Love or Death?

“Let’s do 36 Questions during the flight!” I proposed to my husband, Jonathan. Long plane rides were in our immediate future, as we planned to celebrate our 60th birthdays, 29th wedding anniversary, and his impending retirement with travel to Barcelona, the Pyrenees, and the Alps.

Not being a Modern Love aficionado, Jonathan had no idea what I was talking about, but he knew me well enough to be suspicious. Therapists like me are always proposing innocuous-sounding activities designed to plumb the hearts and souls, if not the unconscious, of their loved ones.

“The 36 Questions promote love and intimacy as people answer ever-deepening questions,” I explained. “You finish by staring into one another’s eyes for four minutes.”

I don’t remember Jonathan’s exact response, but it was something like, “I would rather chop off my right arm.”

So I gave him a choice.

“If you don’t want to do the 36 Questions, why don’t we both read Being Mortal, and then discuss in detail end-of-life issues?” I suggested. “After all, ‘Shoot me if it comes to that’ is hardly a plan!” I was referring to something I’d said after a particularly depressing visit to a friend with advanced Alzheimer’s, but we’d never taken the conversation much beyond mutual dread and hand-wringing.

On a cheerier note, I added, “Besides, I don’t even know your favorite color or what music you’d want at your memorial.”

Again, I don’t remember Jonathan’s exact response, but this time it was along the lines of, “I would rather chop off my right arm but first I will chop off yours if you don’t stop asking me these things.”

This hardly seemed fair, since I had agreed to go hear some guy natter on about annuities just so we could get a free dinner, which threw me off my diet for a week.

Still, a loving spouse must not hold grudges.

A loving and determined spouse must find new methods of persuasion that may or may not involve alcohol and sexual favors.

One of my methods was to forward Jonathan a podcast featuring Dr. Arthur Aron, the psychologist whose team devised the 36 Questions. He, like Jonathan, seemed a lovely and intelligent man, not some woo-woo freak.

“The questions were actually designed to promote better working relationships among colleagues! It takes just 45 minutes!” I explained, assuming this logic would somehow melt the resistance of my wary husband. Instead, it increased his dread that he’d soon have to avoid overpaid, questionnaire-wielding consultants promoting team-building at work as well as his own wife.

“Plus,” I added triumphantly, as if I had discovered the pièce de resistance for overcoming resistance, “It works best if couples do it together! We can do it with ________ and _______.”

I provide this fill-in-the-blank format not only to protect privacy, but to illustrate that you could pretty much write in the names of anyone you know, and achieve the same outcome: The vast majority of people named in at least one (if not both) of those blanks would be more willing to chop off their right arms than to take the time to answer some VERY BASIC QUESTIONS that might, just might, improve their sorry little lives! But I digress . . .

It was back to death trumping love. Thinking to enlist the help of my mother-in-law, who routinely says, “We’re counting on you to put us out of our misery when the time comes,” I told her about my Being Mortal Couple’s Book Group Idea.

“I don’t blame Jonathan one bit,” my mother-in-law said. “Why would anyone want to read that book? “

The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, does it?

With our trip just two weeks away, I was growing desperate. God forbid I should actually plow through back issues of The New Yorker and a couple of ebooks on the plane instead of threatening strengthening my marriage!

In a last-ditch ambush attempt on a lovely, long hike, I said in my best, neutral tone, “I’m curious about why you don’t want to do the 36 Questions?” (Just a few days earlier Jonathan had answered the same question about Being Mortal by declaring that he was not “drawn to death” the way I was.)

“Fine, we can do it,” Jonathan replied in a perfectly even and affable tone, depriving me of the chance to pounce on any tell-tale defensiveness.

So now the ball’s in my court. I’ve added 36 Questions to my Trip To-Do List. Shall I print them out or download the free app? (No, I am not kidding—there’s a free 36-Questions App. Several, in fact.)

Then again, maybe I’ll just catch up on my New Yorker backlog or try to catch some shut-eye during our 16-hour flight.

That might just be the best anniversary present I could give my beleaguered and beloved husband.


Which would you choose (conversationally speaking)—love or death?

Love, Actually

Green for sustainability

Green for sustainability, a little scuffed for reality

“Our lives are so boring,” my husband remarked recently. “Pretty much the same thing from one day to the next.”

“That’s why the girls have a horror of becoming us,” I replied. “And also why it’s so hard to write the holiday newsletter year after year.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jonathan continued. “I’m really happy with our lives.”

Me too.

Perhaps it’s just self-delusion, but I’ve long thought that the secret to a happy marriage is a high tolerance for boredom. Jonathan thinks the secret is watching DVDs of long-running TV shows, like Friday Night Lights. Our Friday nights consist of pizza and Netflix. Our latest addiction is The Good Wife, which has the advantage of 6 seasons with 23 episodes each. Not to mention the salutary impact of the title’s subliminal message!

Still, even Jonathan and I have our limits. So the other night we decided to shake things up a little by going to see a live one-man show at our local community theater. As soon as the lights went down and the performer appeared onstage, Jonathan’s eyes closed. I would have elbowed him awake, except my eyes closed soon after. We made our escape at intermission, and settled in for the next episode of The Good Wife.

Perhaps the natural arc of long-term love moves from rutting to rut. Couples dubbed by “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones as “appreciatively resigned” fare best with this trajectory.

We can come to appreciate some pretty strange things.

The other night, for example, I was laboring over a clogged toilet that looked as if it might defeat even Roto-Rooter. Jonathan came in and asked if he could help. I remembered a midnight years ago, same toilet, same linoleum floor, my exhausted husband cleaning up from the latest round of our daughters’ stomach flu. Back then I was inexplicably turned on watching him mop, flush, and mop again. “Is this what it’s come to?” I’d thought in despair. I couldn’t imagine anything more depressing than reviving muted passion over an overflowing toilet. How low we had sunk from the days of mutual fascination! But a wise friend saw it differently: “There’s nothing more intimate than seeing someone take such tender care of those you love.”

Those kids are gone now, leaving none of their messes to clean up. Intimacy is the glue that keeps us together. Not the intimacy of candlelit dinners and sexy lingerie, but enduring intimacy, which requires a continual process of mutual forgiveness for not remaining as exciting as when we first fell in love. We stay together precisely because we know each other’s messes, and mop up after them patiently and lovingly time and time again. Not because we have to, but because we want to take care of those we love.

And because we always look forward to the next episode.