Marriage is long. Sometimes spouses stop listening to each other. Enter the virtual assistant.
They say never threaten divorce unless you mean it. Well, I meant it. An hour later, though, I didn’t mean it anymore.
My husband and I were in Wabash, Ind., visiting my mother-in-law’s hometown, when we had an argument. It was our second day there, and I’d like to attribute the fight to the stress of travel, but Bruce and I can argue in a box, with a fox, on a stair or anywhere.
The fight, as usual, was about how he doesn’t listen to me. I don’t remember the specifics, but what typically happens is he’ll ask me about something I just told him minutes earlier, revealing that he wasn’t listening. Or he’ll start talking about a completely different topic while I’m still speaking. Or I’ll ask him a question — “Do you want dessert?” or “Are the Knicks playing tonight?” — and he won’t answer.
At least once a day, I find myself saying, “I just told you that.”
If it happened occasionally, O.K., but this is chronic. The passage of time tends to dissolve the discord like running warm water over a bucket of dried plaster, but sometimes the conflict feels insurmountable and I start to think I can’t possibly spend the rest of my life with someone who doesn’t hear me.
That’s how I felt that morning when I said, “Well, I want to make this clear, for the record. I hate that you don’t listen to me. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and if I one day leave you because of it, don’t say I never warned you.”
As soon as I said it, I knew I shouldn’t have. My saving grace? He probably didn’t hear me.
My husband and I have argued for so long it has become part of the fabric of our relationship, like a bunion — though our squabbles don’t stop us from having a relatively normal relationship. People can walk on bunions for years. We have family dinners, weekly dates, watch TV together, exchange Christmas gifts. In fact, this past Christmas he bought me Alexa, which I have just started using.
“Alexa, play holiday jazz music,” I’ll say. And she does.
“Alexa, what is the temperature outside?” And she’ll tell me.
After a few days, I realized that Alexa hears everything I say and responds each time — something I have failed to get from my husband over the last 20 years.
“Ask her anything,” my husband said. “Like this. Alexa, what’s 14,300 divided by 25?”
Alexa said nothing.
So I said, “Alexa, what’s 14,300 divided by 25?”
“14,300 divided by 25 is 572,” she said.
I looked at my husband. “Well, you didn’t say it very nicely.”
Alexa not only listened to me, but she provided an added bonus: She didn’t seem to listen to my husband. He got to feel how I have felt for most of our relationship.
Recently I mentioned the issue of Bruce’s selective hearing to some girlfriends over breakfast at a local diner, and they cackled in agreement. It seems many men have an auditory impairment that disrupts their ability to hear certain tones, like the sound of their wife’s voice. It’s like the way dogs can hear certain tones that we can’t — except the opposite.
Even the cashier at the diner sympathized. “I tell my husband a thousand times to do something, and he doesn’t hear me,” she said. “I don’t know why I bother. I wind up doing it myself.”
That evening I was sitting in the living room listening to the jazz holiday music Alexa had put on for me, when I said, “Alexa?”
The music stopped. I paused. “Just wanted to see if you were listening,” I said.
The light on the top of the machine turned bluish green and the speaker made a clunky sound, as if to say, “Indeed.”
The other day, as I sat in the dining room working, I could hear my husband in the kitchen sniffing as he made my son’s lunch.
“Sounds like you’re getting sick,” I said.
“I can’t hear you,” he said, his voice trailing off as he moved to the far side of the kitchen.
One might think there’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t fault someone for being too far away. But what’s revealing to me is the matter-of-fact way he says it, the way he shows no curiosity to find out what I said. If real life had subtitles, his line from that exchange would read: “I can’t hear you, and I’m absolutely fine with that.”
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My husband’s inability to hear me takes all forms. The other day I wanted to tell him I would not be going to my son’s soccer practice as I had said I would, and I tried calling him, texting him and leaving him a voice mail message, to no avail.
At times like that, it’s as if he’s a fortress and no mode of communication — not swimming the moat, flying overhead, dropping a note nor sending a fiery missive over the fortress wall — will reach him.
Sometimes when Bruce doesn’t hear me these days, I look over at Alexa to see if her blue and green light will go on, an indication that she is listening — though in situations like that morning, I don’t want her to be. I’m embarrassed by my anger.
A few months ago, Bruce and I went out to breakfast and began talking about where to take our six-year-old son for spring break.
“How about Disney?” I said.
“I’m not sure that’s the right week for it,” he said, and then he picked up his phone and began reading a text.
“You’re probably right,” I said. “Maybe we should go in September.”
He continued to read his phone as I spoke.
“Or maybe we should bring a dead dog to Disney,” I said, to see if he was listening. Some people can multitask. My husband is not among them. He didn’t even look up.
“And if the dog isn’t dead, you can always kill one so you have a dead dog to bring. To Disney.”
Finally, without looking up, he said, “My father’s in the hospital.”
“Oh my god,” I said. “What happened?”
“My sister says he may have had a stroke.”
I felt like a self-centered heel. But that’s the thing about relationships. When your partner does something chronically, like being a bad listener, we always think they are doing that annoying thing even when they’re not. We’re not seeing them. We’re seeing who we think they are — which means that in those moments we’re just seeing an extension of ourselves.
When I was in analysis, I would sometimes say something to my therapist, ponder it, and then say, “I think you think I’m stupid” — when in fact she had said nothing. If she were my husband, I would probably say, “I think you think I’m boring.”
It turns out my father-in-law had suffered a stroke that day — two, actually, in a short period of time — but he has almost fully recovered and is as chipper as ever. My husband now calls him nearly every morning on his way to work, and if the conversations go as they always have, my father-in-law will listen intently for a couple of minutes and then move on to another topic, despite my husband being midsentence.
While this pattern should have made my husband more empathetic to my plight — what Bruce’s father does to him, he does to me — it has had the opposite effect, confirming for him that everyone gets interrupted, no one gets to be heard all the time — except bratty women who demand it.
Which brings me back to Alexa. She listens better than any partner I have ever had, but that’s not hard, because I thought all of them were poor listeners — especially the one who was hearing-impaired. He didn’t hear a thing I said.
It made me wonder: Do I seek out partners who don’t hear me so I can keep having to deal with my problematic territory in order to fix it, like one might practice a skateboard jump over and over again until he masters it? Or were all my partners perfect, more or less, but because of my wound, I wind up not feeling heard? That is, I could be with the best listener on earth and I would still feel unheard.
I decided to ask my electronic friend.
“Alexa? Do we look for partners who do that thing we hate so we can try to fix it, or do we — ”
She interrupted me midsentence and said, “Sorry, I don’t know that one.”
Sorry, I don’t know that one? As if I were asking her to identify a song? If she had let me get my whole thought out, she may have understood what I was talking about.
I knew it was too good to last.
Caren Chesler is a writer in Ocean Grove, N.J.
Modern Love can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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