I guffaw at "The Simpsons," now the longest running TV sitcom at 17 seasons. My wife, Jana, is annoyed by it. I, obviously, get the cartoon sitcom. Billions can't be wrong, I say. "The Simpsons" are now so embedded in American culture, you can write a graduate thesis about them. I weighed returning to college for a degree in Early Romantic Simpsons Literature, but Jana put the kibosh on the idea.
I hoot at Homer's stupidity, Marge's practicality, their son, Bart's, disrespect, their daughter Lisa's activism, and even baby Maggie's binky habit.
I should make one caveat: "The Simpsons" isn't a morality show on marriage. Yet, through the years of watching Homer and Marge, I've encountered several principles from their marriage that seem to resonate with mine.
1. Compatibility is overrated.
Jana's and my taste in sitcoms is no commentary on our marriage, though it sums up our degree of compatibility on a range of interests. And that, perhaps, is the first lesson I've learned from Homer and Marge, America's First Middle-Class Couple of Sitcoms: You can stay married for at least 17 seasons even if you're not compatible on all fronts. (My wife and I just hit 15 this summer.) For starters, with his brain-dead job at Springfield's nuclear power plant, Homer is definitely blue-collar in flesh and spirit, no matter his off-beat adventures, such as running for political office. Marge, the mostly stay-at-home mom, owns both the highest eq (emotional intelligence) and iq of the two. If I were writing the script, I'd have Marge finish her college degree and then head to law school, once the kids are out of the house.
My friends would definitely concur that Jana owns the highest eq and iq in our marriage, and while we like to watch the Top 20 Countdown on cmt (Country Music Television) at night after we've berated our kids into staying in bed, she's a little bit country, and I'm a lot (alternative) rock and roll. So I submit to her radio and cd tastes in the minivan, and nobody gets hurt.
2. Twenty minutes is about the right amount of time before saying, "I'm sorry."
Yes, I know the marriage of Homer and Marge is an artificial construct. They have to resolve all tiffs in 20 minutes of script. Good things happen when you have a short script to resolve your marital beefs. Twenty minutes attaches a short leash to grudges. Homer and Marge's marriage is like ours: I'm most often the dope. Jana and Marge are good at the fundamental but not intuitive skill of forgiving their spouse.
In one episode, Marge is angry at Homer, once again, and the final shot recreates a scene from the movie Thelma and Louise, where the two women on the lam drive their car off a cliff. In "The Simpsons" episode, however, Homer leans out the police car (one of a legion that's chasing Marge and a friend as they head for the cliff) and shouts into a megaphone: "I'm sorry for making gravy in the bathtub." Marge immediately forgives Homer, the car swerves to avoid the cliff, and Marge averts her demise. VoilÀ! The marriage and sitcom are saved.
There are a lot of "I'm sorry for the gravy in the bathtub" apologies in our marriage. They grease communication and cut anxiety: "I'm sorry for forgetting to pick up Christian after baseball practice." "I'm sorry for not getting home soon enough for you to make it to your job on time." "I'm sorry for letting the kids trash the house one hour before you get home from work and two hours before our church's small group arrives." "I'm sorry for not wiping the dog's muddy feet right after the cleaners left."
Basically, I'm sorry a lot. I often violate the scriptural admonition not to let the sun go down on my wrath. When I feel hurt or ignored or know that I've crossed a line, I tend to orbit further and further from Jana. It takes so much more energy to orbit closer to the center.
I might not say good night when we head to bed. I know that can trouble Jana. It's my destructive way of communicating, "My feelings are still hurt, and I'm not giving you the satisfaction of feeling good about us before you fall sleep."
The issue always comes to a head. It has to. Or we live in increasing silence and begin to cycle down. The act of saying, "I'm sorry for …" or "I apologize for …" stops the silence. It breaks the cycle.
On Tuesdays, for a time, I arrived home from work at 1 p.m. to care for our 4 year old while Jana worked as a nurse. Or should I say, I was supposed to arrive home at 1 p.m. Most often, it was 1:10 or 1:15, so Jana would peel out of our driveway, knowing she'd be several minutes late for work. Once, after I did it yet again by not cutting short a luncheon, we began our liturgy anew. Jana jumped in the van and tore off to work. She called me on the way, and I asked her whether she would forgive me—again. "Are you asking for forgiveness?" she said.
D'oh! I can't get by with anything.
3. Some hurt takes more than 20 minutes to process.
In the last episode of season five, at Marge's suggestion, Homer enrolls in an adult education course. In a twist, instead of taking a class, Homer is hired to teach!
The subject? Marriage.
When Homer discovers he can't keep the attention of his class, he resorts to revealing personal secrets about his marriage. The class is now rapt with attention, and soon the community is abuzz with tasty Simpson love-life delicacies.
Marge finds out. She complains to Homer that she doesn't like their intimacies revealed to the masses, but Homer can't help himself. Marge finally kicks Homer out of the house, and he retreats to Bart's tree house in the backyard for a night. This was a bad row between Homer and Marge, so bad that Reverend Lovejoy suggests that Marge divorce her husband.
At around our fourteenth wedding anniversary, I said one of the most hurtful things ever to Jana. We have never had a pattern of saying the first thing that comes to mind in an argument. We're not screamers. But a single burst of emotion broke through an invisible wall that had tenderly defined the perimeter of our marriage for years.
I had taken a red-eye from California to Chicago the night before. I arrived home around 7 a.m., and worked straight through until a 2 p.m. appointment with our son's development optometrist. We'd spent a small fortune on vision therapy, an alternative technique to help our son improve his reading comprehension. The appointment was a bust. The optometrist basically said that Christian wasn't working hard enough at home on the eye exercises and that he now needed glasses. It was another $200, on top of the $3,000 we'd already spent—all out-of-pocket.
In the van on the 40-minute ride home, I went off about our finances. I essentially blamed Jana for our precarious situation. It was not only silly (our situation wasn't really precarious), it was ugly—and uncharacteristic of how we generally fight.
As soon as I said the words, I regretted them. Although I apologized not long after we got home, I realized that forgiveness could not be instant. Jana needed time to process the hurt. The next morning,
I walked into the bathroom and gave her a hug, and she teared up and asked, "Do you love me anymore?"
In some marriages, that might be a common question after an argument, but not ours. We'd always protected the core. I felt like Homer in Bart's tree-house, looking at the marriage from the outside and desperately wanting to be let back in.
Homer should be mighty thankful that the script was running out of time; Marge had no choice, really, but to forgive. And I'm grateful that a couple days later, after a long conversation about the reality behind my emotional outburst, Jana said she forgave me.
During the dialogue that finally brings Homer and Marge back together in the episode above, Marge asks how she can know that she can trust Homer again.
"Marge, look at me," says Homer. "We've been separated for a day, and I'm as dirty as a Frenchman. In another few hours, I'll be dead. I can't afford to lose your trust again."
"I must admit," Marge says, "you really do make a gal feel needed."
"Wait until my class hears about this," says Homer. "Kidding!"
4. There is, after all, such a thing as sexual healing.
Midway through the first season, Marge faced, literally, a fork in the road as she drove to the apartment of Jacques, the professional bowling instructor. Should she follow her emotions into Jacques's bed? Homer, the bozo, had gotten Marge a bowling ball with his name on it for her birthday. It was, obviously, a gift for him; even the holes had been drilled to fit his fingers. Hurt, Marge takes up bowling to spite him, leaving Homer with the kids each evening. At the bowling alley, she falls under the spell of Jacques, a smooth operator who makes Marge feel loved. But on the way to consummate, ostensibly, their burgeoning romance, Marge has second thoughts. She starts down the left fork to Jacques's flat, but then backs up and takes the fork to the nuclear power plant where Homer works.
When Homer sees her, he says, "You're here to see me, right?"
He carries Marge to the parking lot, and as he walks out of the plant a worker asks Homer what he should tell the boss.
"Tell him I'm going to the back seat of my car, and I want to be with the woman I love." Homer then says he'll be back in 10 minutes.
Jana occasionally reminds me that after a good fight she needs to feel good about us before we send the kids to Grandma's for the evening, while I'm happy to work out the details of the conflict after the blessed event. Sex makes me feel close to Jana; feeling close to me makes Jana interested in the gift. No matter, the cliché; about sex and making up is true.
David L. Goetz is author of Death by Suburb: How to keep the suburbs from killing your soul
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.