Tag Archives: marriage

Salting the Wound

“You know how people have these little habits that get you down…?” Kander & Ebb, Chicago If you’ve ever cooked pasta, you know that it requires salt in the water. But, in Italy, there are two schools of thought about the precise moment when that salt should be added: before or after the water comes Read More…

“You know how people have these little habits that get you down…?”
Kander & Ebb, Chicago

If you’ve ever cooked pasta, you know that it requires salt in the water. But, in Italy, there are two schools of thought about the precise moment when that salt should be added: before or after the water comes to a boil.

My ex-husband Enrico was firmly of the “add the salt before the water boils” school. I have no idea whether it makes any difference at all when you add it, but I learned to make pasta from him, so I always added the salt as soon as I’d put water in the pot and put the pot on the burner.

How many times a week does an Italian family eat pasta at home? Five or six, usually. And, when I wasn’t traveling, it was usually me doing the cooking. So, figure 40 weeks a year when I was home and cooking, five meals a week involving pasta, times 20 years, equals about four thousand times that Enrico might have observed me cooking pasta.

He’d come in while the water was boiling and I was doing other things: preparing sauce and salad, slicing bread, setting the table, etc.

And he would inevitably ask: “C’hai messo il sale?” – Did you put the salt in?

And I would inevitably answer: “Yes.” Because I always had. Maybe once in twenty years did I ever forget to add the salt immediately.

But he always, always asked. It was so predictable that, if he came into the kitchen at all while I was cooking, my shoulders would hunch defensively, in anticipation of the question – which, after years, began to sound like an accusation.

Sometime around year 18 or 19, I pointed this out to him: “You ask EVERY TIME. And I have already put in the salt EVERY TIME. Stop asking!” He looked momentarily surprised.

But he kept asking. Every damned time. As if he could not help asking, could not forbear to assume, even after all these years, that I would screw it up.

And now, even as I’m in the process of divorcing him and we’re living on opposite sides of the globe (we’ve been separated for years), my neck tightens as I put on the pot to boil, and reflexively add the salt.

C’hai messo il sale?

The Wedding Photo

Passed this scene on San Francisco’s Embarcadero last weekend. I don’t know these people, but they made me a lovely picture. You might also like: The Painting Banker San Francisco Walk In the Garden “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

Passed this scene on San Francisco’s Embarcadero last weekend. I don’t know these people, but they made me a lovely picture.

On Love

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research about love, relationships, marriage, and divorce. I’m still mystified – and so are the experts. But new technology (fMRI) allows us to look inside the brain in new ways, so perhaps we are finally on the road to explaining the great “mystery of love” which has puzzled Read More…

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research about love, relationships, marriage, and divorce. I’m still mystified – and so are the experts. But new technology (fMRI) allows us to look inside the brain in new ways, so perhaps we are finally on the road to explaining the great “mystery of love” which has puzzled philosophers, psychologists, and lovers, probably since the dawn of human consciousness.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Dr. Helen Fisher postulates (and researches) the theory that humans have evolved three kinds of mating-related love, each driven by separate (but connected) hormonal circuits in the brain:

  • Lust (associated with testosterone) drives us to mate (well, duh, otherwise the species wouldn’t be here).
  • Romantic love (dopamine) is a drive – rather than an emotion – which focuses our attention on one person who could potentially be a long-term mate. Focus is the key word here: many of the symptoms of intense romantic love are manifestations of obsessive focus on the object of that love.
  • Attachment (vasopressin, oxytocin) is a feeling of calm and security, which encourages us to stay with a mate long enough to raise a child.*

Fisher says it is possible to feel any of these three types of love in any combination or order, and to feel each for different people at the same time, though she also states that it is not possible to feel romantic love for more than one person at a time (presumably because of the intense focus involved).

Each type of love can (though it doesn’t necessarily) lead to another: lustful stimulation of the genitals causes dopamine to be produced, triggering romantic love. Orgasm causes a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin, which can lead to attachment, especially when repeated. Conversely, feelings of attachment can morph into romantic love: the “falling in love with your best friend” phenomenon.

Note that, in Fisher’s scenario, the term “real love” is meaningless. If you’re feeling it – and not just pretending to yourself or someone else that you are – it’s real. The important question is: which kind of love are you feeling?

The Evolution of Love

In Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray (1994, updated 2016), Fisher postulates that walking on two legs forced humans to evolve pair bonding. Unlike an ape, whose baby rides on its mother’s back, an upright, bipedal human must carry her (far more helpless) baby in her arms or on her hip. This means that she cannot easily run from predators, take refuge in a tree, or forage for her food. She needs a mate for protection, to help ensure the survival of herself and her child. A male who bonds with a female and helps care for their child ensures that his genes survive and are carried on. So we are selected for pairing up (temporarily) to bear and raise children.

BUT – Fisher believes that: “Humans have evolved a dual reproductive strategy: a drive to pair up to raise children, but also a restlessness and tendency to adultery, divorce, and remarriage.” (quoted from her talk at LeWeb ’08, though the point is also made in her books).

Many species besides humans are monogamous, and for similar reasons: it takes two to successfully raise young. But genetic studies have shown that most “monogamous” species – even those that bond only for a single mating season – are also adulterous.

This behavior has evolved because both sexes are trying to get the best of both genetic worlds. It’s to the female’s advantage to have a steady mate to help raise the young, but she also benefits from having offspring with a genetic variety of males, which gives her own genes a better chance of surviving and being carried on. It’s to the male’s genetic advantage to impregnate as many females as possible, while investing the minimum resources in actually raising the resulting offspring.

Conversely, each has a strong interest in ensuring that their partner does not stray: the male does not want to be tricked into raising some other male’s children, while the female does not want her mate spending resources on some other female, or possibly being lured away for good, leaving her to raise their offspring alone. Hence the irrational, sometimes overwhelming, power of jealousy.

Fisher reports on studies showing that, in pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies, where the sexes have similar “economic” (food gathering) power, pair bonds were/are not expected to last for life. Divorce, though painful, is not difficult: either partner can easily walk away with all of his/her possessions, to start a new life with a new partner.

Fisher believes that humankind’s invention of agriculture made women dependent on men, because plowing required a man’s strength. But a man could not manage a farm alone, nor could land be parceled out and carried away if a relationship ended. “Til death do us part” became the norm for good reason: losing a mate could be fatal.

This ancient “ideal” still carries enormous cultural weight, even though most of us today are not farmers and may not even need a partner for economic support.

Love Today

I distill from all this that modern humans are subject to several warring impulses:

  • We are evolved to mate (just) long enough to produce and raise offspring.
  • Both sexes are also evolved to cheat, but we mostly do it on the sly because it is enormously threatening to our mates.
  • Much more recently in human evolutionary history, but long ago in cultural memory, we developed a societal expectation that we will mate with absolute fidelity and forever. It’s important to realize that this expectation is cultural, not evolved.

The prevailing attitude towards love and marriage in American culture is particularly and dangerously idealized. We define “real” love as romance that grows into a lifelong, sexually-faithful attachment. Marriage is further burdened with expectations that our partner will meet our every emotional and physical need, and that, if the love is “real”, we will live together harmoniously forever and ever, amen.

The expected pattern is that you meet “the one,” fall in love, marry, have children, and live happily ever after. Popular culture (from romance novels to chick flicks to self-help books to greeting cards) constantly reinforces this, so we feel cheated or that we have failed if we do not experience this kind of idealized, all-encompassing love – or if it doesn’t last forever.

It seems to me that this American myth of love does more harm than good. We go into marriage expecting far too much of the relationship and of our spouse, and blame them or ourselves when the reality falls short of our expectations. We feel pressured to “make it work” even when one or both partners is irremediably unhappy in a relationship. We feel crushing guilt when a relationship fails. Then we go out searching all over again for “that special someone” to fulfill an impossible ideal, kicking off another cycle of inevitable disappointment.

…and that’s what I’ve figured out so far. Your thoughts?

Related reading:

* According to Fisher, in pre-agricultural societies “long enough to raise a child” is/was probably about four years. More on that another time.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Enrico and I were married (by a justice of the peace in New Haven, Connecticutt) on January 17th, 1989. Here’s the story: Part 1: Tanzania Surprise Part 2: Coca-Cola, and an Ostrich Part 3: Justice of the Peace Part 4: The Wedding You might also like: Shotgun Wedding 2: Coca-Cola, and an Ostrich Shotgun Wedding Read More…

Enrico and I were married (by a justice of the peace in New Haven, Connecticutt) on January 17th, 1989. Here’s the story:

Part 1: Tanzania Surprise

Part 2: Coca-Cola, and an Ostrich

Part 3: Justice of the Peace

Part 4: The Wedding

The Bi-Professional Couple: A Conundrum Close to the Bone

My life is lived in multiples.

I’ve read books, articles, and blogs about multicultural marriage, living, and child-raising. I have written about being a third-culture kid, raising a bilingual child, and living and trying to work in a foreign country.

But this is the big question, more difficult than any of the above: how can a marriage survive being made up of two people whose careers are equally important to each?

My life is lived in multiples.

I’ve read books, articles, and blogs about multicultural marriage, living, and child-raising. I have written about being a third-culture kid, raising a bilingual child, and living and trying to work in a foreign country.

But this is the big question, more difficult than any of the above: how can a marriage survive being made up of two people whose careers are equally important to each?

If you have ever been part of a two-career couple, you know how hard it can be to find jobs that make both of you happy in the same location, especially (but not only) when that location is far from home for one or both of you. When a couple expatriates for one member’s job, the “following” spouse may not even be allowed to work, depending on the working spouse’s visa in the foreign country.

When you follow a foreign spouse to settle in his or her country, there probably won’t be legal obstacles to your working (you may take on the citizenship of your spouse, or you can usually get a work visa), but there are many other hurdles: language, culture, job market, and your own feelings about who you are and what you want to do with your life.

When Enrico and I married in 1989, I gave up an interesting job just then getting off the ground (doing technical training in far-flung countries) in order to be with him in New Haven and give birth to our daughter. In retrospect, my “accidental” pregnancy was probably subconsciously designed to resolve our increasing conflict over my exotic (and from Enrico’s point of view, dangerous) travels: a baby was a reason we could both agree on for me to stay home.

And stay home I did: I was mostly a full-time mom for 18 months. I did not resent or regret this; indeed, one reason that I never had another child was that I would have wanted (and felt it fair) to do the same for any other child of mine, but, once I had got my career off the ground again, there was never a “right” time to take off 12-15 months.

Moving to Italy was, for many reasons, the obvious thing to do when we did it. Though Enrico, fresh out of a Yale PhD, could have landed a university position somewhere in the US, it would have been the usual long start to an American academic career: post-doc here, assistant position there, teach a lot, and pray for tenure.

The situation is very different in Italian universities: a ricercatore (researcher, the entry-level position) can stay in the same place as long as he or she desires, although (ideally) you eventually move up the ladder to become professore associato (associate professor) and then ordinario (full professor). Positions are few and promotion takes decades (and political savvy), but in the meantime you are guaranteed a stable, reasonably well-paid job in a single location. The teaching load is light, and Enrico can direct his own research as he pleases. Nice work if you can get it…

As for me, I didn’t have a strong desire to remain in the US, my putative homeland – I’d lived out of it as much as in it. I didn’t have a job to leave right then, nor was I established in any field. There was no strong reason for me not to move to Italy, and plenty in favor of doing so.

Enrico sought and won a university position in Italy, and to Milan we came.

I had no idea what work I might be able to do there (aside from the far-too-obvious: teach English), but I figured I’d figure something out, as I always had. In 26 years of being moved around the world mostly by others’ decisions, it had never occurred to me to express or even to have strong desires about the parameters of my own life. I simply responded as best I could to the situations in which I found myself.

It was mostly luck that I found a job in Milan; it took hard work and talent to develope that job into a career. But I was still in reactive mode: taking advantage of opportunities as they came my way, but not making any effort to create my own opportunities. It simply didn’t occur to me that I could.

The first proactive thing I did to influence my own future was the MBA (from the Open University, the world’s oldest distance-learning institution) that I began in 1999 and completed (with interruptions) in 2004. I had realized that I wanted a career in which I could really make a difference, and that an MBA was a basic requirement to thrive in the corporate world.

But it’s unlikely that I could have an important career in Italy. I work in high-tech, and there’s not much original going on in high tech in Italy – not because there are no technical or entrepreneurial Italians, but because it’s so damned hard to do the American-style startup thing in Italy (which could be the topic of a long article in itself, but it would depress me too much to write it).

Many of the world’s large high-tech companies have Italian offices, but these usually concentrate on regional sales and support engineering. The things I’m good at are run mostly from US headquarters.

Twice during the Internet boom I tried to persuade Enrico that we should move to the US to let me pursue my career. The second time he agreed, reluctantly, to come with me for a year or two while I helped to launch Roxio, the software group being spun off from Adaptec in 2000-2001. For a number of reasons, that move was aborted, and I returned to Italy, beaten and frustrated, to the same distance-working situation in which I had previously felt so alienated and vulnerable. I quit after a few months, and would have been laid off soon thereafter in any case, as the bubble burst and the economic downturn began.

Fabrizio Caffarelli, my former boss at Incat Systems, is a rare example of a successful Italian high tech entrepreneur, and I was happy to join his new startup a few years later (as the consulting/tech writing gigs I’d had after leaving Roxio also dried up). I had high hopes for TVBLOB when it began, but four years in startup mode at a salary I could have equalled as a supermarket cashier… well, that got old, and personal circumstances conspired to force a change.

I began working for Sun Microsystems as a contractor in March of 2007; they hired me as a regular employee a year later, on the condition that I move to the US and work from an office.

I was ready to go. I had initially loved Sun’s willingness to let me, and many other employees, work from home. I still believe that this works very well for many people, especially those who have kids at home: workplace flexibility is a huge help in achieving the much-prized “work-life balance.”

But the year I had spent as a mostly long-distance contractor reminded me of all the problems I had experienced before, as a very long-distance employee of Adaptec. It’s hard to schedule meetings when you’re eight or nine time zones away from most of your colleagues; you end up having them late at night in Europe – not my best time of day, I’m a morning person. And when you can be neither seen nor heard by your colleagues… well, out of sight, out of mind, out of the decision-making loop – and, eventually, out of a job.

Conclusion: if I want a challenging job, I need to be in the US (or, at least, not in Italy). So here I am, with a job that I enjoy very much both for its current realities and its future possibilities.

But my life here so far is mostly about my job. So much for work-life balance (said she ruefully). It appears that I can have work or have a life, but not both. At any rate, I can’t have a regular home life with my husband, because his job is there, and mine is here, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to make the two meet.

And I don’t have an answer to that one.


Update, 2014: Enrico and I never did find a solution. We separated in 2009 and are now divorced.

Update, 2017: I have since found someone with whom I happily share both the personal and professional sides of me.