ours, as a boy, once caught a glimpse of his grandfather cutting a squash with an ax and thought—for a second—that he was killing someone. “Severed heads,” my husband always whispers, gesturing at the frightening seasonal displays. And now he has snuck it into our cart to make me laugh. 

OTHER ESSAYS IN THIS SERIES:

Something has happened to us, 29 years into our romance, and I want to call it a truce. A loving, affectionate truce after decades of fighting like cats and dogs—and by “cats and dogs” I mean lions and hyenas. Specifically, a furious perimenopausal hyena with its teeth bared and a handsome lion that’s kind of blinking into the onslaught, wondering if it can extricate itself to go watch the Red Sox game. 

We are not alike, he and I. I have always used a pressure cooker, and I love its noise and steam. It boils and yells, and you always know exactly what it’s doing. When I got a newfangled Instant Pot, which attains pressure silently, which discreetly deposits collected steam in a little receptacle in the back, I hated it. “How are you ever even supposed to know what’s going on in there ?” I raged, and the human Instant Pot, the one I’m married to, smiled and shrugged.

In the car a few years ago, our daughter coolly observed, in the middle of an argument we were having, “You guys always just fight about the way you fight. It’s never even about anything.” This is true. Historically, I have gotten mad—about many different things, big and small—and my husband, otherwise the most generous, warm-hearted person I know, has flicked tiny droplets of bitter-cold apology at me. When these have failed to satisfy, he has pushed even more chilly sorries out toward me like they’re icebergs with abandoned old people on them being sent to their frozen ends. “Can you not apologize like a person with human feelings?” I have steamed at him, and he has said, calmly, “Apparently not.”

We fell in love when we were 21. I mean, in the pictures, we have actual baby fat. Then kids and cats arrived, too much work and not enough work, the usual stresses. And we have never not loved each other. But what has finally turned us into a familiar old pair of comfy slippers after so long as a familiar old pair of pinchy stilettos is, it turns out, loss. The catastrophe of friends and relatives divorcing and dying, of aging parents and lost loved ones, grief and heartache and kids launching away from us, the way grown kids are meant to do, but the leaving breaks you open. And still, it’s us, here together. 

“Why are we happier now?” I ask my husband. He thinks for a minute, says, “We’re more grateful. Quicker to let stuff go. Yeah, I’m really annoying to you, but at least I’m not dead.” This makes me laugh, but it’s strangely true. We’re like people after a war, brimming with gratitude for the boring, precious dailiness of our lives—quicker to forgive, to move forward, to feel so, so lucky that we have each other, however annoyed we may be. However imperfect. I think this is called perspective. 

We’ve been together so long that it’s like the thing they say about the dinosaurs: If your arm span is the history of the universe, T. rex came only at the edge of your outer fingernail. That’s how it feels. Someone forgetting to take the cat to the vet? It’s a moment, a sliver, nothing compared to the vastness of our lives together. “I’m sorry,” he says more quickly now, warmly, and I say, truthfully, “It’s not a big deal.”

Also? He still lives to make me laugh. He puts Disney villain stamps on our correspondence with the IRS. He puts The Who—who I hate—on my Spotify playlist. He puts a Hubbard squash in my shopping cart. A Hubbard squash might not be the typical emblem of a good marriage, but it just might be the emblem of mine. Now, in the supermarket, I am laughing. And from the next aisle over, I hear my husband laughing too.