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Joan Wickersham

The language of a marriage

By Joan Wickersham
June 25, 2010

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A LONG time ago my husband and I went to a fancy kitchen store to buy a knife. The salesman kept showing us possibilities, and we kept telling him apologetically that we didn’t want anything that would require sharpening, since we’d had knives like that in the past and couldn’t seem to maintain them properly. Finally he shook his head and said frostily, “Well, maybe you two are just serrated knife people.’’

Serrated knife people. Over the 25 years or so since we disgraced ourselves at the cutlery counter, that phrase has become part of the language of our marriage. When we get lost driving somewhere, or we’ve just been at a dinner party where one of us has made a stupid remark, or we’re making up after a fight, we’ll say, “Oh, well, I guess we’re just serrated knife people.’’ I’m not sure anyone else would get the joke. Writing it here, I’m not even sure I get it. I definitely can’t explain it. But it’s ours. We know when to use it. It makes us laugh.

I guess that most longtime couples have their own lexicon — phrases that have come out of some shared experience and entered the private language of the marriage. A friend told me that his husband once came back from having the car serviced and raved about how nice the waiting room was. The next time the car needed servicing my friend took it in and got to see for himself this dazzling waiting room. What he saw was a couple of chairs, a table, magazines, a plant. He went home and said, “What on earth were you talking about?’’ Now when one of them is reluctant to go somewhere, the other will say, “But I hear they have a great waiting room.’’

There’s a clichéd idea that what makes people stay in love is things like candlelight and flowers and sexy glances across crowded rooms. All that is lovely, and it helps. But so does our nerdy private language. The language of marriage is personal. It doesn’t translate, and it’s not transferable. Nobody reading this column is going to start mentioning serrated knives or waiting rooms. You have your own phrasebook, developed naturally, over time.

I had lunch one day with a dying friend and his wife, and the subject of this secret, personal language of marriage came up. They told me, laughing, about some odd little phrase that meant something to the two of them, and that wouldn’t have been understood by anyone else. After all this time, I can’t remember what it was; but I got that they were telling me, without self-pity but without flinching either, how much they were about to lose.

The private language is part of what bonds you together, and often in fact the language refers back to moments when the bond got closer.

Sometimes my husband and I will say of a particular place or situation, “It’s like the bank.’’ He and I got married right after college. None of our friends were married. I was in love with him, but being married felt like wearing a piece of clothing that was too big and too dowdy. Then I went to work at a bank. The job was terrible, and I felt hopeless and stuck. My husband took me out to dinner and said, “Listen, we’ve got to get you out of there.’’ And we did — we both quit our jobs (a sacrifice for him, because he really liked his) and we moved.

“It’s like the bank’’ means: “It’s especially bleak and dismal.’’ It also contains the memory of how great it feels to get out of a bad situation. And for me, it’s a way of remembering that first glimpse of marriage as a team, a civilization of two; and remembering how lucky I still feel that he and I share a language, and a life.

He may get lost driving sometimes, or occasionally kick himself for an ill-considered remark at a dinner party. But whatever a serrated knife person is — klutzy and inept — our private language lets me tease him about being one, because in fact he is nothing of the kind.

Joan Wickersham’s website is www.joanwickersham.com. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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