I’m a hunter. I’m married to a gatherer. And it’s really fucking hard.
Does this stupid analogy really explain why we find marriage to be so difficult? Do you also want to hear my regurgitated insight about the mixing of oil and water, the distance between Mars and Venus, and the oh-so-soothing conventional relationship wisdom about how opposites attract? Is it really so simple? I have been accused of oversimplifying before. Usually by my wife after I have hunted down a solution while she is still gathering information on the topic.
OK…I won’t go down a spiraling wormhole into all of those cliches, but I am going to break down our roles as hunter and gatherer, because where there is smoke there is usually fire, stereotypes start for a reason, and I think there is some meat on this particular bone. As a hunter, I appreciate that.
As a hunter, if there is a problem, I want to track and stalk the solution, and attack it until the problem has been killed dead never again to move or live or breathe or be worthy of a single mention for any reason. Killed. Dead. Eaten, then bones discarded. I then sharpen my blade and stand at the ready – prepared for the next time prey crosses my path.
As a gatherer, my wife, Sheri, has a very different set of tactics and resources. If there is a problem, she wants to gather information and resources, nurture organisms that surround and support the solution, think about it for a while, maybe stuff down the pain from the problem for a while hoping a little nourishment and the light of a new day will make the solution grow strong, and massage the answer without harming anything that coexists around it. She wants the solution to not just solve this particular, one-time problem. She wants the solution to thrive and grow and be available in the inevitability that it is needed again in the future.
As a hunter married to a gatherer, our marriage was a shit-show when I was an active alcoholic.
I would go along for a few weeks, maybe a month or so, still satisfied with the solution from the last time I overindulged and drank enough alcohol to kill a caribou. This is not to say I went weeks or months between drinks. I still drank regularly, but I kept it mostly in check. But then inevitably, both predictably and unpredictably, I would binge drink again.
And my alcoholism would cause another huge problem.
I would say nasty things. I would behave irrationally and display unprovoked anger. I would put Sheri in the unsavory position of protecting our kids from the aftermath and living life on edge. She would absorb insults and nonsensical ramblings about how my drinking was all her fault because she didn’t try hard enough or love me enough. We would stay up most of the night, me flickering in and out of blackouts and passouts while Sheri prayed for peace and tried not to poke the angry bear.
The next day, we would awake with a different set of facts about the problem we faced. I would know I had too much to drink. My foggy memory would create a familiar panic inside my chaotic brain – a knowing that I fucked up, but an incoherence as to the details, or even the severity of the trauma. Sheri, on the other hand, would have every detail seared permanently into the dark corner of her memory from which my alcoholism tormented her ceaselessly. She would awake angry, deeply wounded and completely disappointed in the most important of her life choices.
I would feel ashamed.
She would feel trapped.
I would feel remorseful.
She would feel disrespected.
I would feel like a failure.
She would feel hopeless.
After hours of sulking and distracting, when we gathered enough strength to try to move forward, we would revert to our skill sets as hunter (me) and gatherer (her).
I overdrank. OK. I own that. And I’m sorry. Truly sorry. But how do we kill that mistake and move on? How do we hunt down the solution to my problem of excess so we can feel satisfied before proceeding and never talking about it again? I know! I’ll only drink on the weekends, and I’ll swear off hard alcohol, and I’ll count and limit my beer intake and I’ll drink water and eat before I drink. This isn’t a problem of anxiety or depression or stress. Those problems are hard. This one is easy. This problem is simple. I drink too much sometimes. I just need to find the right rules to keep my drinking in control.
Sheri would have some other ideas.
He’s making another useless list of rules he can’t possibly follow. He thinks this is something new. He is talking about not drinking during the week and only drinking beer or wine. I have gathered memories of dozens, maybe hundreds of times when he tried to control the uncontrollable. I remember the night he switched to whiskey after about ten beers. I remember so many Tuesdays or Wednesdays when he came home from work complaining about it being extra stressful and how he deserved a couple of drinks. I can’t begin to count the number of times he has apologized. Those apologies are completely useless because they never come with behavioral change. Matt’s apologies are nothing more than promises of future terrible alcoholic behavior. He just spews that sobbing dribble so he can turn the page and pretend everything is OK. Nothing is OK. I remember. The trauma of his addiction is burned into my heart. No matter how I try not to, I collect and accumulate and gather the vile insults, the depressed ramblings and the pathetic accusations like it is my job – my role as the matriarch of our regrettable little family.
He wants to hunt down his pain, kill it and move on. I am left with bushells of open wounds and unforgettable trauma.
And I thought sobriety would fix everything.
The only thing sobriety ensured was how fundamentally flawed my understanding was of exactly what the hell happened during my decades of drinking.
Kill it and move on. Sheri gathered over 20 years of trauma. She would never fully move on. We both needed to understand that fact if there was any hope for our relationship.
Even now, years into permanent sobriety, our hunter and gatherer instincts continue to cause us problems.
I can complain vociferously about the sports equipment the kids left strewn across the yard, ignore a request from Sheri for me to help her, and track grass clippings all over the kitchen floor in my quest to get the lawn mowed so I can move onto my plans for Saturday afternoon. Hunt down the grass and kill it, and don’t let anything get in my way. Sheri gets to gather the sights and sounds of the start of the weekend. She has the pleasure of listening to me gripe, having her request for my help ignored, and finding a trail of dead grass scattered about our house.
I’m not drunk. It’s not traumatic. It’s barely even noteworthy. Except…hours later, when the chores are done, the kids are in bed and the house is quiet, I roll over and touch my wife only to be met with a palpable lack of enthusiasm. I am hunting for sex. I don’t see any correlation between what happened while she was gathering and how sharp and pointy my sword is at the end of the day.
I was an alcoholic. We are masters of compartmentalization. Was I dismissive or insensitive? Was I grumpy or messy? Was I focussed on my stuff, ignoring all of yours? What the hell does that have to do with how horny I am? I’m here. I’m ready. Why aren’t you horny too?
For the gatherer, sex and intimacy has nothing to do with drawing a weapon and plunging it into to prey. The enemies of intimacy are grass clippings and grumpy complaints and selective hearing. Sure, I can make matters worse by calling her cold or unloving. If I want to make things better, however, I need to understand that my gatherer wife accumulates feelings and emotions from every interaction.
The alcohol is gone, but the stakes are just as high. We are no longer fighting for survival, but now we are in the fight for connection, joy and closeness. Do you think either of us – the hunter or the gatherer – wanted to survive our alcoholic marriage so we could live somberly in a dissatisfied coexistence? Of course not.
The key to harmony is not for Sheri to be less cold and distant. The key to harmony is for me to give her something to be warmly snuggled up to.
Marriage isn’t a hunting trip where success and failure is measured by the size of the kill. Marriage is about nurturing a sustained supply of nourishment and growth. If we want to gather the fruit, I am going to have to learn to help water the seeds lovingly, consistently.
The most fundamental part of hunting is taking the time to appreciate the nurturing love and beauty of my gatherer. If I don’t learn that lesson – if I don’t make that hard-learned adjustment – I’ll have a lot of time alone with my sword.
If your marriage is in recovery from alcoholism, we welcome you to join us in the Marriagevolution. Sobriety is not solution, but it is a prerequisite. Hunters and gatherers welcome.