Friday, 1 October 2010

He said... and then she said.... and then I said

Last night I had an argument.

Among many other things, my husband and I discussed what we each wanted in our lives that we don't already have.

I said repeatedly that I had what I wanted, and that the happiness of the children came first. He accused me of being dishonest about my real needs and wants, which were to keep writing and publish. He said that he thought I would be a better mother if I were a happier mother, satisfying more of my career aims. I pointed out that I would be doing this, were it not necessary to bring in an income. This meant failing my ideals on two counts: not being there for the children, and not being there to write. Three counts: I really hate it when the house gets messy.

I explained that this was a conflict which I had to live with, but maintained that I care more about the children's development and happiness than my own ambition.

He said that if all there was to look forward to was living with one's conflicts, then what was the point of trying to resolve them — effectively we just live a lie.

Now, the fact that my husband is descended from the line of Kierkegaard shouldn't necessarily influence debate here, but I was struck by the either/or nature of his logic. He found it impossible to accept that I was describing a world of multiple choices, in which one, in effect, has no alternative but to pursue multiple aims simultaneously, dealing with the emotional conflicts that this produces.

When we have arguments I think the following happens. I dislike uncertainty, and will go out of my way to avoid it: planning, framing, drawing lines under, clarifying, hunting, deciding, judging. In fact many of these activities are part of writing, albeit the bit that happens at the end, the editing.

But I know that this is also the kiss of death to spontaneity, risk-taking — and creativity. I also know that even in my quest for certainty, I myself don't think in straightforward ways — I constantly hold opposing views in my head and battle them out; I'm constantly drawn to different desires that can't marry up. This bubbles up until I am like the angry fascist, projecting my inner fears out onto others, the house, the children, my husband. In the service of writing, it is the drive that makes me finish something I start.

So I struggle with my own need for order, certainty, and endings. My husband, on the other hand, is more confident about taking risks in the service of dreams and ambitions. This drive makes him blind to the complex consequences of the risk-taking. He doesn't see the detail, so he isn't held back by it. He thinks "we'll cross that bridge when we get there". I am already straddling three bridges and worrying about the fourth.

Paradoxically, his risk-taking attitude also blinds him to multiplicity, the sense that life functions in several dimensions at once, especially in a family, and it denies him the ability to live with that. His drive actually makes his view of life a series of either/or, linear decisions. Yet he is a more creative thinker than I am — or perhaps more singleminded in his protection of his creative thinking, where I allow myself to be distracted.

So we are in apparently opposite camps, he with his risk-taking drive serving one kind of creativity, but not enabling creative living; me with my drive for order and certainty, which runs the risk of crushing my capacity to live creatively in multiple dimensions. This makes us compatible, and it also makes us fight.

We are both rehearsing our fears about the future: he, that we will sink into complacent, dull, middle class routines, me, that we will put the financial future of our family at risk with his uncertain career dreams. Each of our basic attitudes, the ones that need to be dusted off and challenged from time to time, are threatened by the other's. But we also need the other's basic attitude to jog us out of our comfort zones. Husband needs the details, I need the dream.

So we have arguments. Over the years, we have developed a list of items which habitually come up, and form a narrative of the decisions we have made together which have provoked our greatest fears, like a zip. The zip goes up.... we are arguing about money, the future, pensions, schools, happiness, jobs, ambitions. The zip comes down.... we are able to talk without heat about the very same subjects.

I feel that we are like babes in a wood. We know that we must cleave together in the face of life's storms, and most of the time we do. But we both also reject this from time to time, perhaps because we made our own way in life, seeking singular aims, until we met. We both made families out of our friends. I have been more than reluctant to accept that marriage is somehow a substitute for friendship. Over time I have come to appreciate this, slowly and painfully. My life has, as my husband fears, shrunk to a narrow, routinized round of duties and obligations, which of necessity excludes the engaged polyphony of my former life. There are pleasures within that tightly-bounded life, but they shift from day to day. They are labile, volatile things: the ephemera of mood and a dance of needs.

My husband and I make our baby steps forward, full of uncertainty about the future, conflicted about the present, where it is so hard to remain happily, and troubled by the past, its shadows, its ferocious models, its edicts.

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