Friday, June 14, 2013

marriage thoughts from a short story

A marriage unraveled. Alix Ohlin's title story, "Signs and Wonders," follows a familiar middle-aged couple whose only son is grown and self-sufficient and they discover they've been unhappy for years. Kathleen and Terence are both tenured professors of English literature at the same university, where the only thing they have in common is their "desire to spite their colleagues."

What struck me about their early characterization was not only how selfish they are, but how much they feel like they own the other person. In departmental meetings, Kathleen believes she has to defend Terence's opinions; at home, she thinks he prefers her to be mute audience for his monologues: "Anything she said in response, even her agreement, was liable to piss him off, and he'd storm away from the table, never clearing or washing the dishes, to scour the cable channels."

And later, when they realize they both want out of the marriage, Ohlin reveals Kathleen's former sense of ownership: "Terence said he wanted to take early retirement and drive a motorcycle to Central America. What a cliché, Kathleen thought. Then, realizing his behavior no longer implicated her, that she didn't need to be concerned, she told him it sounded like a great idea."

Terence has a friend, Dave, whom Kathleen finds vulgar. "What Terence saw in him was a mystery, but she no longer—thank God—felt required to plumb its depths." Kathleen realizes with the relief of someone almost free from a miserable marriage, that she doesn't have to own Terence's silly behaviors or undignified friends.

Ohlin has hit upon the heart of a failed marriage with excellent marksmanship. She shows Kathleen and Terence's unhappiness in ways many married people can relate to. They are both deeply disappointed with the mundane ways in which their lives have diverged.

But reading about Kathleen and Terence got me thinking: the sense of ownership over one's spouse, which they both demonstrated, is antiquated and unfair.

I've felt it, though. It's all too easy to live this way. Person A feels person B's habits or hobbies or character quirks reflect badly on person A. Person B takes offense if person A expresses a different opinion. Why can't we let each other be our own people?

When two people marry, they are in love with a person + dreams, expectations, fictions they've told themselves about each other, yes. That's unavoidable. But at the start, they fall in love with another person. Someone who is interesting, refreshing, attractive to them precisely because they are not themselves. Why then do we try to shape the other person into our own image after marriage?

Once I realized this, somewhere in the last nine years, I became far less anxious and uptight. I realized that Andrew had the good sense to let me be my own person from the get-go. Sometimes now one or the other of us will look at the other person and say with fresh insight and a smile, "I just remembered that you're a different person from me."

It's been good to remember that as often as possible. And I think it might have helped Kathleen and Terence (I know they're fictional people). Ohlin's story is excellent; go out and find the book. Revel in the surprising way she explores the rest of Kathleen & Terence's marriage. Enjoy the fifteen other heart-breaking, hilarious, and perceptive stories in the book. And don't forget to let your loved ones be their own people.


  1. The interesting thing I see in this story is -- When the pressure was off to feel like they had to control or be responsible for the other person they actually could see their relationship from a different perspective. Oh -- how healthy!


  2. That's a really good perspective- one I should keep in mind more often!

    1. Right? Me too, actually. I need constant reminders. :)