You Say Tomato...
Or how I learned to see every couple as the odd couple
By Molly Layton
Whenever we fall in love with another person, whatever his or her special qualities, we inevitably get the whole enfolded package—not only what's pleasing or beautiful, but the imperfections and problems. We fall in love with dark eyes, a wayward curl of hair, and eventually discover we're stuck as well with the shifting sexual energies, the inexorable wear and tear of the mortal body. Sooner or later, however we might wish it otherwise, we find our partner has personal limitations, disagreeable creature habits, constitutional appetites we don't share, an inborn temperament that may start to wear against our own. The question we face then is how much either of us can rejigger certain fundamental aspects of ourselves to accommodate the other.
As a therapist, I took a long while to acknowledge this obvious reality of life and to see how that affected the work of couples therapy, particularly the issue of temperament. Temperament is a function of the range of capabilities in our animal body, a range we share to some extent with other mammals. You could call it our animal spirits, perhaps considered more prosaically as a neurological system: spirits that can be naturally fast or slow, rhythmic or arrhythmic, spirits that welcome excitement or avoid it, that approach or withdraw in the face of new things. One of the visiting cats in our home comes in every morning while we shower, to sit in the misty room and comment in sociable nipping sounds on how well we brush our teeth. The old home cat, meanwhile, sulks in the back bedroom—The Mad Woman in the Attic, we call her—this retreat her only way to cope with her perceived loss of safety.
Psychologists, pros and amateurs alike, betray an irrepressible penchant to catalogue these temperaments. We duly note the slow-to-warm-up child, comparing its style with that of the child who forges ahead without considering the consequences. We observe the way one person is speedy, or easily upset, while another pokes along with barely an anxious glance to the left or right. We notice differences in perception and organizational traits, pointing out people who trust their own senses—how things look or feel or taste—in comparison with people who would override the sensorium to trust only their own unsentimental thinking. Or people energized by being around other people vs. people drained by social interaction, who seek solitude to regain themselves. I remember a couple who argued about whether the husband had the right to look first at the mail when he came home in the evening; he felt he needed the quiet time with the mail before he could reenter the swirling household.