San Francisco Chronicle
Love and insults on Valentine’s Day
Early the other morning, I entered our kitchen without saying a word, only for my wife Elvira to look at me, groan and roll her eyes.
“Nobody asked you!” she declared, pointing an accusatory finger at me.
“Why,” I asked her, “do I even bother wishing you good morning?”
“That’s the same question I ask myself every day,” she answered.
Another day, I asked Elvira, “How come you never call me ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling?’ ”
“Oh, come on,” she replied. “I call you names all the time.”
Have you detected a certain pattern here yet? That’s how my wife often talks to me. She keeps zapping me with zingers. It’s her modus operandi.
On a recent evening, with a rare truce prevailing in our household, I said, “I’m actually surprised you’ve gone the whole day without glowering at me.”
“Just wait,” she said. “The night is still young.”
We then settled in for dinner. “So, are we going to have a nice night together?” I asked her.
“Hard to say,” she responded. “Are you going to be here?”
“Truth be told,” I said, “you and I are amazing together.”
“Yes, I’m amazing,” Elvira said. “And you’re, well, you.”
So goes our marriage of almost 44 years. She agreed to marry me even though she quickly recognized I was a fixer-upper.
Early on, we were all lovey-dovey. I wrote poems to her on our anniversaries. We held hands and kissed in public. If you doubt me, I have photographic evidence of all this.
But marriages evolve, for better or worse. Cooperation and collaboration can convert into combat. But in our case, we’ve come to an understanding: She gets to play Vegas insult comic at my expense and I, in exchange for the honor, get to take it.
I’ve tried paying her compliments to fend off these frontal assaults on my already fragile mental health.
“Wow!” I once said, marveling as she observed an easily overlooked detail. “Nothing escapes your attention.”
“Yes, but unfortunately almost everything escapes yours,” she riposted.
I’ve ventured pre-emptive strikes, too. One time, arriving home, I sarcastically said to her, “One can only imagine the joy you must feel on my return to the house.”
“Nobody has that much imagination,” she said.
Oh, I get in my little digs, too. I kid my wife about her ongoing preoccupations, ranging from food, cosmetics, shoes and handbags to ancient Egyptian tombs and European art history. Sometimes for fun, more or less, we go toe-totoe and tit-for-tat, complete with rim shots.
“Need I say more?” I once asked Elvira after making a point I considered clever.
“No,” she countered, “in fact, you need to say less.”
In another attempt to level the playing field, I asked her, “May I ask you a personal question? What exactly is wrong with you?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she answered. “You.”
Why do I routinely let my bride get the better of me?
Simple. Given my track record over nearly half a century (I’ll spare you the details about all my mistakes and misbehavior), I’ve got it coming. By my calculus, I figure, Elvira has more than earned the right to take her random potshots.
Who else is going to manage to keep me in my place? This is how we’ve achieved just the right balance of power for us. Elvira has almost all of it.
In the end, it’s all good. Typically, I let these slings and arrows slide off my back. I chalk it up to the cost of doing business as a couple.
Sure, go ahead and psychoanalyze how our banter must eventually degenerate into bickering, badgering and backbiting. Tell us how our repartee masks our deep-seated, underlying hostility toward each other. Or that I’m profoundly masochistic. Or that our relationship is demonstrably as toxic as an oil spill.
All this back and forth between us, even though it may sound like we’re just giving each other a hard time, is just good-natured teasing. We’re kidding around. Humor just happens to be the language we speak. We joke, especially in the face of adversity, because only then can we laugh about it, and if we laugh about it then maybe we can get through it intact.
In reality, we still respect, admire and love each other, and more so every day. If I’ve learned anything about marriage — and it’s probably still open to debate whether I have — it’s this: It’s much too serious a matter to take too seriously. No wonder research overwhelmingly shows that humor overwhelmingly improves relationship satisfaction in couples, easing tensions and strengthening a sense of connection.
“Are you reading my mind again?” I asked Elvira the other day, knowing full well she occasionally does.
“I’ll read your mind,” she said with a withering sneer, “only if I feel like reading something stupid.”
“You’re so funny,” I told her. “Would we ever have gotten this far in our marriage without a sense of humor?”
“No,” she said, poised to get me where I live, “because if I’m going to keep living with you, I’d better have one.”
Under the circumstances, she left me no choice but to deliver a comeback.
So I kissed her.