The problem with love is that many people mistake it for a stomach ache
Love isn’t just a feeling
Marry Her And Die For Her (Sonzogno 2013), Costanza Miriano
If there is one thing that makes me feel bad, apart from seeing a scorpion, it’s when in my fervent activity of unrequested preacher I realize I have hurt someone, most often a woman, since at the receiving end of my persecutory phone calls, bristling with gratuitous opinions, there is almost always a female (to a man with a problem you may at most give a virile slap on the shoulder, or buy him a beer, because talking to him will only make matters worse). Sometimes I happen to hurt people, I know, because I always go down a little too hard, I am as delicate as a 100-tons truck entering a narrow medieval alley. When I talk, I feel the urgency of giving the world the gift of my word, and of doing it fast, rather than prudently turning on the mode “think before talking, and pray before thinking”. It takes too long, and I am always in a hurry, because when one is saving the world, there is never enough time.
And therefore I may have happened to have pummeled too hard, passed judgment with little or no mercy, set impossibly high goals, forgot to say how hard it is for everyone, including myself, to be consistent. It may be my Prussian upbringing, the colonel-like character I got from my grandfather (“wall or no wall, three steps forward” was his motto), my reverence for the Anglo-Saxon principle never complain (even though I always explain, even too much), or – even better – the Franciscan principle of perfect happiness, but I don’t like to talk about fatigue and discouragement and doubt and the desire of laying down my head and letting myself be swallowed by a voluptuous dreamless sleep, a desire that sometimes gets me too.
I know, sometimes it looks like I’m practicing for an audition for the role of Miss Brightside (they would never pick me, my teeth are crooked and I can’t smile in front of the camera), but I do know that life is hard and full of doubts for all of us. When I asked my friend-icon of all motherhood and wifehood, exemplary spouse and mother of seven children, not to mention architect, when had she become certain that he was really the right man for her, she replied, “Never”. She has never been sure that he was the right man, not even after that deluge of little ones, not even after 25 years together, very happy years, at least seen from outside. She was even less sure during moments of crisis, which, just to be clear, happen to everyone. First because love is something magmatic, never still and never completed. Then because the right person simply doesn’t exist – we want to believe there is one simply because we like the delusion of the magic wand, of the immediate and cost-free solution, that requires no effort (a delusion I firmly maintain, and to which I owe a large bathroom cabinet full of facial creams). There is a person, of course, with whom things can work, but then there is always a free decision and a deliberate choice. God is not a sadist that watches from a window to see if by chance we pick the right one. And you might even make a mistake, but God doesn’t, and once He has blessed this union, He will know what to do with it.
The fact is that this is how it is for many, I think: love stories always begin from our fragilities, maybe they even begin cripple and crazy, and then heal little by little, year after year. And then invariably also comes the moment when there is no more wine, like at the Cana wedding, and only if Jesus Christ is among the guests there will be a new wine that will restart the party (George Clooney rarely rings your doorbell [as in the commercial], and you rarely have the opportunity to tell him, “No Martini, no party”; at least it never happened to me, but I should also point out that maybe I didn’t hear the doorbell because I was singing Roadhouse blues very loudly with my daughters).
Therefore, Gabriella, I know that when he falls asleep on the couch just when you wanted to talk about your relationship you die a little inside. I know that you have been working hard all day, smoothing edges and parrying blows at work, that you were the target of stinging remarks to which you devised fulminating replies three hours later, that you pacified tantrums and brawls at home, conquered a place at the cashier, miraculously the one with the shortest line, and then remembered that you had forgotten the flour, the reason why you had gone out in the first place, and had to go back in again and you were late, and you walked home with the weird feeling that something was missing, and this something was your car, double parked in front of the grocery store, and you were undecided whether to recover it or cook your pasta and let the tow truck scrap the car, and finally, nobody knows how, you got your wreck back and put together something to set on the table, but you still have three of the big kids’ homework to check and the bulbs for the preschool experiment to water and your probiotics to take for your digestion, although you know perfectly well how to digest, you just need to sit down and eat once in a while but you can’t, and you even asked your doctor to write you a prescription for some illegal substances because who cares if they might damage your health, you are going to die soon anyway if you go on like this. I know all this because it reminds me of someone, and I know that at some point you would like a shoulder to cry on, because at work you are as charismatic as a recycle bin and with your children you feel like you are unable to teach them anything and the house is falling apart (stop buying Architectural Digest, it gives you an inferiority complex), but you are forgetting that your husband is not a counter, he’s not a scaffold, he’s not a pillow, he’s not even a friend, nor a father. You cannot vent with him, for a very long series of reasons: first of all because his answer will invariably hurt you. In the middle of your venting he will tell you things like, “Really? You left the car double parked?” or, “Who cares about the bulbs” (whereas you are terrified by the idea that you are neglecting the youngest one, and you are sure that the preschool’s stay-at-home mothers have bought a hyacinth already bloomed just to make you feel guilty, you, a mother too multi and not very tasking).
These would even be sensible things to say, but you wish he would just listen to you without interrupting, really focused, perhaps even looking at you, and if he really wanted to exaggerate he would ask questions such as, “And how did that make you feel?” (science fiction), and then he would show amazement for all the things you accomplished, and would tell you how you are insuperably, exaggeratedly, hyperbolically the best woman on the planet. Forget it. He wouldn’t be your husband. (Anyway, in the unlikely case that a husband is reading this, please know that this is what we want, and also that we are jealous of all the other women with whom there might be even a shadow of competition, and that you should restrain from saying anything too nice about them, if possible, unless they are competing in a different discipline: showing appreciation for the female world champion of canoeing is permitted, and also for an especially skilled lace pillow embroiderer.
Moreover, everyone knows that a man tackles one problem at a time, and when he does, he wants to solve it in a practical way. For example he will give you the phone number for a grocery home-delivery service, that he found on his cell phone while you were talking, and he will probably add a very sensible reproach on why you had to buy flour to bake a homemade dessert, because you are competing in a momhood contest and refuse to go to the faith formation party with something store-bought (please know, by the way, that I am a degenerate mother and in these cases I usually show up with a giant package of watermelon-flavored gums, earning the contempt of adult females but the undying admiration of all the under-10). Or he will suggest other practical and sensible ways, unfortunately almost all of them right, to cut down the number of things to do, but you don’t want to cut anything, because you are a centralizing perfectionist and you want to keep everything under control (so that you can complain later).
Finally, one must say that men reject words as a means to solve problems, or to dissect them. They will never face our marathons of self-consciousness unless threatened with a firearm, and if they are forced to do it, a wrinkle of suffering will appear on their forehead, comparable only to the one that shows up when they talk of the infamous final of the Champions League, lost at the penalty kicks in the dawn of times.
Directions of use: call a female friend who loves you and is patient, and vent. Once vented, try to reason with a cold mind and find out whether there really is a problem to fix, or if you are simply tired. Use your imagination and creativity, find ways to make things fit, dare, be bold, ask for vacation days, give up on one front, ask for help. As soon as you can, get to praying. It would be better to do it first of all, before calling, before thinking, but everyone knows that a pluriworking multimom doesn’t pray when she needs to, but when she can. My favorite prayer in these cases is the Rosary: repetition soothes the crowded and agitated mind, and what is more Our Lady is your mom, and no one like her can carry your requests to the Father (in our house too I am the children’s advocate, and present their requests to dad), plus she’s a woman, and there are things that are easier to discuss woman to woman.
Now you are ready to welcome the help your husband can give you: he can help you solve one problem, talking, reasoning on something practical, he can see once and for all whether the family can afford you asking for a part-time, or getting someone to help in the house. He can hug you and let you sleep in his armpit without talking. You can ask him one specific thing, practical and clear, for example that he picks up your oldest from basketball practice twice a week. Allow him to be what he can be, and not everything you need, because everything you need is too much.
There is inside us, inside every woman, an abyss impossible to fill, a spasmodic need to be loved, which women need certainly more than men. This mysterious need that is never fully satisfied is a sign of her weakness, of her fragility. It is also her richness though, because that expectation means a greater willingness to answer, to say “Here I am”, like Mary, our model. This fragility can turn into the generous welcoming we may be capable of. We are, almost all of us, insecure and somewhat unhappy in our shoes, even those who don’t show it – yes, even the Amazons, the viragos, those who boss everyone around in your office – and there is only one way to quench this thirst: opening ourselves to the gaze of God. The only One who fulfills all our expectations, who answers our deepest desires.
You cannot therefore either demand nor expect all this from your husband, and when he disappoints you – who wouldn’t, with such high expectations? – please find the time to deal with God, to tell Him what you are missing, and to serve Him when you serve your husband. He will balance all your accounts, and with superabundance He will give you back everything multiplied by 100, when you have given something more, something that went without even a thank you, something nobody noticed, much less your husband, only God noticed it.
I have seen women solving things in this way, even when their husbands were severely lacking, with their absence, distance, outrageous selfishness, even betrayal. You can do it too, you who perhaps have nothing so terrible to blame him for, only these small, continuous wounds to your ever-unfulfilled expectation.
When you start with your flood of complaining, imagine that it’s raining really hard (and when you decide to rain, my friend, you rain all right). Imagine yourself in a car with the windshield so inundated by water that you can’t see a thing. Now, your husband is like the windshield wipers that wipe away your complaints. It goes back and forth, the wiper, it doesn’t seem to be doing a particularly creative job, but without the windshield wiper you’d have to stop. Your husband is offering practical solutions, you must admit it, and he helps you a lot, but when it’s time to tell you to stop, he does. He doesn’t let you drag him down to the bottom with you, with your attacks of cosmic pessimism. And when he is with you for real, without watching the screen behind you, the I-something, the newspaper, the wall that needs a coat of paint, when he does listen to you with all of himself for half an hour, for you it’s like a month: stock up on it.
By the way, why don’t you give your husband a new set of windshield wipers, since the rubber on yours is all worn out? Once in a while you may even risk to guess it right, and get him something that he really needs.
In this way you would tell him that he is indispensable to you, and you must give it to him, you’d be lost without him. You know the Chinese map-makers of Borges, who make life-size maps, with a 1:1 ratio? Well, we women make maps with a 2:1 ratio: reality, plus all the details. Because we are not content just with living. We also do the commentary, and that’s why with these maps twice as large as reality we may end up getting lost. A man, on the other hand, reduces and simplifies, makes maps with a 1:10 ratio, and sometimes he cuts, prunes, painfully truncates, in ways perhaps incomprehensible to us.
This isn’t just true for Gabriella: having a hard time and sooner or later beginning to doubt one’s choice is almost compulsory in any happy marriage. “If Americans can be divorced for ‘incompatibility of temper'”, says Chesterton, “I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.”
My spiritual director, with his deepest knowledge of the human soul, insists that the incomprehension between man and woman springs from the fact that we mistakenly believe that we are speaking the same language, but this is true only in a formal way. In fact, our languages are utterly different, and the misunderstanding comes from the fact that they appear very similar, like, for example, Spanish and Italian: you add some “s” at the end, you make slightly longer words and somehow you get on, at least with the essentials (hi, are you married? How many children would you like? Just some basic information). The difference between the female and the male language, on the other hand, is like the difference between Italian and Cantonese, a most complicated language where even the intonation changes the meaning of a word, and Cantonese is obviously the language of females. Female is absolutely impossible to translate. A man will never be able to truly understand a woman, he can only try to learn her.
This is true for the deepest needs, where misunderstandings can sometimes be the source of a lot of pain, but it is also true for small insecurities: during a conversation a man will never be allowed to completely relax. Anything he will say may be used against him, and will surely be interpreted according to the mood of the female receiver. There will be days when an innocent, “You look so good with that make up on” will be translated into: “Are you saying that I am ugly without it?”.
My husband, for example, knows that, and when I ask him, “How do I look?” he doesn’t even turn to look at me. He saves energy. He goes on automatic mode and says something generic on my extraordinary skinniness. Who cares if I just gave birth and everyone is still congratulating me because my belly looks exactly the same, who cares if I am wearing sort of a mop on my head because I ‘fix’ my haircut by myself. I am more than willing to believe him, I have no interest at all in the truth.
Sometimes, however, he gets distracted – it happens rather easily to him – and answers the truth. Terrible truths, such as, “You don’t look bad, just a bit whitish” or, “Those jeans do not flatter you”. But I know that it is only a problem of falsehood-related handicap that afflicts males: they cannot easily say those half lies that make our social life so interesting more or less from the second year of preschool, when we feel it is our duty to tell our little friend how beautiful her perfectly normal T-shirt is, just to conquer her. Not to mention the intricate plots that a queen bee can weave in middle school. To tell the truth, the other day in front of the preschool I invited my girls to resolve their differences in a manly way: everyone knows that males exchange four kicks, a couple of pushes and then, by the time they get up and dust off their shirts, they are already arranging when to meet in the afternoon. No psychodramas, no hysterical breakdowns. For the record, the other moms did not appreciate the happy practical consequences of my appeal (come on girls, fight it out!). Female preschoolers and then young girls, girls and finally women are capable of meanness and slyness and malice and falsehoods that pointlessly complicate their life and the lives of many others.
For this reason, when I tell my male specimen, “How difficult it is to understand each other!” and he replies, “What exactly did you not understand?”, I don’t get offended. Maybe because I have been forced to watch history documentaries for so many years, I mean that I am married. On the other hand, I don’t know exactly how hard it is for my husband to translate from Cantonese morning to night: I think he has wisely given up trying to understand me, but he learned how to negotiate with me.
Males and females speak different languages because they all must become mothers and fathers, even those who do not generate biological children. All mature men and women give their life for someone.
The purpose of the female language is to make a woman suitable to become a mother: she is programmed for children, even very small children, and for this reason she is emotional, analogical, symbolic, intuitive. She has something like a highly sophisticated internal radar, incredibly effective, that she cannot help using: it is too intrinsic in her, structural to her peculiar talent. Indeed those women who deny their emotional side, as those who gain positions of power often do, become exceedingly hard, because they are denying their deepest nature.
Man, on the contrary, does not have this radar, and one sometimes has to use pictures to make him understand things. Or explanatory posters. On the other hand, he goes to the point, often right to target.
On this matter I need to make a heartfelt and urgent appeal to my coworker Valentina and to all my female friends: girls, men need not be interpreted. A man says exactly what he means to say, not a syllable more, not one less. If you try to interpret him you offend him, you annoy him terribly, you get on his nerves. “I’m getting to know you and I like you” means that he likes you, it does not mean at all, “Before I tell you that I like you, I need to know you better” and therefore it doesn’t mean, “I am evaluating whether to leave you or not, we’ll see”, nor, definitely, “I am comparing you with my ex, but I am still collecting data” (pessimistic escalation is the only Olympic discipline in which women excel over males). Why do we need to be so stubborn? Why do we think we know what he means to say? And on the contrary, Roberta, how could you possibly think, with your former one, that “I want to be alone” could in any way mean, “I love you so much”? Try lip reading. He-wants-to-be-a-lone.
When I invited my future husband to dinner at my place for the first time I asked him what he would like to eat. He couldn’t care less about dinner (I think he had a thing for me, but he still denies it, after about fifteen years and four children he still prefers to keep a prudent profile), so he asked for an omelet, suspecting I wasn’t particularly skilled at cooking. Obviously I had never held an egg in my hand before, so I called my mom, I frantically browsed cookbooks, I read the guides of the Red Shrimp, until I learned that you make an omelet by beating an egg (after removing the shell) with a bit of salt. Then I decided that a omelet would not be sufficient, and since I had to learn anyway, I would learn to prepare the extra-advanced version. My husband asserts that I then proceeded to set before him an impossible thing, three inches thick, full of half-cooked vegetables. This is how I inaugurated my brilliant career of almost-always-mistaken interpreter of my husband.
Trying to guess what a man desires is an endeavor almost always doomed to failure. One must not guess, one needs to know. To ask. To get information. To find out what kind of computer he wants, to grill your geek coworker with questions. To get him the most powerful version with all the accessories, the one he would never buy for himself for a sense of responsibility. To be absolutely clear that the details he cares about are not the same that are relevant to you (after I wrote an entire book on a thing with the delete button broken, my husband forced me to buy a new laptop. He asked: “How do you want it?” “Pink.” I was never consulted again on the subject).
On the contrary, in the case of a gift, a woman is pleased when her desires are correctly guessed, she would like something thoughtful, very much thought out (although a Birkin bag is always acceptable, even one impulse-bought at the last minute), because she dreams of symbiosis, whereas a man dreams of freedom, like a rubber band, I go away and I come back and I go away again.
Because of all these big and small, laughable and tragic difficulties in understanding each other, I would like at this point to include in each copy of this book a coupon for a free stay: each reader should do a three-days internship at the house of my friend Emanuela in order to learn from her, who painfully experienced how hard it is to find each other, even when both are really convinced of the choice they made, when all the essentials are in place, and sometimes even all the accessories, such as a shared vision, the same ideas on important matters, and perhaps even a very good financial situation. Please say what you told me, Emanuela, about the nights when you cried yourself to sleep, hoping that he would notice, hoping that he would understand all the ‘yesses’ you had said to him during the day, and that you felt had been thrown to the wind. Of all the times you felt hurt, and you persist indefatigably to feel hurt after all these years, even though those reopened wounds are less and less deep each time, like a scar on its way to healing, and each time you remove the congealed blood a new crust forms, thinner and smaller. You say that now it does not hurt like in the first years of your marriage, when the disappointment was on some days intolerable, and if you stayed it was only because you had promised it to God. Please talk about all the times that you had to beg your husband to intervene with the children, who were already growing up, as if it was not his problem. Of the times when he did not take into account your desires, for solitude, rest, support, for example at the time when they kicked you out at work – you had had a bit too many children – and you felt he did not understand how important this was for you. You even suspected him of rooting for the other side, because in the end he would have liked having you always at home (as you know, we disagree on this matter: in your financial situation, I would have done without a job, but perhaps you are right). The fact is that he never noticed all of this, you are a mystery to him, a dear girl – a tiny bit unbalanced, to say the truth, certainly hypersensitive – from whom he desires to be completely welcomed, in whose mysterious meanders he is not sure he really wants to enter: since he is the basic model of human being, he is sure to get lost, because the basic model of course does not come with a GPS navigator. Your husband though, while lacking sophisticated instrumentation, sometimes the shock absorbers, perhaps even the power steering, while he may proceed abruptly and a bit too fast, possibly driving over potholes without even noticing, your husband is still there. He is faithful to you, he loves you, he works hard for you and the children, he takes care of you all as best he can and, let’s admit it, sometimes there are days when he would like a stable, sensible wife and you behave like a five-year-old girl, just because you make an effort, because the average age of a woman – says my spiritual director – is usually around three, in terms of fragility and sensitivity. A man should always be ready to hold her, even after he had a discussion with his boss, even when he is tired and has nothing left for anyone.
At this point I must say what is absolutely the most important, astonishing, explosive thing I learned about love, the one I’d like to tattoo on the back of my hands to force myself to read it hundreds of times a day, and see if I finally manage to learn it: true love is in excess of intention. True love exists, and holds on, when it overcomes the mutual delusion, when both understand that the symbiotic, spontaneous, easy union is a myth. It doesn’t exist outside of movies. Outside of that short time of conquest and seduction. It does not hold against the impact with reality, with fatigue, with baby foods, mortgages, teenage children, wrinkles and small idiosyncrasies.
However, when you do your best to look beautiful, and he to be noble, almost accepting the death of love, at least love as it is meant according to common opinion in the West – butterflies in the stomach and violins playing and a fast heartbeat and spontaneous, easy reciprocity – when you draw a cross on all of this and accept to die to all that you desired, to your expectations and projects, and to die every day, to carry this wound always open, to work on your shortcomings – women on their will to control, men on their selfishness – without waiting for someone to acknowledge it, then, almost accidentally, from the encounter of two people who both decide to do this immense work – and often they do not decide at the same time – then it becomes possible to love each other even beyond one’s intentions. Then two people meet who have decided to be beautiful and noble, and who have given up trying to dominate each other, to prevail, to use strategies. Two people, finally, who do not even abandon themselves totally to the other, to his/her bad side, and do not go with it, the way Erec did in the story by Chrétien de Troyes. Erec wins Enide the princess at a tournament and gives up his knightly life in order to please her, so they can enjoy their love without interruptions, but after a while she tells him, “It was better when you didn’t listen to me”, because if he loses his nobility, she ends up destroying him.
This kind of love, in excess of intentions, is a greatness that has nothing romantic about it, it is not an exalted passion, but – as Denis de Rougemont says – the most sober and ordinary foolishness, i.e. a patient and tender application of fidelity, a fidelity observed because one has committed to it and because, with the deepest non-conformism, one does not believe in the revealing power of spontaneity, immediacy and multiplicity of experiences. A fidelity that founds and builds the person, person who is really an opus. An opus based first of all on fidelity to someone who, in the case of marriage, is a life allied to mine, miraculously, for all my life.
This is heroic and exciting work. However, we have to admit, it has a terrible press office. I mean, even though it is a bold and heroic endeavor, marriage is always presented with that subtle background of stale living room and smell of old fried food.
Faithfulness to a work that transcends me may make everything new, even for those two who got married as a couple of spoiled, irresponsible children just wanting to have a beautiful party and to give a push to an old, tired relationship, for the two who consumed themselves in an engagement where they burnt out all the passion with nothing left over, for the two who lived together and made calculations worthy of an accounting department to decide when it was the right time to make mom and dad happy, for the marriage that was the result of a bet, and seemed to hold together just with spit and glue, only because a baby was on the way, and for those marriages in which he became more and more selfish and she more and more controlling, for my petulant and annoying friend and for her husband, who runs away as soon as he gets a chance, for the other one who cheated and then went back home, for the one who got an abortion and cannot forgive herself but refuses to admit it, and for the other one too, a tentacular controller, and for him who looks like a sissy and follows her like a poodle, for those two parents completely enslaved by their horrible three-year-old, already weighed down by too many snacks.
Whatever mistake, whatever horror even, a man and a woman may have behind them, the right moment is always now, it is always here that eternity is at play, it is always now that grace can make new all things.
Dear husband, today I would like you to take off your wedding band. No, don’t shout for joy, I know you’ve been trying to take it off for a while, with the pretext that your hands are swollen. Actually, now that I remember, you told me on our wedding night that perhaps that band would have been a bit of a bother. No way, of course. You must keep the wedding band, it’s the first information we females collect when we scan a man. I just would like you to take it off so that I can give it to you again, and we will be able to make a leap forward. I will make an effort to be as beautiful as I can for you, and we will step up to the next level of love.
With love, your wife.
translation Caterina Poggi