Wild city // That love thing

My husband and I are in a January funk. I get critical and peevish, he gets defensive, and we are off and running.

One of the benefits of being together for 16 years, though, is that we know the drill. We can catch ourselves and talk about what is beneath our crabbiness, rather than taking it out on each other. If we aren’t too tired or stressed. If.

Back when we were dating we were invited to a dinner party, and one of the couples told a hilarious, digressive story about a fight they had had driving home in a snowstorm. I felt jealous of their fondness for each other, even given their differences, and their freedom to be passionate and difficult. I went home and went to bed.

Around midnight I called my husband-to-be on the phone, waking him. “We have to fight more,” I said. “Hmph?” he replied.

It seems to me that dating is good for identifying those things you have in common with your partner, while living together brings out your differences. Time and proximity took care of our fighting problem. Fight we eventually did. I was in my 40s then, but I had had little experience with emotional intimacy. I didn’t know how to preserve myself in a close relationship, and I fell short when it came to empathy.

One day, after we’d been living together awhile, I was insisting that my husband do something my way, and my way only. He paused and looked at me. “Mary Jean,” he said, “you are dealing with another person.”

“Oh,” I said, and we laughed.

Marriage is humbling. After all these years this continues to be a work in progress. There are plenty of inspired moments when you demonstrate a genius for dealing with your loved one. And so many more when you come up short, or when you muddle through.

Once years ago we were squabbling about something, and my husband said, “You never say you are sorry. I apologize all the time, but you never say you are sorry.”

What had felt like a great philosophical question when I was younger had finally been definitively answered. When I was a college student we saw the movie “Love Story.” Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal are lovers, and the Ali MacGraw character dies of cancer. Then Ryan O’Neal’s father apologizes for having disowned him, and O’Neal says, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” We sat around the dorm debating that line.

It interested us college students because we were caught up in the romance (which is where O’Neal had had this insight) and because the sentiment was the reverse of what we expected.

When my husband called my attention to it, I realized two things about not apologizing to him: It was hurting our bond, and love absolutely did not mean never having to say you’re sorry.

It seems to me now that dealing with qualities you and your partner share asks little of you (if you aren’t conflicted about those qualities in yourself), but dealing with the ways a partner is different from you asks much. It is where the love thing is called forth. There are all kinds of opportunities in that, both for suffering and for transcendence.

For example, I grew up in northern Minnesota and am fond of our rivers and lakes. (When a friend insisted I should favor the ocean as much as she does because that is where we all came from, I told her, “I crawled out of the bog.”)

I am all about fresh water, but my husband loves the ocean. I had accompanied him to the beach, but, as he does when we are at a lake, I had dabbled a little and then gone back to my book.

In the fall of 2010 we were at a beach on the East Coast. My husband was in the water yet again and was urging me to join him. I don’t like the salt in the water — it is so unnecessary — and being tossed about by the waves is not my idea of a good time.

But I joined him. My husband showed me how, if you hopped up as the wave broke, and then hopped again when it receded, the force was neutralized. You more or less stayed in the same place, with your head above water.

I tried this and it worked. I did it again, and he hopped with me. We spent the next, oh, half hour or so right there together, two middle-aged people, hopping to avoid being pulled off our feet, and then laughing our heads off. I think we had discovered, viscerally, some mystery about how to be together.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.