A long marriage is two people trying to dance a duet and two solos at the same time.
-Anne Taylor Flemming
In the life of a marriage, some years are momentous…a baby is born, or there’s a household move, or a big life transition, like a graduation or a retirement. Some years are so busy they pass in a blur, the daily effort to juggle job, children, bills, and budget so all-encompassing you wake up on December 31 and wonder where the year went. Some years are challenging, where an illness, or a job loss, or the death of a loved one makes a deep tread that marks the entire year. And some years are quiet – small wins, balanced by small disappointments, a year that feels a bit like treading water, where you look back and say, “What have we really done? What is different? What have we accomplished?”
Tomorrow is our 31st wedding anniversary. As I look back on this year together, at first it appears like one of those quiet years. Our children are both on track and moving well through their college studies, and there has been relatively little drama. No one is in trouble with the academic provost or with the law (this is a big deal and cause for celebration in and of itself). We’re both still employed and we’re not fighting about finances. No momentous life events have thrown us into a personal or collective spin. It’s been one of those years where it seems like we all just keep on keeping on. Boy, it sounds like the annual Christmas letter might be rather boring.
But as I look closer at the year, get under the covers of our everyday life, there is something there. For so many years, my husband Andrew and I danced the big duet; an all-consuming, major production tango to actively manage EVERYTHING – the academic, athletic and social lives of our children, the household, bills, school and Boy Scouts, and two dogs, all while aggressively climbing our individual career ladders and trying to squeeze in any small bit of stolen personal or relationship time that might be available.
But in this last year, it has finally felt like we are free of much of that responsibility to “manage” everything. That sense of freedom was very slow to come; it did not happen immediately once the boys went off to college. Only now that they are 20 and 23 have I maybe figured out how to let go. I guess I’m a slow learner. But nevertheless, a well-fought, hard-won and increasingly joyous freedom it is.
So this has been the year of moving into a new and unfamiliar marriage dance – one of two solos as well as a new type of duet. I took a trip abroad – solo – and everybody was ok with that. The world didn’t end, husband and children managed just fine, and I had a wonderful time. I was able to begin to dance my own solo, develop my art, and explore landscapes and dreams I have nourished since I was a young girl. Our weekends are now mostly our own to plan and enjoy, and Andrew and I have the time – and the freedom – to take off together for a trip, alone or with good friends, without a huge amount of exhaustive pre-planning.
But this dance is still rather much an improv experience, one that is not yet well choreographed. We are still learning how to dance this new dance. What should the size and framework of our solos be? What parts do we each best play in this new duet, where there are no familiar rules and only two in the company? What is the right balance that creates a winning and fulfilling performance for the next 20 years of our lives together?
I am a worrier and a planner, a choreographer who wants to map out all the steps ahead of the show. I am fearful of trying to dance a new dance where I don’t know the steps. I am all scripting and practice and memorization. But my wonderful husband Andrew is improv all the way.
One of the most profound books I read this year was Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson. Madson is the founder of the Stanford Improvisors and the head of the undergraduate acting program at Stanford. In her book, she describes thirteen rules of improvisation theatre that can be applied to real-life everyday challenges. There are so many lessons in this book it is almost impossible to call one or two out. But the first and principle rule of Improv is: SAY YES. “Say Yes to everything. Go along with the plan. Support someone else’s dream. Cultivate all the ways you can imagine to express affirmation.” Saying Yes is not mindless or spineless agreement; Madson calls it an act of courage and optimism. It is a way to make your partner happy – to make the scene or the dance better for you both. “Yes expands your world” – and the world of your partner.
I am blessed with a life and dance partner who will always say Yes. I am blessed with a partner who listens, who doesn’t like to criticize, one who pays attention to my moves, to my story. One who easily shares control; who is committed to staying the course, and one who at heart wants to advance both our storylines and dreams.
Back in 1982 I certainly could never have predicted all the versions and seasons of our marriage dance. But it turns out I picked the right partner for a most beautiful and long-running show.
Happy anniversary, my love. Let’s dance.