THE FIXER DOWNER (Then Comes Marriage: Part 2)
I’ve been married once.
And almost engaged seventy four times.
Dating, as you can imagine, was a bonafide disaster.
I wouldn’t exactly call it “dating.”
Hunting would be a more apropos description.
I was a man on a mission.
Finding a mate was my unflinching quest.
I entered the vortex.
And I wasn’t leaving without my match.
Like a burly Lubavitcher, rummaging around Grand Central Station — armed with a beat-up pair of tefillin and a hearty appetite for unaffiliated Jews — I found myself pacing the aisles of an overwhelming dating market, reaching and grabbing in all directions, filling up my shopping cart with whatever and whomever looked even remotely datable.
It was an absolute freak-show.
I tried to force-fit a lot of mismatches.
But the puzzle pieces refused to fuse.
No matter how hard I tried to coerce them.
[enter: sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows]
Meeting my wife was a breath of fresh air.
There were no fireworks.
No cupid arrows.
No Lady and the Tramp spaghetti scenes.
Not yet, at least.
But something was different.
There was a special chemistry.
I just knew this was meant to be.
(Not quite unlike the previous seventy three times.)
Once and for all.
The puzzle pieces fit like a charm.
So we tied the knot.
And lived happily ever after.
For a day or two.
Love and marriage…
go together like a horse and carriage…
And countless visits to the doghouse later.
Our long strange trip keeps truckin’.
And my urge to convert primates into soulmates has significantly domesticated.
For the most part.
Looking back at that period of my life has a tendency to unleash a mega dose of awkwardness. You know that cute emoji — the bashful monkey covering both eyes with his furry little monkey hands? That’s the feeling I get when I think back to my eager beaver dating days.
What was I really so desperate for?
What was I fervently hunting for?
What kind of puzzle was I seeking to resolve?
Now, I’m not a mindreader.
But I know what you’re thinking.
I’m a guy.
What else are guys hunting for?
We’re animals. Predators
Relentlessly scouring for female prey.
And you‘re totally on target.
But my quest was much more emotional than it was hormonal.
My pursuit was not merely a function (or dysfunction) of gluttonous testosterone run riot.
The roots of this desperation reached far deeper than I could’ve imagined.
But, how so?
It boggles my mind that in an age of Venmo and Bitcoin, I still need to struggle with soggy bills and stubborn vending machines like a lone cowboy beating a dead horse.
Vending machines are notoriously picky.
And dollar bills are notoriously battered.
No matter how hard I try to force-feed my deposit, the archaic machine spits it right back in my face, like a tweaked-out inkjet printer on crystal meth.
Kick. The. Goddamn. Machine.
Zoom back in…
When newlyweds aren’t playing footsie, they like to play matchmaker. It’s their generous way of paying it forward. To compensate for their survivor’s guilt, having narrowly escaped the treacherous dating jungle unscathed.
So when my married friends offered to “fix me up” I welcomed the gesture like a Jewish belly fetishizes cinnamon babka — which is to say, emphatically. Anything to escape the hellhole of single-hood and solo seats at painfully awkward wedding tables.
But what I didn’t know then, that I do know now, is that I wasn’t looking to be “fixed up” so much as I was looking to be fixed. And that difference, makes all the difference.
You see, my entire life was a series of failed attempts at filling a deep-seated, unconscious, imperceptible but painfully palpable void. A pervasive sense of emptiness. A chronic feeling of unlovability. A complex that has most certainly made my analyst a bloody fortune. (His newly renovated summer home in the Hamptons should bear a plaque with the inscription: Paid for by the Ever Dysfunctional DJ.)
The complex is complex, indeed.
Aren’t they all?
Now, let’s press hold on my little pity party for just a moment.
I’m not writing this to indulge in narcissistic escapades of self-absorption.
Well, maybe I am just a tad.
But what I’m really getting at, is a common illusion that many of us have when we enter the haven of holy matrimony.
We may not verbalize it.
We may not even be conscious of it.
But some part of us sees marriage as a public stamp of approval. A validation. A confirmation. We confuse being fixed up with being fixed. And that’s precisely what I was chasing during those chaotic dating days. That’s what made the quest so compulsive.
In my misguided mind, love was a trophy.
And if I could earn the trophy of love, I’d finally feel like a winner.
But my thinking was warped.
As it turns out, I had it entirely backwards.
“People do not see that the main question is not: “Am I loved?”
which is to a large extent the question: “Am I approved of?
Am I protected?
Am I admired?”
The main question is: “Can I love?”
– Erich Fromm, Love, Sexuality and Matriarchy
What we call love, is, more often than not, a misnomer for approval, protection, admiration, and validation. Getting married seemed to shower my fragile ego with a synthetic sense of value and esteem.
I was fixed, at last.
Or, so I thought…
“He’s a bit of a fixer-upper…”
Yes, we’re well acquainted with the fixer-upper narrative.
But there’s another phenomenon that’s far more prevalent and far less acknowledged than the fixer-upper, and that’s what I call the fixer-downer.
It’s a downer when we come to the following realization:
Marriage is not a fixer.
Marriage is not a stamp of approval.
Marriage is not a cure-all elixir.
If anything, it’s more like a defect detector — scanning our innermost selves for personality bugs and character kinks. Marking up our moral fabric with red ink and x-marks, like a lousy essay brutally butchered by edits and grammatical corrections.
But it’s only a downer because we expected an upper.
We expected picnics.
And fluffy pink clouds.
We expected sunshine.
We came to the gym expecting a massage. And we got handed a 200 pound dumbbell.
Get busy lifting.
Or get busy crying.
The twinkles and sparkles in our spouse’s eyes are sooner-or-later replaced with razor sharp darts and fiery flashes of disapproval. I believe the colloquial term for this gesture is ball-busting. But it’s more akin to pride-busting than busting of the testicular variety.
The boomerang of infatuation u-turns into infuriation. Ego stroking becomes ego striking.
Is this what I signed up for?
Yes. It’s exactly what I signed up for.
Marriage is a million little moments of minuscule crossfires and microscopic rifts. From tiny ripples to tidal waves, we sail the relation-ship through countless currents of tension and release.
But this is not as depressing as it sounds.
It’s what makes any healthy partnership flourish. We need each other — not for the cheap highs of admiration and validation. But for the counterintuitive covenant of conflict and confrontation.
One of the greatest pieces of writing advice I ever received was to learn how to accept rejection and reject acceptance. And I think the same could be said for marriage.
To paraphrase the Biblical formulation —
Humans can’t function in isolation— we depend on a helper to oppose us.
We grow through the tension of opposition.
There’s just no way around it.
As the saying goes:
If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.
Kick. The. Goddamn. Machine.
The problem is not the machine.
The problem is not the dollar.
The problem is me.
I expected this machine — quite like I expected this marriage— to mend my rips, smoothen my creases, and turn my crumpled cash into a sweet pile of candy.
But the machine only serves to highlight my rips.
Expose my creases.
Accentuate my weaknesses.
And that’s exactly what makes a marriage soar.
We can kick the machine,
For exposing a crease.
Or welcome the tension,
As our key to release.
Love is not a trophy,
Love is not a high,
Love is when two broken wings,
Unite and learn to fly.