I just read a review of the diaries of Richard Burton, and it got me thinking about my marriage. My husband and I had intense work lives in October, and we were worried about the election. The stress started to show. Our struggles with each other did not descend to the depths of the movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” starring Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, but there have been hurt feelings. We have had words.
Burton and Taylor married, divorced and married again in the 1960s and 70s. It is said the two of them had “racking” quarrels. And no wonder. Some of his pet names for her: Lumpy, Booby and Old Fatty. I give him points for these two: Old Snapshot and Cantank.
My husband is a foodie, and I coined for him the name, “Mr. Chomp Chomp.” I have just now realized that he doesn’t have any pet names for me. I’ll have to get on his case about that.
It turns out Burton was a frustrated writer and a voracious reader. Who knew? His diaries, according to New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner, are “literate and lemony.” Garner writes that the Burton/Taylor love story is “so robust you can nearly warm your hands on its flames.”
My husband and I are not movie stars. We are aging householders with a daughter in college, a mortgage and a golden retriever. I recently had a conversation with a clerk selling me a bottle of pickles. He said, “They have a lot of zest,” and I said, “I think my husband will like them,” and he said, “Is that why he married you, because you have zest? Heh, heh.” When I told my husband about this exchange he said, “He knows more than he should.”
Burton writes, “E is my only ism. Elizabethism.” I don’t know if I could say my husband is my ism, but recently my teenage niece and I were discussing a young man who interests her. After a bit, she turned the tables and asked, “So, how is your marriage?”
Caught off guard, I thought for a moment and then said, “After 17 years, when my husband comes through the door I still feel a flutter in my chest and think, ‘There’s my guy.’” She smiled and quickly changed the subject.
Burton and Taylor apparently both liked a good shouting match. The fighting my husband and I do interests me right now because I’m rethinking how I handle conflict in general. Before I met him, and I was forty, I rarely expressed displeasure to anybody. A therapist once asked me if I was angry. I could tell she thought that I was. I scanned my insides, and told her no, I was not, not at all. Soon after my husband and I got together I realized just how much I had been sitting on. Oh boy.
Neither my husband nor I had a good track record with intimacy when we met. I joked with a friend that it would be a miracle if we were able to stay together. Some days our marriage does seem like a miracle, others days like something ordinary. There are periods when it feels like a teetering tower that needs bracing up, others when it is steady as the ground I walk on.
While we both bring challenges to the marriage, over the years he and I have found approaches that sustain us. One is that we regard feelings as important. Another is that if one of us is distressed, we talk and keep talking. We have spent untold numbers of frustrating and eventually fruitful hours trying to make ourselves transparent to the other.
A friend who has expertise in conflict resolution says that this is the ticket: to resolve differences, each person needs to feel heard and known. She also suggests separating out, “This is what happened,” and “This is what it means.” We usually fuse the two in a quick instinctive reaction before we know where the other person is coming from, and we are off and running.
It is challenging, of course, to put words to intense feelings and old, raw forces moving through you, but my husband and I are both word people. I don’t remember ever hearing a teacher say, “Read your English assignment, write that paper, and talk in class, because some day you will be furious with a person you love, and staying close to them will depend on your ability to express yourself.” That might get young people’s attention.
Burton wrote about Taylor: “I love that woman so much sometimes that I cannot believe my luck.” I want to dislike him for the “sometimes,” but have to admit he was telling it like it is.
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.