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June 10, 2004

Competitive Coupling

http://www.jewishjournal.com/singles/article/competitive_coupling_20040611

When I was offered a job to write on "Significant Others," a new sitcom about marriage, I'm not sure who laughed harder -- my mother or I? As a single woman with accounts on three online dating services, what did I know about marriage?

Even my agent admitted that I got the gig partly because the show's producers, both married men with kids, had hired a group of married writers and wanted the single person's perspective.

"They want diversity," he said, as though being single suddenly made me eligible for affirmative action.

When I reported for work the first day, the executive producers told us to draw on experiences from our own lives. So I suggested a storyline about how when I tell a married friend something in confidence, I'm really telling my married friend and her husband. But neither acknowledges this breach of privacy, because you're not your best friend's best friend anymore -- her spouse is her best friend.

"Your spouse isn't your best friend," said a former "Seinfeld" writer who's been married for over a decade. "That's what you have best friends for!"

"Really?" I said, looking around at all the fingers sporting wedding bands. "I mean, isn't your spouse your most trusted confidante?"

Another writer, several years into his second marriage, put it this way: With your best friend, you can be totally open and share your true feelings. But with your spouse, you have to measure each word on the potential "Minefield Scale": Might it arouse jealousy? Will it reopen old wounds? Will it trigger trust issues? Is it a taboo topic? Apparently, there was an entire mental flow chart to clear before you could open your mouth.

Huh?

As we went around the table, one writer complained that her spouse always finishes her stories at parties -- so that he can deliver the witty punch line. Another said that if his wife is watching TV reruns before bed, he'll blurt out the show's ending so she'll shut it off and he can sleep. Someone else slipped mid-sentence and said "monotony" instead of "monogamy." By week's end, I'd heard detailed accounts of petty acts of revenge, passive-aggressive jabs, Machiavellian mothers-in-law, annoying bathroom habits, bickering, betrayals and lack of sex, trust or even conversation.

And these were supposed to be the funny storylines.

As I tried to put myself in the frame of mind of a married woman each day, I started to wonder why people get married at all. Or, more precisely, why I craved marriage so badly. Don't get me wrong: I was never naïve enough to think marriage is easy. I didn't even harbor the fantasy that your soulmate is your sole mate -- that there's just one "The One." But I did believe that the whole point of breakups was to avoid spending your life with someone who was just as often your nemesis as your lover. Yet my colleagues -- who, with straight faces, insisted they were happily married -- snuggled each night with spouses who tossed their cell phones into the garbage cans (didn't make it into the show), revealed embarrassing information about them at an office party (episode 3), and went into a private locked drawer to look at their journals and photos of exes (episode 2).

A few weeks later, my friend, Sherri, broke up with her boyfriend of three months.

"He's such a mama's boy," she said. "His mother contradicts me and he agrees with her!"

That's when it hit me: my single friends and I break up with men because we think "Marriage shouldn't be like this," when the "this" is exactly what marriage is like.

The next day, I told Dr. Mark, our show's network-provided Dr. Phil-like consultant, about my realization with Sherri and how that somehow seemed depressing.

"Imperfect companionship is better than perfect solitude," Dr. Mark said, patting me on the shoulder reassuringly. But I wasn't so sure.

While my colleagues would be going home to their harried spouses and boisterous children after 12 hours of work, I could read a book, take a luxurious bath, go for a walk, dish with my friends. Nobody would ask why I was working so late, or why the sink hadn't been fixed. I wouldn't have to listen to a story about my spouse's boss when all I wanted to do was curl up in bed. My solitude, at least at that moment, felt pretty perfect to me.

I still hope for the kind of imperfect companionship that Dr. Mark mentioned, but, suddenly, it didn't feel so urgent. I didn't even mind going to the premiere party alone. After all, maybe I'd meet a great guy.

Lori Gottlieb is author of the memoir "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self" (Simon and Schuster, 2000) and "Inside the Cult of Kibu: And Other Tales of the Millennial Gold Rush" (Perseus Books, 2002). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.

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