The modern relationship: Saturday fever
I listened to a turgid radio debate one Saturday about how the taxation and benefits system discriminates against married couples. A lugubrious guest speaker began to compare the longevity rates of married couples with those of civil partnerships, then abruptly veered off course by remarking that the long-term success of any relationship depended upon a couple's proficiency in knowing when to shut up.
Since this remark was only loosely connected to the issue of taxation, my first thought was that the speaker must have had a spat with his wife before coming to work that morning, was aware of the possibility that she might be listening to the radio and wanted to make a very specific point in her direction.
My second thought was, how true, how prescient, and yet so much easier said than done. It's important, this business of knowing when to shut up, but longevity is obviously predicated on far more than a couple's ability to bite down (phew).
Longevity in marriage depends on a tiny number of absolutes, a large number of composite variables and a truly colossal amount of minutiae. Absolutes, such as not jumping into bed with your husband's best mate, for example, are clear cut.
However, the variables, such as mood or being able to shut up, are trickier because they often depend on the minutiae, and the minutiae can encompass everything from de-scaling the bath taps to being brought toast in bed on Saturday mornings.
In the 24 years that I've been married, a clear pattern of Saturday-morning spats has emerged, and in finding Saturday mornings a tipping point for argument, we are not alone.
Apparently, the elasticity of the marital bond is more inclined to snap on Saturday mornings than at any other time and I am convinced that this has nothing What.So.Ever to do with absolutes and everything to do with minutiae.
Conflict is unavoidable in marriage. There are couples that maintain they never argue, but I don't believe them. Permanent politesse is unsustainable over a lifetime. As a couple, we've tried courteous combat but the resultant stress felt like a kind of fracture in the brain and was far worse than the stress fractures caused by proper, unmannerly spats and rows. I'm all for self-expression.
Having said that, there is a healthy balance between getting it all out, all of the time, and getting some of it out, some of the time, but this balance is especially difficult to strike on Saturday mornings, when the delicate interplay of variables and minutiae is knocked out of kilter by a couple's exhaustion.
For an acquaintance of mine, the Saturday-morning spat has become an alarmingly regular feature in her weekend landscape and she believes that it's mainly triggered by exhaustion. Both she and her husband have high-maintenance, stressful careers, so on Saturdays, naturally, she wants to play dead in the bed.
Failing this, for a while she'd like to luxuriate in the knowledge that for, two days, she has absolutely nothing to do. Meanwhile, her husband wants to get the hammer-drill out/tinker with his bills/do the recycling. He gets determinedly out of bed, unable to relax until the jobs are done.
This shaming industriousness and din means that playing dead in the bed is not nearly as much fun for her as it could be. He finds catching up on mundane jobs not nearly so much fun while she is playing dead in the bed.
"Even if he says nothing," she says, "I feel he is accusing me by just tidying up around me. By lunchtime, inevitably, we are screaming at each other. I think we both feel that we should get our own way on a Saturday, having worked so hard all week."
It is not just the career couple that struggles to love and cherish on Saturday mornings. An acquaintance of mine has a partner, two children and a part-time job, all of which are managed with joviality, serenity and aplomb during the week but, lately, Saturday mornings have evolved to include spats, which can occur the second she and her husband wake.
She describes how they move from the unfocused haze of sleep to focused fury within seconds.
While they're both in the bleary, chrysalid stage of consciousness, she's quietly nursing an acute, intense desire for her husband to say (verbatim), "Today, voluntarily and gladly, I am going to go straight downstairs and oil the wheels of this vast, relentless domestic engine". She doesn't need him to waste a second on saying good morning, she wants him to disappear and return, saying, "Here is your tea. Here are the papers. Here is your toast. Don't get up till lunch".
Instead, he says "Good morning", and looks as if he fancies toast. Then he asks, "What's up?" My friend says the exact tone of his enquiry is defensive interest and that the subtext is "What have I done now? I've just woken up. I surely haven't had time to disappoint? If I have managed to disappoint, I'm positive it's imagined. But if it isn't, I'm more than ready to rebut."
She feels he should know what's up and, at this stage, is thinking that marriage is simply a Herculean effort, at the same time as wondering crossly why she ever said "I do".
So she tells him what's up and the upshot is explosive, since their mutually exclusive need for rest is profound and has caused both to lose their capacity for knowing when to shut up.
This is clear because her husband now says that his wife has "a weird genetic marker for fighting about nothing and fighting nothing to death". Enraged, his wife responds, "Well, that's better than some of the stuff that's come down on your DNA, like being bloody selfish."
The mists of sleep have completely evaporated and, 10 minutes later, both clatter furiously downstairs and pointedly start to oil the wheels of the relentless domestic engine: she loudly engages with the unholy trinity of washing machine, dishwasher and fridge. He loudly engages with the children.
Most legal contracts have clear terms and conditions. It strikes me that the terms and conditions of a long and binding contract of engagement, such as marriage, should be far less cryptic and woolly than "to have and to hold, for better and for worse".
I know the vows have a certain sort of lofty ring and cover the major issues, but the less lofty matters of variables and minutiae also need to be addressed.
In other words, as well as big print, there should be small print about important variables such as compromise, without which a couple won't even make it through a trip to Tesco.
The small print about minutiae should include caveats, specifications and a decent, sensible paragraph on the unholy trinity of dishwasher, washing machine and fridge, which is a daily, sometimes hourly concern in married life.
The sacred language of love and faith -- as expressed in traditional marriage vows -- is, of course, all fine and dandy, but I think there's room for a sort of non-financial pre-nuptial agreement too. A no ciphers, symbols, bells or whistles covenant in which the couple can thrash out a few minor provisos and stipulations, such as an egalitarian rest-and-recuperation rota for weekends.
I put this pre-nup idea to my husband recently, remarking that my small print might easily have covered two A4-sized sheets of paper.
He ignored my combative tone, smiled and kindly said his small print wouldn't have exceeded the limits of a short paragraph, even if he'd had the benefit of hindsight.
But he would say that. It was 9am on Sunday and his turn for tea and toast in bed.