I recently read "The Pilot's Wife", a book by Anita Shreve that was fairly popular with the Oprah crowd a few years back. I don't think I'm spoiling much by revealing that the essence of this book is a typical woman-as-victim story - the woman in question being the innocently duped wife who finds out that her dead pilot husband has been living a double life on the other side of the Atlantic complete with second wife and two kids. Throughout the book, the heroine muses, in a fairly emotionless way, about this betrayal, and wings over to London to confront the other wife in what should have been a highly charged scene but - apologies, Mrs. Shreve - wasn't. She also spends most of the story reminiscing about her relationship and agreeing with her daughter that, no, no one ever really ever knows anyone after all.
This is the theme of this piece, I presume. That none of us ever knows our spouses, no matter how comfortable we are or how confident we are that our perfect lives are for real. And it's surprising how common an idea it is. Off the top of my head I can recall several 20/20 specials about men who faked their deaths or who had five wives at once or who were KGB spies for twenty years in between coaching little league. I've even seen stories about "husbands" who were actually women - and whose wives, when asked the obvious question "How could you not know you were married to a woman?" merely scrunched up their noses distastefully and said "Well we never had that sort of relationship." In every one of these stories, the hapless wives were painted as the long-suffering victims of some nefarious genius capable of masterminding such elaborate hoaxes..."I just didn't know who I was married to" they would sniff wistfully. "I guess no one ever really knows another person..."
I can't stress enough that this is simply not true. It is more than possible to "really know" your spouse. You just have to "really" want to. And that's the truth that many of these wives aren't willing to face.
Knowing someone means more than sharing a living space with him or her. It means more than relying on a twenty-year old wedding band to carry the weight of a relationship for you when you can't be bothered. It means more than being able to recite their birthday and their favorite color and their mother's maiden name. Really knowing someone, especially your spouse, means fully understanding their motivations and desires, their dreams and ambitions, their habits and faults, their strengths and weaknesses. But it means even more than this - it means wanting to know these things, it means taking the time to learn and understand the way one would delve into the study of a foreign language or a method of painting. It means, simply, being interested.
It means wanting to have as full and complete an understanding of this person as is humanly possible, so that at any given moment of the day you can predict, with almost faultless certainty, where your spouse will be and what he or she will be doing and how they'll be doing it - not because you keep tabs on them and check up on them out of suspicion but because of the effortless, easy familiarity you have developed with regards to their habits and custom. Because you know so well what they like and don't like, because you've seen them around their co-workers (meaning you've made the effort to get to know where your spouse spends forty hours of their week) and because you know, without a moment's hesitation, that they deserve your trust and would never do anything to harm you. Knowing your spouse means that you've paid enough attention to them to know if they're in love or not - with you - and to therefore know with complete confidence that they aren't looking for satisfaction from someone else.
Knowing your spouse means being interested in them for more than superficial reasons - you don't "know" someone simply because she looks great and you hopeshe'll turn out to be your dream woman. You don't know someone simply because you expect him to bring home a sizable paycheck to support you and demand sexual fidelity from him. Knowing who you're married to means more than sharing answers on the Newlywed Game - it means being able to assess any situation, immediately, through your lover's eyes and being right 95% of the time. It means being able to list, unprompted and unaided, ten things that your spouse is interested in or likes to do, or to predict how he or she would vote in the next election based on his or her politics, or to be able to name, without hesitation, the many reasons why he or she has made you fall in love. Knowing someone doesn't mean being familiar with their habits or mannerisms - it means understanding where and how those habits and mannerisms developed, and how they feel about them. It means being able to finish their sentences...or to be eager to listen to how they finish them if you're wrong.
That's why I find it so disheartening to see men line up for hours in the florists and card shops on Valentine's Day. Buying flowers for your wife is a nice gesture...but what if she's become passionately interested in astronomy lately and has taken to pointing out the constellations when you walk the dog at night? Wouldn't a backyard telescope or a book on the stars thrill her exponentially more than a bouquet of flowers? Buying flowers shows you care about her...buying a budding astronomer her own telescope shows you care and that you really know who this person is, that you're interested enough in her to pay attention to the things that delight her and that you know enough to bring things into her life that will bring her joy. The same is true for the endless supply of socks and ties that husbands and fathers receive at Christmas - how hard would it be to really think about the kind of person your husband is and what he's interested in? How difficult would it be to give him something that touches some part of his imagination and show him that you know it's there? It's not hard at all...if you can be bothered to do it.
Everyone is interested in something, no matter how reticent they are to talk about it openly or how "mundane" they may appear on the surface. Everyone's curiosity is piqued by something; everyone has some childhood dream or secret ambition that they might have forgotten, or some injustice they wish they had the resources to fight. The best way to uncover these hidden facets of a person is to talk to them - talk to them at length, in every situation, ask them about themselves, do more than inquire about "their day" or ask their opinion about what to do with the kids this weekend - ask them thoughtful questions out of the blue, ask them what they dreamt about last night, request that they tell you their favorite childhood memory. On long car trips, instead of staring hypnotically at the white stripes whirring past you, start a provocative conversation just to hear his or her opinion on it. In less than half an hour you can learn more about someone than you ever thought possible, just by asking them about who they are, and by genuinely wanting to hear the answer. It's not hard to do - you simply have to be as interested in this person, this whole, dynamic, fascinating human being, as you have been interested in anything in your life, and you have to keep discovering new things about them for as long as your lives together go on.
You also have to want to share your time with them, and make it clear that although you don't intend to suffocate them, that you enjoy their company and want them to be with you. You have to show an interest in them, you have to establish that you prefer their company to everyone else's, and that you really are in love with them. You have to be so attuned to your spouse that it wouldn't be possible for them to carry on with someone else without your knowledge - you'd know immediately, you'd sense something was wrong and would know they had been with someone else. You would notice their absences from you, you would pick up on subtle changes in behavior and attitudes, and the tension between you would be tangible...if you really knew your spouse, and really wanted to, you wouldn't be fooled for very long, if at all.
Any woman who doesn't know her "husband" is actually a woman has obviously never stood in the bathroom with him in the mornings while he shaved, or really listened to the unique timbre of his voice on the phone...or had any kind of sex life, of course. Any woman who shares her husband with five other women is obviously happy with prolonged absences and all but separate lives. Any woman who isn't aware of her husband's growing dissatisfaction simply isn't paying enough attention to him, or being observant enough about something that should be of primary importance in her life.
Some might say that what I'm suggesting borders on suffocation, that I'm advocating such a complete merging of the two selves that all individuality is lost. This isn't true, and isn't even possible. Each person is complex and intricate, unique in their thoughts and experiences and equipped with an inner life so personal that even the closest of spouses only barely touches the fringes of who they are. Every person requires privacy sometimes and peace with their own thoughts - every man deserves to be able to shave by himself and every woman should be able to take off for the afternoon without checking in, and every person will always have far more to them than even the dearest spouse could ever know. But it's the desire to know this person, the interest you take in them and the respect you show for their sovereignty, the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge and familiarity that will create the kind of bond a good marriage deserves. And for those who claim that their spouse doesn't want to be "known", the answer is also fairly clear - if they married you, they obviously wanted to share themselves with you at some point. You have to find out where that desire went, and how to get it back.
I'm not sure where the apathy in marriage comes from, or why anyone lets it fester once they notice it starting. I'm not sure at what point you begin to know more about your team's stats last year or this year's soap opera characters than you do about your spouse. And I'm not sure what anyone gets out of being married to someone whose daily activities are a vague kind of blur to them, whose past is an even more vague blur of the inconsequential, and whose inner life is as secret and unreachable as that of any passing stranger on the street. But if I had to pinpoint one thing that I believe is responsible for adultery and the ultimate breakdown of marriage, it would be this.
The Pilot's Wife probably scared a lot of women and made a lot of them wonder if they really know their husbands. But if you have to ask whether you know him or not...you don't. So get to know him. "Know" your husband or wife in more than just the biblical way - join your minds as well as your bodies, and you'll be amazed how good it can feel.