Every so often, something occurs that causes married couples to question everything.
It happened to me, just last week. One teensy disruption in our mundane bedtime ritual set off marital alarm bells, rendering me vulnerable to resentment, doubt and blame — destructive emotions that push otherwise happy couples like Francis and me, to the precipice of relationship disaster.
What was it that caused such extreme marital discord? The chirping smoke detector, of course.
Now, before judging me for overreacting to such a minor annoyance, let me set the scene.
Francis just retired from the Navy after 28 years, he’s still searching for a civilian job, we have to move off base, we’re putting our belongings into long-term storage, and we’re renting a furnished place until we know what our future holds.
And if that weren’t enough stress, it’s also the holidays.
I had just come upstairs after taking Moby out for his nightly back yard “deposit.” Francis was already in bed, and while not quite snoring, I could tell from the way his mouth was propped open, it was only a matter of seconds.
After completing my toilet-teeth-vitamins-pajamas regimen, I climbed into my side of the bed, nestled into the quilts, and opened my book.
This is my favorite moment of every day, when I let a good book wash away the reality of stress, wrinkles, dust, credit card bills, college applications, teenagers, break pads, cloud storage, dog hair, and lactose intolerance.
I was deep into Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, and as my spine relaxed into the sheets, my mind escaped to colonial Massachusetts, where Wampanoag warriors lurked through moonlit woods toward a Puritan garrison. Pilgrims huddled nervously around their hearths, clutched their muskets, and listened for the sounds of siege …
“Surely, that was one of the kids’ shoes squeaking on the floor,” I told myself.
No sooner did my mind drift back to the Pilgrims when — “CHIRP!” — it happened again.
There was no denying it. It was, most definitely, the low battery signal from one of our smoke detectors. “Maybe I can sleep through it.” I nudged a pillow over my ear.
“Who am I kidding? Someone needs to get up and disarm that thing … but wait, why me? I’m lying here next to a grown man. A Navy man. I may have handled things independently when he was away, but he’s home now. Why the hell doesn’t he do it?”
I knew Francis was pretending to sleep. “Well, two can play this game,” I thought. We laid still through several more chirps, as my resentment grew.
“Seriously?” I thought, “How can you call yourself a real man? Your wife and children are being assaulted by this insidious alarm, and you lay there and do nothing like a big hairy baby?! Why did I marry you, anyway?”
On the tenth chirp, I’d had it. I threw off my covers and stormed into the hallway, determined to beat the smoke alarm to death. At 60 second intervals, I followed each chirp, until I finally found the offending alarm in the basement. I yanked it from its plug on the ceiling, left it in the kitchen, and started back upstairs.
“CHIRP!” I could hardly believe my ears. How could the amputated alarm still be alive?
“You have to remove the battery too!” Francis bellowed from our bed.
I can’t be certain, but I think steam rose from my ears. Not only had Francis been wide awake during this fiasco, he was now barking orders to me, from the comfort of our bed.
On my way back to the kitchen, I was certain our relationship was doomed.
After I dissected the battery, the smoke alarm died a slow death, using its stored energy to chirp weakly one more time. And, as I watched its little red light fade to black, my ire faded too. I realized, it wasn’t the end of the world, or the end of our marriage. Spouses can be really annoying, but love means having perspective when alarm bells drive us to the brink.
And from Francis’ comfortable perspective, he actually believed he was being helpful.