Seventeen Years and Counting: Our Doomed (On Paper) Marriage

by John Ellis

Seventeen years ago today, Danita and I married. From a human standpoint, there’s no way we should work. And that’s taking into account one of the most profound statements uttered in the late 20th century. In 1988, the oft overlooked philosopher Paula Abdul published her seminal treatise and taught us all that opposites attract.

Yeah, sure. Two steps forward and one step back is great and all, but the law of diminishing return kicks in at some point. We’ve been told by friends that on paper, we are the most incompatible couple they have ever met. Maybe that’s hyperbole. Maybe it’s not. It does contain truth, though. If you doubt that, next time you’re at our house, comment to Danita about the pink highlights in the rug adorning the floor of my library. Or ask me about the entryway mat that stupidly boasts, “All Roads Lead to Gnome.”

Sure, those are (mostly) innocuous examples, but they speak to the larger personality divide that makes, on paper, our marriage a looming disaster. Our backstory may be needed, though.

I met Danita on July 16, 2004, five days after having lain eyes on her for the first time in my life and a mere week and a half after becoming a Christian. The first time I saw her was on Sunday, July 11. I didn’t talk to her that day, but I knew I would. July 16 was a Friday, and I was on my way to the pastor’s office for a scheduled meeting. She was walking towards the building, carrying boxes of books and school supplies to the classroom where she would be teaching 1st grade the coming school year. Like my momma raised me, I asked if I could carry her boxes for her. Like I learned in my general psychology class my freshman year in college, I asked her if she would show me where the pastor’s office was. 

I knew where the pastor’s office was, and I never said that I didn’t know, I just asked her to show me the way. I did so because while sitting in the lecture room the fall of 1994, my ears had perked up when the professor casually mentioned to the class that asking someone to help you immediately creates a connection. I carried that statement into my dating life, all the way to the summer of 2004 when I first met Danita. I don’t know if the trick worked or not, but I do know we are now married, so it didn’t hurt.

A week later, I secured her phone number. During our first phone call, I staged the whole thing as if I were Elia Kazan trying to impress Harold Clurman in 1932. After making sure my cell phone’s battery was completely rundown, I then ran down the battery on the receiver for the cordless phone. With about fifteen minutes of power left, I called her. As we became engrossed in the conversation, I truthfully said, “I’m so sorry, the phone is about to die. … Oh, here’s an idea, if you’re up for it: I don’t know about you, but I want to continue this conversation. Why don’t we meet at Denny’s?”

That conversation ended around eight hours later at three in the morning.

Less than a month later, we were officially dating. Seven months from that initial meeting, we were engaged. Eleven months later, married.

At points, our lives are quite similar, both of us having a dad who was an IFB pastor. At other points, though, our lives couldn’t be more dissimilar. She began her adult life, not long before we met, as a Christian school teacher, having recently graduated from a Christian university. Me? Well, readers of this blog know my story.

But our differences, the ones that Abdul’s relationship insights can’t fox step over, aren’t necessarily found in the divergent paths we took in childhood. In fact, as any good ex-fundy kid can attest, differences in music, drink, and sartorial aesthetics can’t mask the unified, weird experiences we all plowed through to make it to U2, Moscow Mules, and flip-flops at church, or whatever continued rebellion ex-fundy kids engage in for the rest of our lives. Our marriage isn’t doomed on paper because I had a semi-prolonged phase where I enjoyed dropping X and she had a semi-prolonged phase in which she was a hall leader in the dorm of her Christian university. No, our marriage is doomed on paper because she plans and organizes her way to the cliff. She then manages and directs the cliff so that by the time she reaches the bottom the cliff is in service to her. Me? I refuse to believe the cliff is even there until I fall off. Well, it’s not so much that I don’t believe it’s there; it’s more that I see no reason to discuss it until the moment I fall off[1]. This is also why, about an hour before we’re scheduled to go to a restaurant to celebrate our anniversary, I have yet to get dressed, much less decide on a restaurant. In fact, there’s a chance I won’t even know where we’re going until we get there. And we have to get wherever “there” is early because, obviously, I didn’t make a reservation.

Now, astute readers will point out that the “well-duh” thing to do would be to allow Danita to pick the restaurant. Except, paradoxically, I care deeply about where we eat, and she doesn’t care at all as long as it’s not Red Lobster (an unusual point of agreement between us). Her gifts of planning, organizing, and managing will matter little because she will inevitably pick the wrong restaurant in my estimation (our daughter takes after her in this regard and has lost her restaurant choosing privileges).[2]

Again, innocuous, but I think it speaks to what people mean when they say we are the most incompatible, on paper, couple they’ve ever met. We are incompatible because we see the world through completely different eyes.

I have the epistemology of a self-absorbed artist. As she walks through the world, her steps are illumined by the light of her selfless servant’s heart. I collapse into an existential mess when a critic writes in the paper that I strained credulity in the play. She is tough and stays on task no matter how loudly the critics bluster and blow. She is driven by an internal motivation that takes each step as they come and deals with each movement with constancy and competency. I get knocked off track by the next shiny thing that takes my fancy. She knows how to parent. I still haven’t figured out how to adult. She doesn’t play games and is no nonsense. As for me, well, you read the anecdotes about our first meeting and first phone call/date.

Anyway, I have no idea how much longer we have until this combustible mess of marriage blows up, but I’m going to enjoy every second of the time we have left.

[1] Only tangentially related: I once got stuck on the top of a canyon cliff in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. I was looking for mountain lions in the wild and ignored the signs cautioning would-be idiots to not scale the side of the cliff. You won’t be able to get down, the sign wisely warned. As any non-idiot could’ve predicted, after failing to find any mountain lions, I was unable to climb back down. It took me over two hours to find a way down and back to my car. It’s only God’s grace that I didn’t die from dehydration. Or get eaten by a mountain lion. Danita would never do something that stupid.

[2] Okay. Funny story that proves my point of the looming disaster that is our marriage. After I revealed to my daughter that she makes a cameo in this article, Danita pointed out that the kids, who just took some “who knows their parents the best” sibling quiz, were unable to name her favorite restaurant because she never gets to pick where we go eat. To that, I said, “fine, what’s your favorite restaurant, then?” Our son, Hayden, proudly shouted out, “Chipotle!” To which I snorted, “That’s not a real restaurant.” Danita pushed back by incorrectly insisting that Chipotle is, in fact, a restaurant. In conclusion, I yelled, “See! This is why our marriage is doomed!”

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