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When the Cat's Away
Everything changes when Christine goes out of town. Cook dinner? Nah, let’s go to McDonald’s. Clear the counter? I’m the only one who uses it anyway. Clean up? It can wait until 30 minutes before she gets back. Go to bed? Might as well let the kids stay up so they fall asleep faster. Do something productive? Now’s the chance to play video games. Take a shower? The kids don’t care how I smell. Brush my teeth? Well, maybe I should.
If she takes the kids with her, don’t expect to see or hear from me for a while. I’ll be by myself, writing, reading, playing, or sleeping in various proportions, surviving on a diet of cinnamon rolls, nachos, and popcorn. The dog will be lucky if she gets a walk. I don’t know whether this is what I would be like were I a bachelor or whether it’s an overcorrection to the relative discipline of family life, but it amazes me how much we do on account of our spouse, and not even to impress them (I’m long past that), but simply because they exist. Having another person around is good for us.
You might be tempted to say this is a mating response, the wild male becoming responsible and respectable in order to attract a female, except I’m pretty sure women do it too. How many fancy dinners are y’all women making when your husband goes out of town? How much vacuuming are you doing? Are you wiping your loose hair out of the shower or putting your makeup back in the drawer? I didn’t think so.
Whether a spouse actually judges us or not, their presence makes us accountable to someone other than ourselves. They make us realize, in a way children can’t, that our actions, even our most personal and intimate actions, affect another person. We can’t do whatever we want because there is more to consider than our own desires. It doesn’t necessarily make us better people. Is someone who cooks fancier dinners or spends more time cleaning a better person? Not really. Is eating chicken and rice better than eating chips and queso all the time? Debatable. It can drive us into anxiety or bitterness. But there’s no doubt it changes us, and that’s a good thing.
For all our talk about self-determination and being our authentic selves, being in a relationship accomplishes the exact opposite. It reminds us that we are not isolated selves, and that many, maybe most, of our actions are things we would not do on our own. My authentic self, for instance, is pretty unhealthy, lazy, selfish, and reclusive. I need other people, starting with Christine, to help me break out of that self and become a new person, just as she often needs me to settle down, relax, and stop worrying. If we also impose burdens on each other, that’s inevitable, but we can hope they are not too heavy, and we can carry them together.