I met my husband at a bar, and we got married five months later. In between, we spent all of our free time together caught up in the vortex of new love. The result was that our closest friends got very little time to vet each of us before we got married.
Since then, we’ve had many drinks and dinners with our respective friends. Everyone has gotten along –- laughing, drinking, teasing, sharing. I figured that after enough time together, we’d all feel like old friends. In a group setting, this looks to be the case. But one-on-one, when I say things are great, there’s an odd pause, like that isn’t enough. Then, I get more detailed questions/comments like “Do you guys fight?” or “The sex is good?” or “I feel like I don’t know him.”
I tell my friends all kinds of things about my husband, but I’ve realized that I don’t include what they really want, which are the details he wouldn’t want me to tell them. Can sharing dirty laundry really be so crucial to bonding?
Throughout my life, I’ve always existed on the lower end of the sharing spectrum when it came to relationships. The amount of disclosure was directly proportional to the amount of promise the relationship showed. With casual dating, all bets were off and all details divulged. Identities were protected using nicknames; only guys I really liked were called by their actual names. This seemed to make sense: Why would I not share everything with a friend I’ve known for years rather than keeping the confidence of a guy I’d just met?
It wasn’t just me. My friends were, naturally, somewhat across the board on this. Some who used to share everything backed off after getting married, and some started sharing more. I thought about what has always fueled our talks: fights and sex were at the top of the list.
Oh, what’s not to love about rephrasing your argument to a completely impartial best friend? You finally get to tell your side of the story to someone who actually gets you! According to math I just made up, I have logged over 5,000 hours listening to details about other people’s fights –- a number that includes about 200 hours of head-nodding, 1,000 hours trying to fix the fight, 1,000 hours jumping on the bandwagon, and 0.5 hours egging a guy’s house (not recommended).
I realized that in past relationships, when I talked to my friends about fights, I was usually doing one of two things: trying to shore up a decision (consciously or unconsciously) to bail, or procrastinating. Sometimes, I would walk away from a fight and be more intent on ranting about it to a friend than I’d been on trying to resolve the fight itself. A little disconnect would occur every time I distanced myself from the emotions my partner was expressing, and I chose instead to feel wronged, seeking out people to side with me. Eventually enough disconnect would build up that breaking it off went from inconceivable to totally doable.
The second thing I was doing was essentially procrastinating. During an argument, the problem and the two people who needed to fix it were always right there in the room. Walking away in frustration and then talking about the fight to other people was just a way of putting off hard work or making sure that it never got done.
If there weren’t enough fights to talk about, there was always sex. Having it, not having it, having too little, too much, too weird, not liking it, not liking it as much as we used to, liking it more than our partner, etc. Sometimes sharing the details felt like betrayal, but I told myself that I deserved to know if what I was experiencing was normal. As if anyone who’s satisfied has ever given a damn about “normal.”
Indifference or aversion toward sex was often the first sign that the relationship was doomed. As straightforward as that sounds, my friends and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was wrong with our libidos. Birth control pills? Exhaustion? Body image? Wardrobe? Grooming? Temperature? This meant going over a lot of detail to figure out what was wrong. The strangest thing to me now is how much time we spent trying to fix these issues without talking to our partners AT ALL. At least all of this was in the interest of trying to make it work. By contrast, sharing sex quirks was not quite so well meaning.
Which brings me to the least defendable topics –- hygiene, physical imperfections, and insecurities. I will never forget a friend who hated the smell of her ex’s balls and how she couldn’t get him to shower more often. I think back to other complaints that seemed harmless (“I am so grossed out by his toes. If they’re showing I can’t even get turned on!”) and think about how I would feel being on the receiving end (“Ugh, there’s this jiggly area under her ass that grosses me out.”). Crawl. Hole. Die.
Less brutal are complaints about habits or clothing. I feel like an idiot for not seeing this one for years. I vented about assorted, totally changeable nothings to friends and never confronted the issues directly. Now if there’s something that my husband wears or does that turns me off, I tell him and vice versa. It doesn’t happen often and it kind of sucks to jettison an outfit I thought was awesome (or worse, comfortable), but it’s way better than the alternative. I put this under the category of Sacrificing For The Greater Good: track pants = revulsion = not wanting to have sex = bad.
I’m not sure why, but sometimes we shared our partners’ vulnerability for the sake of it. I can think of only two reasons for this. One, we were caught up in the excitement of a new relationship and wanted to show how close we’d gotten: “His grandmother died and he came over and cried on my couch all night.” Two, we were dating a sociopathic douchebag and everyone knew it, but we still wanted to try and disprove it: “He saw this dead dog on the street and said, ‘Wow, that’s sad.’ See? He feels things.”
But now things are different, and I’m not the only one in my circle of friends who has made a change. For some of us, as we commit or marry, the primary relationship is the romantic one, not the friendship one. The shared intimate details decrease. Part of this is survivalism –- we’ve picked our favorite and we want him or her to be everyone else’s favorite, too. Airing complaints or working ourselves up into a frenzy of righteousness is less gratifying when you know you will go home and work it out.
The larger part is love and respect. I’m lucky enough to be in a marriage with someone who wants to work everything out. That makes a huge difference. I never feel like there is something I can’t address directly with my husband, so I’ve never gone elsewhere to work it out. I don’t have any built-up annoyances to vent about because I voice them and let them go. For better or worse, we get each other’s criticism directly.
I don’t blame my friends who now see a hole where this part of our friendship used to be. It was our vocabulary for years and what allowed us to relate. But maintaining boundaries has been pretty transformative, and I don’t see myself going back. Eventually, my friends and I will create a new normal. For now, I’ll have to be the happy, boring one.