Taming your creature of habit

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

A friend sent me one of those funny little items from Harper's Magazine. Any married couple could relate to it.

In short, a woman complains to her marriage counselor that her husband won't rinse out his milk glass, leaving it for her to face every morning. The counselor assures her that her husband is never, ever going to change his milk-drinking and glass-rinsing habits.

After her divorce, the woman often considers how right that counselor was.

There's a lesson in that funny little story: We're all creatures of habit. We've got different ways that we like to do things, and part of marriage is finding someone whose idiosyncrasies you can tolerate. Or, as one longtime married friend advised me, "Before you commit, think about something your man does that you find mildly irritating. Multiply that by 10 and you've got marriage."

Sometimes, it's those weird little traits that produce the most heated arguments, arguments that seem utterly ridiculous later.

My idiosyncrasy? I believe the curling iron or straightening iron -- when you've got just enough wave to be irritating, you tend to switch back and forth depending on the style that year -- has been left on every morning. After eight years of marriage, I have learned to unplug the device, stare at the empty electrical outlet and say aloud, "I unplugged the Chi." (I'm straightening these days.)

But for the first seven years of marriage, I called home almost daily to The Other Half, who works a different shift, and yelled into the answering machine, "I LEFT THE CURLING IRON PLUGGED IN. I'M GOING TO BURN THE HOUSE DOWN!"

He would wake up, dutifully stagger into the bathroom and then report back. "You did not leave the curling iron plugged in. I'm going back to bed."

I always felt a little stupid after that, but what if I left the curling iron plugged in with him sleeping? I'd never forgive myself if I came home to find Mr. Half shivering outside in his Calvin Kleins, holding our two cats he'd rescued, the fire department spraying down the last of my Conair Steam 'n' Shine 1-1/2-inch barrel curling iron.

There are undoubtedly other irritating things I do, but Mr. Half would have to tell you about those. He'd probably say that my closet and bathroom medicine cabinet have been declared federal disaster areas, but I don't see how that affects him.

He's got plenty of odd little traits. His latest trick is passing whatever destination we're bound for.

My dad used to do that, too. We'd be heading for worship on Sunday morning, and he'd drive right past the church turnoff and continue straight toward the office.

It drove my mother crazy. "You can't stop thinking about work and focus on our Lord Jehovah for even one morning, can you?" she'd ask.

In my marriage, Mr. Half seems to understand the plan at first. For instance, we'll be on our way to the movies, and I'll say, "Hey, let's stop at the ATM so I can get some cash."

He makes some sort of sound or movement that indicates he understands me. We drive toward the ATM, but we don't seem to be slowing down. I don't want to seem like a nag, so I don't say anything until we're about 10 feet from the ATM driveway and there's no sign of stopping.

I then give an increasingly louder series of reminders -- "atm. Atm. ATM! ATM! ATM!" -- as we go whizzing past.

Apparently, men think of trips as point A and point E, a beginning and a destination. That is the extent of the journey. If a wife tries to throw in points B, C and D, it simply does not register.

So the question is, how do you get him to stop without nagging 60 yards before the intended driveway? I'm thinking some sort of large cue cards with the destination written on them.

Or maybe I'll just drive.

Heidi Hall is managing editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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