My husband, Jeremy, does this thing with envelopes. He always asks if we have any, even though I’ve shown him where they are a hundred times. They’re on the shelf with the other stationery items, near the pens, just above the photographs of our children that we have duplicates of but still can’t throw out and menus that we also haven’t thrown out. They’ve been kept there for decades, in skinny ledges that resemble mail slots. A complete stranger to our home, casting around the room, would immediately detect that this was the ideal envelope-holding situation. Doesn’t matter. Every time my spouse needs to mail something, he says, “Do we have any envelopes?”
On the surface, it seems such an innocent question, and the answer so easy: “Yes, sweetheart. They’re on the shelf, near the pens.” But it makes me want to put stones in my pocket and walk into the ocean. Or even better, take them out and throw them at him.
Everything about his inquiry enrages and depresses me. Why can’t he learn where they are? Why is his attention so much more precious than mine that I have to answer this every time? His whole passive-aggressive approach, “Do we have any envelopes?” is even more infuriating. He’s not asking, “Could you get me an envelope?” That would mean facing up to the fact that he has never bothered to learn a basic housekeeping fact. That would mean acknowledging that he is treating his spouse like his personal assistant. That would mean clearly spelling out that what he really wants is for me to get him an envelope.
“Do we have any envelopes?” is what my spouse says. What I hear is “Whatever I’m doing right now is vital, even if it’s just random postage tasks. You, on the other hand, can’t possibly be doing anything worthwhile. Bringing me the office supplies that are in the shelves behind me if I would just turn around and look is the kind of trivial scut work right in line with your abilities.”
How did this happen? I love this man. I have loved this man for years. I’ve never met anyone like him. He makes beautiful things, whether they are buildings or meals or children or adventures. He’s handsome and strong and great in bed. He’s patient and stoic. He makes up hilariously implausible theories about phenomena with very normal explanations and persists in pushing them in the face of overwhelming evidence. We have had two and a half decades of mostly happy coexistence. I’d be lost without him. So why does a small imperfection such as this set me off?
Because of familiarity.
Familiarity is what you have when all the new relationship excitement has burned away like the boosters on a rocket and you’ve moved into an orbit in which there are few surprises. It’s what comes after the deep late-night talks about your hopes have been replaced by negotiations on who is picking up the kids, when a relationship is more commute than adventure, more meal planning than dining out. The natural by-product of every marriage, it is, in many ways, a wonderful thing, like broken-in shoes. But it can be a huge drag and, if not handled well, can start to lead beyond boredom and frustration to far darker and more destructive territory. Familiarity is renowned as the ideal breeding ground for contempt, the most noxious beast in the marital jungle.
A friend told me she knew she had to leave her husband when she began to bristle at the way he ate pasta. He crunched it somehow; she could hear it from clear across the room. It set her on edge. She’s not alone; psychiatrist Phil Stutz has said that the beginning of the end of the relationship is when one partner is disgusted by the other partner’s mouth. There’s a neurological condition known as misophonia in which otherwise trivial sounds trigger anxiety and stress. Neuroscientists believe that when sufferers hear their trigger sounds, the part of the brain that controls subjective emotions—disgust, fear, sadness—is also activated. My friend’s ex-husband wasn’t eating pasta loudly; the noise of it was triggering the disgust she was already feeling toward him.
The Chewing-Noise Divorce made more sense to me when I came across a small but interesting 1980s experiment in which some trained observers were placed in couples’ homes to observe and make note of only positive exchanges. The couples they were watching were also trained to record their own positive interactions. Happy couples came up with data that closely matched the researchers’ about how many good moments they’d had. Those who were unhappy recorded only half as many. A full 50 percent of the communications that the researchers had regarded as positive, the unhappy couples saw as negative.
Another friend of mine also had a problem with a carbohydrate. She complained her husband gave her the end piece of the loaf—the crust, the part that nobody wanted. It turned out that in his family, that was considered the best part. What he assumed was an act of generosity, she took as a sign that she wasn’t worth soft bread. Why on earth would her husband want her to have the worst piece of bread? A psychologist at the University of Oregon, Robert Weiss, called this “negative sentiment override.” It’s where our negative feelings override our cognitive abilities and we interpret our spouse’s statements or behavior (or maybe eating noises or sharing habits) in the darkest possible way, even if they are neutral or positive. It’s the opposite of seeing things through rose-colored glasses.
The truth is, except in extremely rare circumstances, your spouse is not out to get you. Nor, probably, to deliberately irritate you. I know it’s sometimes hard to believe this. No rational person could believe my spouse can’t remember where envelopes are kept. But I have come to find his inquiries amusing. The man simply lives in a stationery-free world. His inability to recall the whereabouts of paper goods, I’ve realized, is not actually a reflection of what he thinks of me. It’s a reflection of what he thinks of envelopes. And now I almost think of it with fondness, this postal incompetence. It’s like the birthmark on his chin, a harmless idiosyncratic blemish. (I suppose it doesn’t hurt that we rarely need to send letters anymore.)
This realization was made as plain as a manila envelope to me when I began to think about familiarity as adhesive rather than abrasive. Therapists have long known that couples who see themselves as joined, as partners engaged in a common enterprise, not just as individuals who liked the way the other made them feel, were able to be more forbearing. In fact, Carl Whitaker, one of the godfathers of family counseling, used to compare the family unit to a sports team that’s been playing together for a long time: Everyone knows one another’s moves, so they’re powerful in their connectedness. That’s why some teams are better than others.
With a team mentality, it’s much easier to do things that you find tedious. That’s where the phrase “taking one for the team” originates. Baseball players hit the sacrifice fly, ice-
hockey players draw a penalty, domestiques in a cycling team wear themselves out pulling their lead rider to the front of a race. They do this not just because they like the particular athlete whom they are advancing but because they want the team to do well. The team is the point. In the same way, there is your lover and then there is the partnership you have made together, which has its own value. You’re not just there for him or her or you but also for some third thing that exists beyond the two of you. And when people think of themselves as part of a team like that, it’s easier to respect teammates, to want to work with them and to not find them grating.
This kind of “relationship thinking,” as it’s called, is key to a long and happy-ish union. Yes, our spouses should delight us. But delight is not shelf-stable like baked beans; it’s like soufflé—amazing while it lasts, but impossible to hang on to. We may have longed to marry our partners and dreamed of all the time we would get to spend with them, but once we get to live with them, we adapt and yearn for something else. We return, more or less, to the level of contentment we had before we married. People think marital bliss is like floating down a river without a care in the world. They’re right, but only in that, pretty soon, someone is going to get bored or restless and decide to rock the boat. The only way to get somewhere is to figure out how to row as a pair.
Recently my husband was cooking while I was paying bills in another part of our home. “Hey,” he called out, standing less than two feet from the pantry. “Do we have any more peppercorns?” Here’s the thing about familiarity, I reminded myself: It’s impossible to have family without it. I went and found the peppercorns. They were in the pantry.
Adapted from Marriage-ology: The Art and Science of Staying Together, Copyright © 2019 by Belinda Luscombe. Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. This excerpt originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Marie Claire.