Confession: When I first got married, my mother thought it was her duty to pass on some wisdom and admonitions from her own experience of marriage. Her favorite quote was: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” As a somewhat prim and proper Victorian lady, her examples were things like “Don’t run around around the house in your underwear in front of your husband.” “Don’t come downstairs in the morning without brushing your hair, applying your makeup, and pulling on your nylons.” (later read as stockings or panty hose.) “And for heaven’s sake, don’t ever use the bathroom when he is in there.” This was her Familiarity 101 course for her newlywed daughter. I have pretty much ignored the first two statements. I’ve paddled around in my underwear and I almost never wear makeup or panty house, so the second point is moot. The third, though perhaps TMI, I pretty much adhere to, for reasons of aesthetics as well as propriety.
With a marriage of over 53 years, until death they did part, my mother’s favorite quote has merit. But not just with surface and superficial familiarities. Observing my parents’ long marriage and wading through trials and errors in our own marriage, my husband Andy and I have learned that too much familiarity can destroy a relationship. Familiarity, for me, means disrespecting the physical and psychic boundaries of another person. My sin of familiarity takes the form of assuming I have the right to fix and mold Andy into the person I think he should be. I forget where I stop and he begins. This entanglement assumes that I know everything about him, that I can predict his next move or his next words, that I know what is best for both of us. Familiarity, then, equates to arrogance and stifling presumption.
Living in the boundaries of quarantine is a perfect breeding ground for too much familiarity and the resulting contempt. Andy and I are in each other’s space from dawn until dawn until dawn…ad infinitum–or until at least June. Finding the balance between our togetherness and solitude has been a marriage-long tutorial. How well I have NOT completely learned these lessons comes out as I get annoyed by small things and start nipping at him. “Why did you put that there?” Who just called you?” “What are you doing?” “Are you wearing that to the grocery store?” “Do you have your mask and gloves?” “What did that text say?” These questions are intrusive and parental.
Familiarity becomes a kind of reverse idolatry. I come up with an image of someone and then stick with it, concretizing it into a solid never-changing form. That image my be positive or negative; neither is a good idea. I have always had the image of Andy as super smart, reliable, and a good institutional, community-building pastor. Can I let go of the hardened familiarity and security I have with those roles? I also thought of him as opinionated, stodgy, and a by-the-book kind of guy. As he has become more playful, more sentimental, and less judgmental, I have been forced to see him with fresh eyes, less familiar and predictable, but more intriguing.
Familiarity makes me feel comfortable because I assume I know the person I am living with; there are no surprises. But this familiarity is not the loving choice. My relationship with my spouse blossoms when I let go of the stereotypes I have about him. When I treat him with the courtesy and curiosity I would offer a guest or a stranger, I remember that he and our marriage are an ever unfolding mystery, the new creation of two “becoming one flesh”—even after fifty years. During quarantine I miss the physical presence of friends who call me into accountability for my unloving behavior.
I am immensely grateful that the person I share this stay-at-home time with is reliable and smart, but also playful and sentimental, and kind and forgiving and a good cook. If my mother were alive, I think she would agree with my version of familiarity. But she would probably also tell me to brush my hair more often and quit wearing the same clothes for three days in a row.
Observation: Much of our settling into a mini Florida jungle has included untangling life-threatening vines from trees and plants. A week or so ago, under a bunch of vines, I discovered a small “field” of snake plants, also known as “mother-in-law’s tongue.” I first encountered this plant 20 years ago when a friend gave me one as a new-mother-in-law gift. It could just as easily be called Mother’s Tongue or Father’s Tongue or Spouse’s Tongue. The plant is a great visual reminder for me to think before I speak.