What Happens When Marital Zones Collide
Navigating territories can be a constant negotiation process
I once asked my mother how she’s stayed married to my father for more than 50 years, and she replied, “We have our zones.”
One could argue that their respective zones are retrograde and sexist, but it works for them. My father had the lawn, the garage and his workshop. My mother had the rest of the house. My father never expressed an opinion about throw pillows or whatever whimsical art she hung on the walls, and my mother didn’t judge his gadgetry. (A former electrical engineer, my father has owned an airplane, laser cutters, ham radio antennae, drill presses, vintage carburetors and an oscilloscope, among other items. My mother asked only that these not be publicly displayed.)
But now that they’ve downsized and moved into senior living, the zones have merged. Where roles were once understood, they’ve had to be renegotiated.
I’m referring to my father’s invasion of the kitchen. My mother’s zone. She has not borne it lightly.
Sidelined by knee replacement surgery last year, my mother could only watch helplessly as my father unilaterally purchased an enormous mixer. He considered baking a metric ton of cookies “helping” with her recovery. She could only see an ugly appliance taking up precious counter space.
“He’s taken over!” howled my mother on the phone. “You like cookies?” I offered.
A retired dietitian, my mother has a complicated relationship with cookies. Yes, she loves them, but there are standards, in quality and quantity. My father was failing at both metrics.
“His snickerdoodles are too hard. I said, ‘Stan, give these away.’ ”
My father gave the cookies to the front desk staff at their senior center. Which further enraged my mother, because they encouraged his baking, which emboldened him to seize more kitchen territory. He replaced her pots.
In fairness to my father, they were awful pots that probably could be carbon-dated to their wedding in 1965. Nonetheless, they were my mother’s. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with them, and he was overstepping.
“I can’t lift these things! He bought cast iron!” she wailed.
“Does it matter if he’s doing all the cooking now? Who cares what pots he uses?” I said.
That was the wrong answer. My mother clearly still considers herself administrator of the kitchen zone. Just because she’s ceded most of the cooking to him since her surgery didn’t give him license to usurp her zone. He should’ve consulted her.
“And that’s when I remembered that a successful marriage means forgiveness and making concessions. Which is why there is a bobblehead armadillo in my living room.”
A history of negotiated territories
It might seem rigid, but the defined territories of their relationship have held for 57 years for a reason.
In a fit of youthful experimentation in the ’70s, my mother allowed my father to cook for a time. He’d had an infatuation with the TV show The Galloping Gourmet, and a hippie bread-baking phase. She rolled with it. Until he took over a dinner party in 1976 and served hasenpfeffer (rabbit stew). For a week leading up to the party, there was a sever-headed, pickled rabbit in our refrigerator. As you can imagine, the sinewy, vinegar-soaked rabbit meat was not a hit. My mother was mortified. My father had been banished from the kitchen ever since.
But a long marriage means forgiveness and making concessions. My mother now gives my father recipes. She gets to feel in command, and my father may use whatever gadgetry he wants, so long as he follows the recipe. Recent reports on his tuna noodle casserole: “It was actually pretty good,” my mother conceded.
I used to think myself above such gender stereotyping. Growing up, I found the zones embarrassing. The way my mother feigned helplessness at pumping gas and unscrewing jars. Or how my father completely lacked the ability to pick out his own clothing. I cringed at such dependency.
But then I got remarried a decade ago, when I was in my 40s, and zones collided. I began to reconsider the advantages of defined responsibilities. And even the squishy vulnerability of interdependence.
Before I met my husband Paul, years of singledom meant, like it or not, I had all the zones. No one unscrewed my mayonnaise lids. I didn’t need a man to maintain my car. Moreover, unlike my mother, I cleaned my own gutters, mowed the lawn and even laid drywall.
New terms and conditions
So imagine my surprise one day, early in my marriage, when I began surveying the contents of Paul’s closet. I questioned why a middle-aged professional needed five different pairs of camo cargo shorts. I encouraged the destruction of a threadbare T-shirt showing an accordion player and the words “polka pimp.” I lavished praise on him when he wore a pressed shirt. And then I realized — I was dressing him. I had become my mother.
Meanwhile, Paul had his zones too, and proclaimed: “I’ll roll the trash out. Please don’t do that. I don’t want people to think I’m some sort of a jerk.” This was in Texas. Apparently, there is some unspoken code of honor with men and rolling garbage bins.
I thought I had an egalitarian, without-gender-borders marriage, only to discover this whole zones business had imprinted itself on my brain. OK, I’ll be the little lady and let my husband haul the trash to the curb. We’ll be modern and call it a “love language.”
But what really pushed me over the edge was decorating. I could not believe Paul wanted a say about our home furnishings. I wanted him stripped of all voting rights. This was my God-given zone!
Little did I know, this had been Paul’s zone. He had always been allowed to decorate with abandon. I thought him decorated-abandoned — as in, his ex-wife took all the nice things and left him with a wagon-wheel coffee table. But no, he picked that out himself.
He, too, had grown up with zones, but opposite zones than the ones I had seen. In Paul’s childhood, his father’s things dominated the communal living areas — model ships, fossil collections, meteorites, taxidermy fish, wood-carved signs, an international flag collection. It was all one big man cave. I once asked him, “How did your mother stand this?”
“She didn’t care. She wanted five children. Because she won on that, she let go of the rest.”
Drawing the decorating line
I could not comprehend this. No man in my family had ever voiced an opinion about interior decorating, and the women in my family were extremely house-proud. Maybe too proud. My maternal grandmother bought new furnishings the way other people buy outfits each season. Silk upholstery, Persian carpets, Danish modern credenzas.
My father never questioned my mother’s birthright as Keeper of the Pretty Things. Heck, this was a man who couldn’t match his socks. He knew better than to wade into those waters and express opinions.
Keep the wagon-wheel coffee table? Are you kidding me? Paul’s taste for Western kitsch didn’t end there. His walls were covered with amateur oil paintings of tumbleweeds and sunsets. There was a bobblehead armadillo on the mantel. He loved these things, and not out of any sense of hipster irony — he honest-to-God adored them.
Clearly, it was time to set down some boundaries.
“Decorating is my zone,” I told Paul. “Maybe the sunset painting could go to your office?” (No. The office was full of his collection of hobo signs and petroleum collectibles.)
“I live here too,” he said. “Don’t I get a say in my own home?”
He had me there.
“I just … it’s just …” I sputtered. How to tell him I think his stuff is awful without hurting his feelings?
“You think you have better taste than I do?”
I absolutely do. I didn’t say it, though. But the disdain must have seeped out of my pores, because he looked wounded.
And that’s when I remembered that a successful marriage means forgiveness and making concessions. Which is why there is a bobblehead armadillo in my living room.
We’re still working out the zones. And maybe that’s what a good relationship looks like: diplomacy, constant territory negotiations and a very large man cave. But sometimes love means just abandoning the field.
In other words, back off. The throw pillows are all mine.
Tracy Schorn is a writer who runs the popular advice site ChumpLady.com. She is the former editor of state news at the AARP Bulletin.
More Life’s a Journey Essays:
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.