“And the two shall become one flesh”
As a young bride, naive and overly sentimental, this quote meant that once married, Jay and I would no longer be two separate people, but a new being, a couple melded into a relationship so intricate that we would be, if not literally one individual, then emotionally, at least, one being.
My thinking was an eery, contemporary twist on the words of an ancient prophet. In his as in most ancient cultures, a person’s identity was inextricably entwined with that of their extended family, the clan. Individuality, as we understand it, fell outside the common perception. Rather, each person existed at all times in relation to others, most importantly to the other members of their family.
Those families were extensive. A given household consisted of many sons of a single patriarch living within one compound with their wives and children. All of them were of “one flesh.” The same blood ran in all their veins. Within the extended family, every choice was meant to benefit all because they were “one.”
When a man and woman married, the family recognized the wife as now one of the family, one of their “flesh.” And thus, she and her husband became one flesh, members of the same family unit with all its inherent obligations and benefits – and enemies.
As you’ve undoubted guessed, the impressionable twenty-two-year-old woman in my wedding photos had no inkling of this erudite interpretation. I believed that being married would cure loneliness. After all, I was “one flesh” with another person. He would be in some sense with me all the time.
I wasn’t unaware, of course, that work would keep us apart several hours of every weekday, and that in the mid-twentieth century this separation also meant no communication. In addition during the first two years of our union, we were both in school. Attending class, studying and commuting added to our time apart.
I had failed, however, to calculate that this schedule would mean endless days during we might not share even one meal. The only time we often “spent together” was in bed – and most of that sleeping. And even if I had more accurately gauged how few hours we would actually spend interacting with one another, I was much too young and inexperienced to evaluate ahead of the fact how utterly forlorn I would feel. I couldn’t realize that the existential bliss of being married could not override the actuality of my isolation.
Long Lonely evenings
Evenings were the worst. Coming into a quiet, dark and empty apartment, I’d stand, hand on the door to the front hall closet, unwilling to shed my jacket. I wanted more than anything to turn around and head back out. But in those early days, I had nowhere to go. I had left my friends behind first in high school and then at St. Mary’s. Because I worked toward my bachelor’s degree by piling up credits attending several different city universities on various evenings, I had no chance to make new friends. My day job as a caseworker for a foster care agency took me all over Chicago but didn’t offer opportunities to build relationships with co-workers.
In those pre-Starbucks days, hanging out at a coffee shop wasn’t an option and it absolutely never occurred to me to head to a bar. Looking back, I wonder why, and the only reason that pops into my head is I had never known anyone who hung out in taverns or bars. Growing up I’d only eaten in a restaurant a handful of times. In college, there had been girls that “got away” with faking an I.D. to go barhopping – at least, I’d heard about them. I didn’t know them. No, I didn’t barhop because I was a “good girl.” To do so was simply out of my skill set.
But coming home to an empty place was also well out of my range of experience. I grew up in a home that was the antithesis of empty. My mother stopped working outside the house when I was born and remained a stay-at-home mom until my youngest sibling went to high school twenty-nine years later. In those years, especially as a pre-teen, I yearned for solitude, something I could only find by hiding on the old glider behind the big coal-burning furnace in our dungeon-like basement.
At college, the only time I spent by myself was in the toilet stall – and that doesn’t really count because it was a communal bathroom with several stalls, a row of showers, and two bathtubs. The rest of the time, whether working in the dining room, going to classes, or heading for mixers at Notre Dame, other girls surrounded me.
Going to the chapel was the only way I could get some “alone” time. Of course, I wouldn’t be the only one there, but, at least, each of us withdrew to a quiet corner to pray. Yet, although never alone, I was often lonesome. Part of a big community, but belonging to no one person.
Now I was married, a life state I expected would rid me of lonesomeness. At last, I thought, I’d be living with one person for whom I’d be the first priority and with whom I could do everything. Instead, evening after evening I walked into an empty living room and then wandered into a cold kitchen, lost in dreams about the delicious, mouth-watering meals we would have together someday – when we were done with school -when we could start a family.
But those days were a long way off. So, I chose a slightly modified route to comforting companionship.
I adopted a kitten. Here was one dream I could actually make happen. I’d never been allowed to have a cat because my mother loathed them. I never knew why. But this, I realized, gazing around the small apartment was my very own home. I could make the rules. I ruled that Jule could have a cat. And she did.
It wasn’t a perfect answer. I still had a lot to learn about overcoming loneliness, but my little grey tabby, Champagne, helped a lot. She gave me someone to care for. She took me out of myself when Jay wasn’t home. And when he was home, she delighted us both. Nurturing her together activated the true process of “becoming one flesh.” Her life and being were equally precious to both of us. To love someone else equally and together was one of the most important Lessons that Love taught us.
Feeling lonely in a relationship or in a crowd is a common human experience. How have you coped when this happened to you? Let us know.
“Being alone is very difficult.” – Yoko Ono