Getting- And Staying-Hitched

Look at those two crazy kids.

Look at those two crazy kids.

After Valentine’s Day last week, I started thinking a lot about marriage.  About yours, mine and those that surround us.  About the neurochemistry in our brains that causes two people to click.  About how marriage looks in the suburbs.  About the future of marriage as we know it.  I mean, is it important at all to even be married?  And most importantly, to me anyway, what it takes to keep a good thing going.

Recent brain science tells us some pretty cool stuff about coupling and why we are drawn to our partners.  There are four personality types as defined by preeminent “love” researcher, Helen Fisher, a bio-anthropologist at Rutgers University.  There are builders, who are focused on family and who they know.  There are explorers, who thrive on adventure and doing.  There are negotiators, whose passion is introspection and who are interested most in feelings and finally, directors whose focus is intelligence and thinking it through.  (Single ladies! Or not! Find out which you are here).  Mostly we are drawn to others of the same type but apparently any type can match up and be successful if you are willing to do the work you need to do.  Like swallowing the fact that you are not right all the time.  And ignoring that irritating little thing he does with his lip when he’s looking for a parking spot.

Does it sometimes feel like things are fucked up in marriage land?  When I was growing up, people waited to have kids until they got married.  Not many parents were divorced, but the numbers seemed to go up and up as I got older.  A lot of people waited until they got married to have sex.  (I don’t know many of those people, but I know they existed.)  Also, “cougar” type couplings were pretty rare and, at the time, men were still the expected breadwinners.  None of this seems to exist anymore, which mostly is a good thing.  Nowadays (do only old people say “nowadays?”), it seems, people have babies without getting married.  Or ever planning to get married.  They get divorced and remarry all the time!  It’s not even a big deal.  Women are heads of households all over the place!  In terms of female sexuality, it’s actually women who are more turned on by novelty than men.  Really!  Is everything I was taught about marriage passe?  Am I, in fact, a dinosaur?  Are my notions of marriage quaint?  While I think lots of these things are great, why do I cling to the whole “til death do us part?”  When I look at my wedding photo, I see a much less worn version of me: my hair it’s natural brunette without a hint of gray, my smooth skin, flat pre-baby belly and my lovestruck eyes.  Hell yes, I can see how my perspective is a little, well, dated.

Now, I am going to do some cheerleading here for long-term romantic relationships, so be prepared.  Yes, “hook-ups” with someone new are exciting.  Ah the stomach flipping, the obsession, the constant checking of your messages,  the staring at each other for hours.  There’s nothing like new love.  Except, as it turns out, old love.  In new studies on long-term pairings, Helen Fisher has discovered that some of the feelings we have when we are hot on that new stud are interpreted by the brain in the very same manner as those of us who remain with our tried-and-true.  This area, known as the VTA (ventral tegmental area) , is responsible for how we respond to food, money, drugs and other highly addictive goodies.  That’s right, babe.  Everything old is new again.

In the study, people were shown photos of their long term partners.  Their brains were hooked up to see which areas lit up and bam!  Neural activity jumped in areas of the brains that process rewards, motivation, reinforcement learning and, get this, survival.  This means that the same guy who can’t get a dirty shirt into the laundry basket to save his life actually sustains your life.  Wow.  The studies also showed that these partnerships were associated with proximity seeking (wanting to be together), alleviating stress, greater calm in face of adversity and improving responses to pain. As far as sexual frequency, the long term couples’ brains equated cravings like hunger with a need for sex.  So whether you get hungry once, twice or 7 days a week, you want it.  Bad.  Now, it should be stated that the couples involved in the study were actually in love and not in one of those marriages where you wonder, “how the hell did that happen?”

Anyone who has been in a relationship for an extended period of time knows that there are ups and downs.  Sometimes the spark gets dull.  And sometimes it is hot.  All long term relationships go through this, and it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of a relationship that stands the test of time.  After all, don’t the lows make you appreciate the highs even more?  Sometimes I think how great it would be if we were back to the time when we first met, with all the new gooey love.  Not being able to sleep or eat!  Sheer in-loveness!  Staying in bed all day! Starting a movie at 10 pm!  Sometimes I feel nostalgic for, even envious of new love.  But I wouldn’t trade our now for our then; looking at the fabulous humans we created, the home we built together and the wool socks-flannel wearing-cozy-newspaper reading on a Sunday morning-kind of love we have now.  So what that we are relics?  I’d do it all again.

You're the one I want to be with for all the days to come.

You’re the one I want to be with for all the days to come.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen for the beautiful photos in this post.  

Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect After All

I'm thinking about perfection and how I am far, far from it.

I’m thinking about perfection and how I am far, far from it.

Think about all the things you know that are perfect.  The sway of long grasses in the breeze.  The way the sun rises day after day without your even asking.  The symphonic sound of the ocean beating the shore.  The crisp red color of a blooming rose.  Throw in the the looks of your house on a Monday morning and the whole thing goes to shit.  Here in my suburban home, I hear lots of my friends and neighbors talking about how overwhelmed they are, and they use cataclysmic words to describe it, like “hellish,” “killing me,” and “horrendous.”  See, I think we are all trying to get the brass ring, the holy grail of perfection.  And it’s making us all a tad insane.

So, I used to think I couldn’t be a perfectionist because I was so inherently flawed.  I procrastinate frequently, measure myself with a somewhat unrealistic yardstick and long for a stamp of approval.  Until I realized …tah-dah!… these are the hallmarks of perfectionism.  This is not an issue for just a few of us, it’s an unsaid problem in terms of our collective suburban culture.  It’s exhausting.  I have written about this before, but let’s just come clean here and now.  I’m waving the white flag, friends.  Perfectionism is not achievement.  Not even close.

Did you ever play the game “Perfection”?  Where you had to get all the fucking shapes in the proper holes as the timer was tick tick ticking and you could never get it done in time before the whole thing popped up and scared the hell out of you? Doesn’t the suburban juggle sometimes feel that way to you?  Get the kids to school, run to work, finish that report, go to the market, clean on the fly finally making it to practice only to get scolded by the soccer coach that you forgot to bring snack?  Yikes.  At the risk of sounding like I am complaining, it feels a bit, well, overwhelming.  Aware that we are lucky to have such blessings as being able to send them to good schools and provide nutritious food, we regard these challenges as hurdles we must attempt to scale.  Did our mothers read the nutrition facts on the Wonder bread?  Doubt it.

Others have written about this preoccupation with being perfect.  Brene Brown writes:  Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because it doesn’t exist.  It’s an unattainable goal.  Then there’s Judith Warner’s 2006 “Perfect Madness” about how mothers create anxiety by obsessing over having the perfect child.  Recently, blogger Alva Noe wrote an essay on “Are You Overwhemed?  You Don’t Have To Be.”  Her assertion is that the 24 hour news cycle not only bombards us with information, it frightens us into hyper-stimulation.  She calls it the New Perfectionism.  We are sucked into thinking that the terrorists will kill OUR kids, that pesticides on vegetables are poisoning our families, that the newest and latest parenting tome is the answer to our child’s bedwetting and that our marriage could be SO MUCH better if we just adhered the following 20 bullet points.  And also, if we don’t take the bull by the horns, subsequent imperfection, anarchy and mass hysteria is ALL YOUR FAULT YOU LAZY COW.

Another book recently addressing this issue is Kaitie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives.  If you’ve never read her work, she is razor-sharp in assailing all forms of American culture. Her latest book is a collection of essays on how our culture has bent uncomfortably to the puritanical and conservative.  One of my favorite parts is how we all find the chain-smoking, bed-hopping and overtly drunken characters in Mad Men to be so damn refreshing.  Charming, even!  Sometimes, she suggests, it’s good to be bad.  To not tow the line.  To not try to be so goddamn healthy all the time.  On my recent moms-only trip, I relished the lack of structured exercise time as well as the abundance of chips and guac and margaritas.  (Don’t ask me any more about it, though.  It’s in the vault.)  It’s kind of dull to never fuck up.

Practicing being a perfect suburbanite has in fact, not led to me actually being a perfect suburbanite.  I still resist the PTA.  I often forget to send lunch money.  I wonder what other people think.  I let my kids eat macaroni and cheese more than a few times a week.  And it’s not organic.  My yard is currently overgrown and full of weeds.  I have cellulite.  I don’t throw fabulous kid parties.  As I get older, I am more likely to appreciate that Voltaire is right:  Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.  What does that mean?  For me, it means that I make a healthy lunches most of the time, and write lovey dovey notes in them a few times a year.  It means that I wear scruffy clothes and no make up to the store, but can work a cocktail dress when I want.  It means that hosting a dinner party can mean take out pizza and beer.  It means that the short walk that puts a smile on my dog’s face is better no elevated heart rate at all.  It means embracing the messy.

And, through this blog and through writing, sharing a commonality with all of you.  The suburbs.  Us.

Are you perfect?

Now THAT is perfect.

Now THAT is perfect.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen of Mt. Hood Mama Photos.  Her photos are the most perfect parts of this essay.