After only one date and five weeks, mostly apart, my husband and I were married. It was a kind of storybook ending, falling in love and tying the knot so quickly. We came from different countries, different cultures, different languages. He’d grown up poor in war-ravaged Austria. I’d grown up surrounded by money, safe in the U.S. And yet, something inextricably fused us together like a bolt of lightning striking sand. Although we never could explain it we certainly felt its power and beauty.
But we quickly learned that being married is not the same as being in love. Marriage is work. You don’t just fall into it. Thorny and often perplexing issues can rear up without any warning.
The fight we had over 40 years ago is as clear in my mind today as if it happened yesterday. It was the moment that I learned to listen more, ask questions and be less reactive.
It All Started With Fudge
It was about one year into our marriage, and I had just finished making a pan of fudge. After cutting it into small squares I ate one piece and placed the pan on the kitchen counter before I left our rented townhouse to run some errands. Upon my return, the empty pan was now in the kitchen sink.
Since I’m not a believer in ghosts, I suspected human intervention. And the only human on site was my husband. As I put away the groceries, I fumed silently and also wondered how he could eat a whole pan of fudge so quickly. He wasn’t even a sweet tooth kind of guy. What happened to my fudge? And then he appeared.
“What did you get?” he asked, rummaging through the one remaining unpacked grocery bag.
“Where’s my fudge?” I stood hands on hips facing him as he looked up from the paper bag.
“I threw it away.” He said casually, pulling a plastic container of raspberries out of the bag.
“I threw it away.”
“Why?” I was now more than silently fuming and it was obvious.
He looked a little startled, as if for me to question what he’d done was an offense against him. He shrugged. Which really set me off. It was as if he was dismissing me.
“I’m asking why you threw the fudge out. Can’t you give me an answer?”
“I didn’t like it,” he said it as matter-of-factly as if he had tossed out an old newspaper.
“Well,” I started to explain, “I didn’t make it for you. You don’t even like sweets. I made it for me.”
“It wasn’t good,” he said and turned to leave the kitchen.
A Switch Flipped
“Wait a minute.” My voice was shaking by then. And loud. I was on the brink of screaming. “It was good. I had a piece. Anyway I didn’t make it for you. What right do you have to throw away something I worked to make for myself?”
“What are you making such a fuss about? It’s just a pan of candy.” I didn’t pick up on it at the time but he sounded a bit defensive. So he was digging in.
“But I made it. For me. And you threw it away without even asking me. Like I’m not here at all. There are two of us in this marriage. And we each count equally. Don’t you realize how this makes me feel?”
He looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. I was so exasperated. Didn’t he get that this was about more than a tray of fudge? I wanted to slap him to get his attention. Instead I raised my balled up fists in the air and uttered a guttural grrrrr sound.
“What is the matter with you?” he asked, but not in a concerned way, in a dismissive way. Like if a woman gets upset a man has every right to question her mental balance.
“There’s nothing wrong with me. There’s something wrong with what you did. Don’t you see that? You did something that hurt my feelings because it seems like you just don’t care that there’s someone else in this marriage.”
“Calm down,” he said and made that infuriating gesture with both palms facing down as if he was teaching a reluctant dog some trick.
Of course this just kicked my ignition switch into high performance and I yelled at him, “Don’t you see me here? Can’t you get that I have needs too, that I count as much as you? Why are you being so obtuse about this? Can’t you admit you did something thoughtless and apologize?”
My hands were shaking and I started pulling at my hair. I was fast losing control and becoming nothing but a ravaging storm. I threw a Kleenex box across the room and started pacing up and down the small kitchen as if I’d been locked in a cage. He reached out to grab me, but I shoved his hand aside, tears streaming down my face and my fingers reflexively running aimlessly through my hair.
“Calm down,” he said again and this time there was an edge of fear in his voice.
I knew I was acting irrationally, but by then I was beyond being able to control myself and I raged on. So he grabbed his car keys and physically shoved me out the door and into the passenger seat of his car. I sat there blubbering and running my fingers through my hair and repeating, “Why can’t you just apologize? Why is that so hard?”
A Turning Point
He got in and started the car. As we pulled away he said, “I’m taking you to the emergency room. They can give you something to calm you down. This is not normal.”
This only set me off on a new tirade, and I climbed into the back seat, screaming that I wouldn’t get out of the car until he apologized. He drove. I was hoarse from screaming by the time we were half way to the hospital. Without warning he pulled the car over to a large gravel area by the side of the road and stopped. He just sat there holding the steering wheel. I gasped for breath in the back seat. And then he turned to face me, and I saw that he was crying. He looked so forlorn that I stopped gasping and stared at him.
“It was too rich,” he said. “The fudge was too rich for me. And you’re too rich for me. I’ll never be able to give you everything you already had. You’re just too rich.”
My mood shifted instantaneously. I reached up and touched his face, and he leaned into my palm.
We sat there and talked for a long time. About his family and my family and what had brought us together. What money meant to him and what it meant to me. What “rich” really was to us. And how we would face our future together.
We had other disagreements, heated exchanges, times in our marriage that tested our commitment but we always came back to the same place. We had learned from my pan of fudge that talking and understanding the other partner’s feelings was the way forward out of conflict and into resolution.
Forty-four years later, we’re still talking.
This essay was written by LB Gschwandtner, the author of four adult novels, one middle-grade novel, and one collection of quirky short stories. She lives on a tidal creek in Virginia with her husband of 44 years. Her latest coming-of-age book, The Other New Girl, follows two new girls at a Quaker prep school and the aftermath when one of them disappears. Connect with LB at www.lbgschwandtner.com.