Winters in Ontario can be brutal. It isn’t so much the cold and the snow that grinds you down, it’s the variability that gets you begging for spring. This winter has been no exception. It snows, there is a deep freeze and then everything melts. Just as you start to believe that it might be over, the temperature drops, the sky opens up and there’s another foot of snow to shovel.
In the second week of January there was a spring-like thaw that cleared everything up just in time for winter to return and overcompensate for its absence by causing a big drop in temperature that lasted for a few days before returning back to being just unreasonably cold – a day time high of minus fifteen and a overnight low of minus twenty-five; these are Celsius degrees which made it slightly warmer than Fahrenheit, although “less brutally cold” is probably a more accurate way to state it. If you were a plumber you call it “earnings season” as pipes freeze and burst.
This is what happened at Heather’s cottage. When we arrived on Friday evening and turned on the water pump it started raining behind the shower wall. All at once a bunch of things float through our minds. The first is to turn off the water and assess the damage and magnitude of the problem. It turned out to be only a single pipe, which was good. And it was in one of the pipes that sent water to a small half bathroom – the kitchen and main bathroom with the shower were fine. But with no way to turn off the water flow to the impacted pipe we were going to need to get a plumber in to fix it or close it off. There was no water damage, at least not anywhere that mattered – the cottage was built over sand and the pump had been off, so the water that was in the pipes had leaked out, down and into the sand.
The second consideration was about what we would do right now. We were without running water, so no showering or flushing the toilet, but the gas and electricity were still working. There was plenty of drinking water because we bring it with us, and more than enough food. I figured it made more sense to stay than to go home because we were already there and it’s easy enough to fill-up the water tank to flush the toilet. Heather agreed, so we made dinner, watched TV and went to bed as if everything was fine.
We talked it over the following morning and decided to stay for the rest of the weekend. We made a quick trip into town to get more water to make sure we didn’t run out and the rest of the weekend was more or less normal.
The final consideration was on how to deal with the burst pipe. We didn’t need it fixed right away because we had water, so we were good with saving the ton of money a weekend emergency plumber would charge. The question then became “when would we get it fixed?” Heather had been planning of replacing all of the piping anyway because it is old, copper and was run against the outside walls; the pipe bursting wasn’t entirely unexpected. It had been in the realm of possibility and while it made for a crappy couple of hours digging through the snow to get access to the basement to assess the damage, the work was going to be getting done soon anyway. If anything, the deep freeze just moved the start date forward by three to six months.
And this marked the beginning of one of those “firsts” moments that couples have in their relationship. This was the first time we would be dealing with a home repair that wasn’t part of a well planned schedule with a clear start and end date. Together we would need to figure this out, kind of on the fly, and with people who were on the phone – either the plumber or Heather.
Every relationship has the potential for a bunch of these firsts; although many relationships end after the initial one. The reason they are relationship killers is because they bring to the surface who a person really is. There isn’t enough time to put on whatever mask you have been wearing because the problem needs to be addressed. A sense of urgency is remarkably unveiling. And lets be honest here, most people are kind of messy from a psychological point of view. It is not that we are awful or bad, it’s that we are just people. We’re animals that learn, remember, and talk. Sometimes we listen, but we only really hear from a position made possible from our life experience. This means that the people who understand us the best are our immediate family. It also means that we understand our romantic partners from our own perspective and NOT from a position of actually understanding who and what they are, or from actually understanding their motivations for doing things. Worse still is that we usually have no idea why we ourselves do anything.
Think about that for a second. There Heather and I were with a problem to solve. There are consequences to every possible solution and many of the solutions are mutually exclusive. Since I work from home, I will be meeting with the plumber while she is at work. BUT Heather has greater vision in terms of what she wants done with the cottage in the future so, therefore, how the plumbing should be fixed and how it might get rerouted.
Individually and in isolation the solution is both simple and obvious. And this is the exact opposite of how relationships work. I want the pipes located away from the outside walls so they never freeze again. Heather wants this too, but she also wants the kitchen updated so the sink will be moving six feet to the left of where it is now. Plus there will need to be a water filter for drinking water and eventually a dishwasher and possibly a washer and drier because they will increase the resale value.
We are very different people. There is nothing wrong with this at all, I think it makes for a better relationship because she is many of the things that I am not, and vice-versa, but crisis situations are moments when there isn’t enough time to put on the mask of understanding. While she can appreciate the practicality of my vision – it’ll get things back to what they were before and dramatically decrease the possibility of another plumbing issue for the next fifteen years or so – it is completely lacking in the enhanced usefulness or aesthetics actualized by her solution. But the increased choices and possibilities created by her solution do not spontaneously enter into my mind. The kitchen is fine, I do the dishes and the only time we are there for long enough to possibly need to do laundry is in the summer when we’re at the beach most of the time, which means we aren’t wearing a lot of clothes.
My life experience is shaping how I see things as her life experience is shaping how she sees things. And in crisis moments we are not capable of seeing this, or that there is a different way to look at things. All I know is all there is, and all she knows is all there is. Except there’s at least one other way of viewing things that is critically important in that moment.
During one of the conversations about what the plumber had suggested, it became crystal clear to me that nothing was crystal clear to me. When I asked Heather what she wanted, and she told me, I was left kind of gobsmacked. All at once everything made sense to the two of us. She realized that I had been solving a different problem and I realized that I had been trying to solve the wrong problem.
We wondered out loud why the whole thing was going down the way it was and we tracked in on what seems like a decent enough answer. It isn’t that life is hard, although it is, it’s that relationships are not easy. If it was supposed to be easy, it would be easy. It isn’t just the relationship that Heather and I share that is not easy, it is almost every relationship that has ever or will ever exist, with most of them being deemed too difficult to even continue.
We are fortunate to be self-aware enough to notice when there is more friction than normal and to be curious about the reasons why. Neither one of us make the other person wrong and we reach the point of accepting that we are just different. This process is transformative and it gets us to the end of the situation quickly while sustaining the middle of our relationship.
The best part about all of these “firsts” is that by getting to the end of them they just evaporate. They never come-up again as “seconds” because of what we learned from the initial experience. We just get along better and live with a little more ease.