Grouchily Ever After

Why good-natured grumbling keeps our marriage from crumbling.

Grouchily Ever After

If my marriage ends, I blame Rob Marciano.

Marciano is my next husband, though he is better known as CNN’s unspeakably beautiful, and frequently wrong, weatherman for American Morning. He’s built like a Ken doll (though I hope he’s got external genitalia) and has the hands of a god, the better to manipulate that whiz-bang touch-screen weather map: under his nimble fingers, cloud fronts tremble. But it’s his eyes that slay me. The eyes are sad. The eyes say, “I am so sorry I have no idea what I’m talking about. None of us do. That monster snowstorm we’re predicting? We have no clue.”

I admit that perhaps I’ve mentioned my throbbing passion for Marciano to my husband, John, once or twice or 300 times. After all, I don’t take seriously my pathetic crush on a man young enough to be my child. And I certainly don’t get bent out of shape when John starts talking about his next wife, Martha Stewart, in hushed, respectful tones. “Martha…now there’s a woman,” he murmurs, usually after I’ve nuked Kraft Dinner in the microwave because it’s too much effort to make it on the stove.

But Marciano is a sore point in our household. Every time that hunk of meteorological man-meat issues a dire warning that doesn’t come to pass, I am subjected to John’s dripping sarcasm: “What did Robbie say yesterday? Thunderstorms? Oh, hey, look outside. Look at that sun! It’s burning my eyes…”

I think John secretly finds my infatuation funny. But he likes to maintain that his feigned irritation is a cornerstone of our marriage.

And now my confession: I find John’s grouchiness endearing-and a source of endless amusement. I remember once asking a friend, a veterinarian, why English bulldogs were his favourite breed. “They look so indignant all the time,” he said. “That just cheers me up.” I knew exactly what he meant.

Shared humour is a litmus test of love, a key predictor in whether couples will stay together. A recent study by psychologists Patrick Whalen and Robert Levenson looked at stress among long-married couples measured in terms of blood pressure, heart rate and sweating. They found that affectionate humour (but not malicious teasing and sarcasm) makes us calmer and more responsive to our partners during anxious times. The upshot: we like them more because they make us feel better. We already knew this intuitively, but it’s nice to have science on our side.

“Laughing together is as close as you can get to another person without touching,” notes Gina Barreca, a professor of English and feminist studies at the University of Connecticut. Think about it: in any movie, right before two people touch, they’re laughing or crying. And let’s face it: unless you’re Julia Roberts, you look better laughing.

A laugh relieves more than life’s trivial stressors. It also helps us through some of our most wrenching times.

I have a friend who’s trying to repair her marriage to her husband, who briefly left her for another woman. Part of their therapy was for the husband to confess his sins.

“So there I was, sobbing and sobbing as Rick* told me he’d taken a vacation with this woman and her children,” my friend said. “Just the thought of that level of intimacy killed me. I couldn’t stop crying. Finally, in desperation, Rick said, ‘But, but…it was a trip to Disney World.’

“I stopped for a minute. I thought about our trips to Disney World when the kids were little. The lines, the heat, the way our son would scream in terror whenever he saw Mickey or Goofy…Oh my God, it was the opposite of romance. I just started giggling. And so did he. It was a turning point for us.”

Of course, humour can also be a kick in the gut, especially when it falls flat. Many a marriage has foundered the moment one or both partners realize, We used to find the same things funny.

Another friend, Lauren,* had gone through a battery of medical tests to determine why she was losing her balance and having double vision. She was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but at first doctors suspected a brain tumour. During a brain angiogram, Lauren jokingly wrote “This brain” on her forehead, parodying the way some surgeons label the correct limb prior to operating on it.

“My husband didn’t find it funny at all,” Lauren says. The fact that they couldn’t share a laugh at a critical moment was a hint that their marriage had flatlined. The couple soon divorced.

Whether John and I take a romantic stroll in the park or fantasize about shoving each other out the window, I’m glad to report we still find the same things funny. Take what happened in the spring of 2010. After the unpronounceable volcano erupted in Iceland and flights were cancelled or delayed all over Europe, John had to take a trip to England. He’s a worrier at the best of times and now he was beside himself. What if his return flight got held up for days? Worse still, what if he got to England and the volcano erupted again? Then he would be stranded indefinitely. And what if he actually got caught in an ash plume and his plane went down?

This monologue went on for days. Finally he called me from the airport. His flight was leaving, and he was thinking about not boarding it.

“Sweetheart, if something happens to you on that flight, I just want you to know something,” I began.

“Yes?” John said.

“Rob Marciano and I will think of you when we cash the cheques from the airline.”

There was a stunned silence. Then John guffawed. Then he got on the plane. l

*Names changed to protect privacy.

(Illustration: Graham Roumieu)