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Watch out for the Moose

The Prince Speaks

April 1, 2004

It has come to my attention that as of today, my particular nonconventional family arrangement (that's "quad" for those of you who speak poly) has now been under the same roof for four years. This is quite a milestone in the lexicon of plural marriages --looked at one way, my quad has been together a year longer than Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett, two years longer than Linda Hamilton and and James Cameron, and three years, eleven months, and twenty-nine days longer than Britney Spears.

Understand this is not back-patting, as tempted as I may be to feel smug about it. No marriage holds together without a hell of a lot of arguments, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, crossed wires, lack-of-listening, and pride-swallowing reconciliations. This is dicey enough when you're speaking of just two spouses (be it opposite sex or same-sex); just imagine the pitfalls inherent in adding a third, or a fourth person to the mix. To all you statisticians out there, this means instead of trying to find instances where TWO variables match up harmoniously, you now must try to calculate FOUR. I'm no mathematician, but I can't conceive of such a graphic having a whole lot of four-way overlap.

(I'm not even going to TRY to factor the additional variables of an ultra-sociable six year-old and a daydreaming eight year-old into this equation.)

Marriage is work, people. I can't place the name of the show, but it followed a "vox pops" interview format, and one of the comments that sticks in my brain is where one of the male characters looked straight into the camera and asked the audience, "Why would I want to get married? I already have a job!"

No matter how you define it or how many spouses share your living space(s), marriage ain't something you can just coast through. You have to be hyper-aware, at all times, without breaks. The best metaphor I can come up with for it is driving on a familiar highway day after day. You have a fairly well-developed sense of where the curves are, where the congestion tends to appear, when it's safe to speed up when to apply the brakes, and where the exits are, and you may even be used to seeing the same license plates sharing the road with you, but it doesn't obviate the need for you to be alert at all times. Tuning out and cruising along on automatic just isn't an option, no matter how routine the trip. Sooner or later that moose is going to stumble out in front of you (hey, I had to use the moose metaphor; I'm in Vermont, after all).

Marriage is not for sissies. Even in the marriage arrangements where some spouses might even "check out" for periods of time with other playmates, it doesn't mean the work stops. Households require vast amounts of maintenance, and I'm not just talking about staying on top of the laundry or confronting what's on the back bottom shelf of the fridge here. By maintenance I refer to keeping your spouses in the loop about where you are --not necessarily physically, but where you are emotionally. And spiritually. Can't neglect that side of it, either. In a household with what I sometimes think are four entirely irreconcilable personal spiritualities, it sometimes feels like The Battle For Olympus around here.

Which leads to my third point: marriage is stressful. Let me throw a question out to all my monogamously-married friends: how do you and your spouse deal with the stress of jobs, co-workers, bill-paying, cat vomit, raising kids, nosy neighbors, mildew, car payments, the soccer practice/piano lesson shuttle schedule, unwelcome visits from your parents, and (here it comes) each other? I'll make an educated guess: you learn to listen. The German philosopher Paul Tillich probably said it best when he said "the first duty of love is to listen."

I should qualify that: "learning to listen" isn't the same thing as "paying attention." I may have the soul of an artist, but there's an awful lot of engineer in me, too, and I have this real annoying habit of paying very close attention to the FIRST HALF (or even the first third) of a statement from one of my spouses. I will then immediately pounce on the problem, spouting solutions --which of course in most cases will be ignored, seeing as how I didn't have the decency to wait to hear the whole story!

There is a frankly destructive ignorance that abounds about romantic relationships: a goody-goody Martha Stewartland where everything has to be perfect. Perhaps it would be better to forget any ideas you might have soaked up from Cinderella or Mother Goose about wedded bliss --real marriages function like real machinery --over time they vibrate, rattle, make strange noises, shake pieces loose, get patched, reconditioned, even rebuilt. Show me a couple (or a triad, or a quad, etc.) that boasts of "perfect wedded bliss" and I'll show you somebody who's trying to hide something. But in the middle of all that rattling and parts-replacing eventually emerges a partnership that has learned to listen. If I may revert to my earlier highway metaphor, a real marriage not only knows where the road tends to bend, but also has learned to keep an eye on that wooded area for the moose's sudden appearance. THAT'S learning to listen.

What's your reward for all this listening and moose-avoidance? Well, I may be wrong, but I don't think I am: your reward is love. Real love, not wedded bliss. The kind of love that comes from years of learning to listen. The kind of love that only emerges in the wake of resolved arguments, stormy silences at the meal table, and nights in separate beds. The kind of love that can only come after a steady succession of strange noises and pieces shaken loose --and yes, perhaps even the occasional head-on moose collision.

As a confirmed old-fashioned romantic, this sure seems worth it to me; I'm certainly up for another four years. Who knows, perhaps by April Fool's Day, 2008, I'll be well on my way towards actually learning how to listen

Watch for moose, The Prince

A portrait of The Prince rendered by the Goddess of Giggle

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