Relationship Advice: The Fig Newton Syndrome

During a break-up, it is natural to sift through your memories to see if there were early warning signs that the marriage was in trouble. This is an understandable process, as our minds try through hindsight to make logical sense of things. It is a way to deal with the pain of having something so central to your life no longer exist in quite the same way. Of course the relationship still exists, just as a brown dwarf star skulking around the galaxy can still technically be considered a continuation of the once-glorious star that got too hot and exploded all over everything, leaving only a hollowed-out flickering remnant of its former self. Unfortunately we now have to count on the brown dwarf star for financial help with our daughter’s college, though now that he has been exposed as a fading ember of the man he once was, the chances of him being true to his word are fading just as rapidly.

Searching posthumously for the early signs of collapse is tricky, because in any relationship there are difficult spots right from the start, disagreements, misunderstandings, and simple events that in retrospect can seem fraught with meaning. What is more, the defining moments that stand out in one person’s mind as a perfect crystallization of all that was to come are going to be very different from the moments that occur to the other person. But since you are now separate people and don’t have to put up with the other person’s clearly erroneous and narcissistic view of your former marriage, this should not trouble you.

There is a difference, however, between moments which exemplify a particular character trait and moments which warn of impending collapse. Just because a single moment teaches us something profound about our partner doesn’t mean that revelation will lead to the break-up of the marriage. As it happens, I have an example of each of these from the early days of my relationship to share with you now.

Right after Chester and I moved to Sebastopol, we stayed with our two very small children in a spare bedroom in his parents’ house while Chester set to work converting an old barn on the property into a house for us. During the day I did what normal mothers of toddlers do: cooked, fed them, cleaned up after them, did the laundry. Occasionally I would get a day’s work outside the house, and Chester’s mother would watch the children.

On this particular day, I was at home and had decided to tackle the huge pile of dirty laundry in our closet. I washed all the diapers, all the baby clothes, all Chester’s work clothes, even the clothes that had fallen off their hangers onto the laundry pile but were still technically clean at the time I snatched them up with the rest of the wash. By noon, I had a gleaming pile of clean laundry on the carpet of our very small bedroom, ready to fold and put away. I stepped away to make lunch for the kids, and when I got back to the room I sat down and began sorting and folding laundry.

The first piece of laundry I got to was a flannel work shirt of Chester’s. I picked it up off the pile and saw fresh stains on it. Handling it gingerly, I noticed it was dusted with sawdust and smelled of sweat. Apparently Chester had just come in briefly, taken off his shirt and thrown it onto the floor, assuming that my hard-won pile of clean laundry was a handy pile of dirty laundry.

I threw it across the room in disgust, thinking “doesn’t this guy bother to check what type of pile he’s throwing his clothes onto?” Normally, that would have been the end of it. My heaving his shirt across the room would have vented my anger and I would have forgotten the whole thing, except for what happened next. As soon as I set the shirt into flight, a torrential rain of small black pellets flew from it onto every surface of our room: the bed, the dresser, the crib, the carpet. Now I had to get up and figure out what these little poppy seed-sized things were that needed to be cleaned up. I checked the shirt pocket and found an open packet of broccoli seeds, not even folded closed, waiting to spill anywhere once the shirt was cast off its wearer’s body.

The truth came to me irrefutably: I am married to a slob. He is an actual slob, not just someone who exhibits occasional slobbish behavior. Microscopic broccoli seeds! All over everything! He didn’t even bother to close the packet before he threw that ticking brassica time bomb into the middle of my morning’s housework. No doubt about it, the guy is a slob.

This realization was not an early warning sign of marriage collapse, however. This was instead a moment of insight into Chester’s character, and a realistic look for me at the man I was living with, was in fact destined to live with for a very long time. I took a certain amount of calm reassurance from arriving at the conclusion that I was married to a slob. It made me adjust my own behavior and expectations, and was very helpful in the struggle every married person goes through of Choosing Your Battles. Trying to make a slob not be a slob was a losing battle. Therefore, because I chose to stay married to him, a much better use of my energy would be to try to get him to change other things. I could live with a slob. But I would be on the lookout for other character traits that might, in combination with slobbishness, signal a greater conflict.

Though the broccoli seed incident laid my mind to rest, when I related it to him later that evening Chester was indignant that I would consider him a slob based on that one incident. I tried to reassure him.

“No honey, you don’t understand. It wasn’t just that one incident, there are lots more. But this was the one that convinced me. And isn’t it great? Now that I am certain that by my standards you are a slob, it makes it easier to accept always living in a messy room and having a messy house and a messy life. It’s really nothing personal at all, I’ve just achieved a moment of clarity that will enrich our life together.” He was still not convinced, but I was so happy as I said this, and so clearly not angry at him for causing a huge mess in our bedroom, that he was too confused to protest.

The second incident happened in the very early days of our relationship, before we even lived anywhere, when we were camping out in Nature one summer having adventures. Because this was to be an extended camping trip, we had brought along our bicycles and parked them in an old tool shed by the trailhead. One day we bicycled a very long way along a windswept California road into town to buy food and supplies. At the end, we treated ourselves by buying a package of Fig Newton cookies to eat before heading back. We found a nice grassy spot on which to sit while we read magazines and ate our snack.

I noticed that there were two rows of Fig Newtons in the package, so started working on what I thought of as “my half” while Chester started down “his half” of the package. My favorite way to eat a Fig Newton was slowly, nibbling the sides off first and then tackling the filling inside. After savoring my first and second cookies I reached down to get a third, but they were all gone! Chester had been thinking way outside the box and decided it was a winner take all game. He had inhaled the entire package of cookies while I calmly assumed we were sharing them equally. I was irate. How dare he only leave me with two, when he had just consumed twenty!

Chester looked at me and laughed, with his teeth full of cookie filling and crumbs stuck unflatteringly across his chin. “You should eat faster. Those cookies were good! How was I supposed to know you wanted to eat half of them? Oooh, now I have a stomach ache. I think I ate too many cookies.” He clutched his stomach and lay back on the ground, still laughing at me but also writhing a little bit in agony.

His cavalier, goading reaction made me doubly furious. We went round and round about the cookies some more, because I could not seem to impress upon him that sharing meant something akin to equality. That he had a different notion of what sharing meant was incomprehensible to me.

I stayed upset about this incident for several days, and Chester’s obvious glee at getting me mad only made things worse. Eventually, because I would not let it go, he apologized and said he wouldn’t be so thoughtless and inconsiderate again.

What makes this incident an early warning sign rather than a mere insight into character is that it is ultimately impossible to stay with anyone who is thoughtless and manipulative and considers everything to be his. So while it is possible to live with a slob, it will eventually become not worth it to live with a slob who also eats all your Fig Newtons.

You are probably asking yourself, “Why on earth did it take you twenty-odd years to leave this dolt?” That is a very good question, but the answer is complex. Even if you are on the lookout for signs of a behavioral trend (such as selfishness), it can often look like another trend entirely, fooling you for years on end. So it is possible depending on circumstances to not realize until way later that the same thing—let’s call it the Fig Newton Syndrome—has been happening all along but that you have not seen it for what it really was.

It was the incident with the wine that opened my eyes. By the last two years of our marriage, alcohol was an area in which Chester and I were in major disagreement. I thought he was an alcoholic, and he thought he was not. Neither one of us were particularly interested in negotiating our stance on the issue, so in order to continue cohabitating non-violently we had to agree to disagree. The trouble was, Chester felt constantly judged by my calling him an addict. He just couldn’t live with the fact that I was accusing him of not being able to give up alcohol.

“Look,” he said. “There is no alcohol in the house, and I am not drinking any alcohol. How can you call me an alcoholic if I do not drink?” While I saw his point, the fact was that there had been alcohol in the house until Chester had consumed it all just the week before. So while it was true that he was not currently drinking, that would change the moment there was any alcohol to be found.

That Christmas, my sister gave me a special bottle of wine as a gift. Actually it was just an average bottle of wine, but it was special because my sister gave it to me. Chester did not know I had been given a bottle of wine, so wanting to save it for a special occasion I decided that maybe hiding it would insure that I could drink it before it disappeared. So I stuffed it on the floor in the corner of a coat closet behind some old tennis ball cans, where the only way it would be found was if someone crouched down below the hems of the coats and peered behind the tennis balls. I call this the “below the fold” trick, which newspapers have been using for centuries. Anything “above the fold” in a drawer or cupboard can be readily seen and consumed; everything “below the fold” stands a chance of being overlooked.

All was well until a couple weeks later when I checked to see how my bottle of wine was aging. It was not there. A slow fury started to build. He must have found it and drank it. Who else living here would care about an average bottle of wine in the coat closet, below the fold at that? How dare he steal it? Feeling fully irate, I called to Chester, who was sitting with our daughter Amanda fifteen feet away watching television, “Where’s my bottle of wine?”

He looked over his shoulder at me, saw that I was at the closet, and immediately put two and two together.

“I didn’t know that was your bottle of wine,” he lied, then turned slowly back around to watch his program until I forced him to pay attention to me again. I walked over to the kitchen. There were no open bottles of wine on the counter, no partially consumed bottles in the fridge. But under the sink, carefully rinsed and hidden behind the rest of the recycling, was the empty bottle that until recently held my Christmas wine. If he hadn’t known it was mine, he wouldn’t have taken the pains to drink it all, rinse out the bottle, and recycle it before I even saw that it had been open. Random moments of cleanliness for a slob are never random.

I took out the wine bottle and brought it over to show him. “Well, whose wine did you think it was?” I asked. I was proud of my restraint here. Instead of hurling invictives, I was asking a straightforward question in a commanding but not accusatory tone. It is always better to tease out the logic (or not) in the other person’s thinking first, in the hopes that some non-violent solution to the disagreement can be found.

“I didn’t know,” was his startling response. Now the field was open!

“Well, if you didn’t know, don’t you think you should have asked before drinking the whole thing? That happened to be the bottle of wine my sister gave me for Christmas!” I had just played my trump card, because gifts from family have a much greater emotional impact, and therefore self-righteousness factor, than those randomly purchased at the grocery store.

It worked, and Chester began to look sheepish. He knew that he had crossed a line, but to his mind it was an arbitrary line set there by me because I was controlling and middle class and constantly angry. He did not see any inherent value in asking who owned anything before consuming it. That’s when I realized that I had mis-named what I thought was the Alcoholic Trait. Of course addiction was woven in there, but it had really been the Fig Newton Syndrome all along!

I just could not believe I was still, 25 years later, arguing over a fucking package of cookies. But there it was! Right in front of my face! I became even more resolute.

“You have no right to take what is mine as your own without even asking! I want you to replace this bottle of wine—even though it was irreplaceable—and promise me that you will never drink the replacement bottle until I open it and pour us both a glass!”

Chester looked defeated. He could hardly dispute my logic at this point, and the fact that Amanda was looking on, that I had purposely confronted him when his own daughter could see just how thoughtless, inconsiderate, and alcoholic he was, made him realize that he had to give in to my request. So he promised to buy me a replacement bottle of wine, and then went back to his TV show. But not before giving Amanda a proud smile, as if to say, “See how reasonable I am being? Responsible grown-ups can settle their differences without yelling, unlike your mother.”

Fast forward to Valentine’s Day, when Chester came home with three paper bags which he presented to me with a smile. I opened them, and inside each was a bottle of wine.

“These are for you, to replace the bottle that your sister gave you,” he said in a caring tone. I was genuinely touched, in the way that rare displays of generosity can catch you off guard and make you read more into them than is actually warranted. It was a grand gesture, and I thanked him warmly. As a token of my trust I put the three bottles, which looked like promising vintages, in the kitchen cupboard where all the rest of the alcohol was stored when we had any. I left the bottles in their bags as a reminder that these were special, only to be opened when the time was right.

For a few months those bottles stayed tucked in their bags in the bottom of the cabinet, and just seeing them there made me smile. It was a good feeling to have some wine on hand if friends showed up and we wanted to share a nice bottle of wine. It was an even better feeling to know that Chester was finally able to curb his impulses and leave my gifts alone.

Then one day I decided to open the bags and look again at the bottles waiting for just the right moment. One of them was still in its bag, but the other two bags now held cheap, awful stuff that I couldn’t stand. Where were those two good bottles? With a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I guessed the answer.

Needless to say, there was more yelling in the house that evening. I tried to impress on Chester that while his first act was reprehensible, his second act was completely irredeemable. I was at the end of my rope, so it was time once again to air the secrets he did not want anyone to know.

“I can’t even believe you drank two of those three bottles, then put this cheap shit in there to cover it up! This is even worse than drinking my sister’s wine! How could you do something like that?”

Chester, looking very uncomfortable, searched frantically for a way to make it my fault. “Well, you weren’t drinking it. And I don’t really see, I mean, I bought the wine. What’s the problem? Wine is wine, I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with ownership when we share everything anyway…” His voice trailed off into a little puddle of misery.

“You are a complete alcoholic! You can’t stop yourself from drinking, you lie about it and steal stuff, and then make these lame excuses! Can you not see how this problem has gotten out of hand? You need to get some help with that right now if our marriage is going to survive!”

But being blamed for our marital problems was more than Chester could take. “I go to my co-dependency group every week, Anne, and I am working on my issues in my own way. I hear that you are really upset, but you can’t tell me how to work on my issues!” I was dubious how a co-dependency group was going to help someone with addiction problems, as it seemed to me that I was the person being co-dependent in the present situation. And it turned out I had good reason to be suspicious about his co-dependency group, but I’ll get to that later. Still, I was tired of arguing and felt I had gotten my point across, for all the good it was going to do, so I let it drop.

A few months later things had gotten so bad that I moved out anyway. While we were still buying groceries together I bought three good bottles of wine and took them with me when I left. It was glorious to see them there every day, above the fold in my own kitchen cabinet. Friends stopped by to see me in my new place, and one by one I casually but proudly opened a bottle for the occasion. It was about the most healing drinking experience I’d ever had.


2 Comments on “Relationship Advice: The Fig Newton Syndrome”

  1. Hi Anne, This is really good. It’s a problem that if it isn’t happening in our lives at the moment, will in all probability happen in one form or another. Let’s go to the root of the problem. For whatever reason, you picked this slob. You had things to learn. This could be the reason you married him. He showed you aspects of a husband you didn’t want to see or put up with. That’s totally understandable. The real problem as I see it is, can you live alone or are you going to pick somebody who brings you to the point where this guy brought you. In others words, do you think by leaving him you got to the bottom of your problem?

    your friend, sue

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