Relationships are hard, Covid or no Covid.
Many of us have squeezed into too-close quarters going on a year and a half. We assumed at the start of Covid that our enforced togetherness was make-shift, temporary. With the delta surge and vaccine-resistance, normality keeps retreating into the future.
But, it’s not too late – or too hard – to improve current relationships. Or enhance new ones.
Hear me out. My idea is cheaper and quicker than therapy. And it doesn’t space you out like psych meds. I recommend taking to heart the lessons in Kate DiCamillo’s Leroy Ninker Saddles Up. DiCamillo is a beloved author of children’s literature. Chris Van Dusen is the illustrator.
They offer implicit and explicit bits of advice, all of them worthwhile.
Here’s the story.
Leroy Ninker dreams of being a cowboy. To fulfill this dream, he needs a horse.
On his way to check out a horse for sale, Leroy dreams: “I hope he is a fast horse … And I hope that he is strong. I will call him Tornado … It was the most perfect name for a horse ever … Tornado!”
Patty LeMarque, the horse’s owner, points into a field, “There is Maybelline.”
Lesson one! Discard distracting fantasies.
The second lesson comes straight from Patty LeMarque’s mouth. “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
“Okay,” says Leroy, giving up his incessant “Yippie-i-oh.”
Patty then tells Leroy some things he needs to know about Maybelline.
You’ve got to talk sweet to Maybelline.
Maybelline eats a lot of grub. “A. Lot. Of. Grub.”
Maybelline gets lonesome quick. Don’t leave her alone for long.
Maybelline starts to run only after Leroy gives her admiring remarks. The more he compliments her, the faster she goes.
As it gets dark, Leroy cooks up the only food in his kitchen – spaghetti with tomato sauce. Maybelline has three helpings.
Realizing that Maybelline could never fit inside his apartment, Leroy sleeps outside with her. He is content. In the night, it starts to rain. Leroy searches for an umbrella in the apartment. It takes him too long. Maybelline gets lonely and bolts. Leroy shows his mettle by persisting in tracking her in the rain storm.
This is relationship gold. Bill and my relationship could have been so much smoother had we read this book thirty years ago. Here’s what I mean.
I remember my totally untethered expectations when Bill first asked me out. And I was not a youngster. I was divorced and had a kid. Still, I had Leroy Ninker-like fantasies.
I even wrote a list. Bill would:
Drive a Volvo.
Play a musical instrument.
Speak a foreign language or two.
Espouse liberal politics.
Bill showed up in a full-sized GMC conversion van, replete with captain’s chairs. His passion was golf. His instrument was the stereo. Just English, thank you. And, believe it or not, he had voted for Ronald Reagan.
It took me a while to see beyond the nonessentials and discard my fantasies. (Bill’s politics came around.)
Patty’s rule to “speak plainly” was something for Bill to learn. For years, when he went outside for the newspaper, I’d ask him for the temperature to help me decide what to wear. His responses were never useful: “It’s cold,” or “It’s hot.” My reply was too plainly spoken, “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Or, on the golf course. (I took up the game to avoid becoming a golf widow.) He would say, “Your ball is just off the fairway, honey.” Yes, but the ball landed in thick, long rough. Does he think I am fooled into thinking I’ve made a good shot?
It’s pretty much a joke now, and it goes for him too. “Just off the fairway, honey,” is code for “You are in deep doo-doo.”
As for Maybelline’s requirements, I am not suggesting that we need exactly what Maybelline needs, although sweet words, a lot of food and companionship is not a bad list.
The point is this: We should believe our partners, roommates or family members when they tell us what they want.
It’s human nature, however, to want to “improve” those nearest and dearest to us. Restrain yourself. Take their word for it. The brilliant part of the book is that you can’t negotiate with a horse.
Here are some ways I have modified my behavior for Bill:
- I don’t ask him to opine about my writings after 7 at night.
- We eat dinner in front of the TV.
- I acquiesce to his “courtesies” – walking behind me, opening doors, sitting on the aisle. (There is danger to getting used to these practices. One day, I was strolling the Charlottesville Mall with my friend Sue. We decided to go into a store. Unconsciously, I stood waiting for Sue to open the door for me.)
These are some changes Bill has made for me:
- He will drop whatever he’s doing to help me find something. He knows I get anxious.
- These days, before my daily walks, Bill checks his phone and tells me the temperature, heat index, and rain prediction. He also keeps a towel and car keys at the ready if radar shows rain.
- Once in a while, when I seem testy, he will walk through a door or up the basement step in front of me.
The changes seem small, not unlike Leroy making spaghetti or calling Maybelline “Beloved.” But the rewards are great. Much better than spending years and beaucoup bucks with a therapist untangling Bill’s Southern gentility versus my Chinese sharp-eyed perfectionism, my extroversion versus his lone wolf mentality, his risk aversion versus my unpredictable enthusiasms. I am well aware that Bill would never expose so much about his life. But, then, he loves me.
This is the great lesson of Leroy Ninker Saddles Up. If you want to live happily with someone, take that person’s word for what it is they want. Believe your beloved.
Tell me: What would you like someone close to you to quit trying to change about you?