Relationships

The Worrywart vs. the Zen Master

Every time we fight, we’re replaying an old argument about the emotional burden of being the one who obsesses about everything.

Tom Bowman and Brigid Schulte happily bobbing their heads only Brigid's eye is twitching.
Lisa Larson-Walker

Every couple has one core fight that replays over and over again, in different disguises, over the course of their relationship. In this series, couples analyze the origin and mechanics of their One Fight. To pitch your own One Fight (we’ll also accept pseudonyms, if necessary), email humaninterest@slate.com.

Brigid Schulte and Tom Bowman have been married for 25 years and live in Alexandria, Virginia, with their two children.

Brigid Schulte: We haven’t had many big blowout fights. I do remember once, ages ago when the kids were little, screaming at each other once on the front porch and you screeching off in your Jeep in a huff. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what they were about, what was at stake or who won. In truth, our blowouts probably have had less to do with each other than with the fact that you were about to head off to report in a war zone for weeks and the stress and fear and worry set us both on edge. I was scared for you, worried about how I’d manage work and two little kids and probably more than a little jealous that you were off to do something adventurous, historic, and “important” while I hunted around for interesting “slice of life” metro stories that would ensure I’d be home in time to make (a late) dinner for the kids.

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I would say our real fights are more slow burns. My spacey sense of timelessness crashing into your orderly punctuality. Your “mole man” love of dimness and darkness, and my need for light. Your New England stoic reserve freezing out my Pacific Northwest “pour out your soul” vibe, and other differences of geography, personality, preference, and age that we are still somewhat grudgingly learning how to manage.

But I’d say our main slow-burn fight is my tendency to worry about absolutely everything, and your uncanny ability to worry about exactly nothing. In wave after wave of layoffs at a previous newspaper job, your anxious colleagues called you “Zen master.” They marveled that you kept calm, just like the coffee cup says, and carried on, seemingly unfazed as all around once-promising careers, economic livelihoods, and ultimately the newspaper industry were laid to waste.

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On the one hand, I count on your unflappability. I have always tended to run on the anxious side. And there is nothing more soothing—as I, on the verge of another panic attack, say, looking at the gaping discrepancy between our son’s steep college tuition bills, and our bank account—than when you say, “Don’t worry. It’ll all work out.” Or when I see cracks appearing throughout the house and, unable to sleep, obsessively Google “cracks appearing throughout the house” on my iPhone at 3 in the morning as you blissfully snore. It feels a little like magical thinking, but I believe you, because I want to believe you.

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Tom Bowman: You do worry too much. We’re alive and healthy, with great jobs. Our kids are healthy and thriving. We’ve had a life that is fascinating, one many would kill for. Look around you.

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Brigid: It’s true, a lot of things do work out. But over the years, I’ve come to see that they often work out because I make them work out. I call the financial planner and come up with a tuition payment strategy. And I call the foundation people and work at home while waiting for them to come look at the cracks to say they’re nothing to worry about. As I see my aging parents burning through their life savings with $10,000-a-month 24-hour care bills and begin to fear for our own future, I remember that I was the one who got you to increase your 401(k) contribution from a paltry 3 percent when you were nearly 40, and I was the one who found out that if something terrible happened to you on one of your overseas war zone reporting trips, the beneficiary on all your policies was still your ex-wife.

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Sometimes I joke that you don’t have to worry because I do all the worrying for both of us. But I’m not really joking.

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Tom: OK, you do the financial stuff. And I agree I should have upped my 401(k). But cracks in the walls, the foundation? Is the freaking house the Leaning Tower of Del Ray? So you call a foundation guy. What’s he going to say? “Hey lady, it looks great!” No, he’ll say, “Hey lady, give me $30,000 and I’ll prop up your house.” It dropped … one flippin’ inch. At that rate I’ll be dead before you can stand on the sidewalk and notice it.

I guess I don’t worry because I’ve seen tragedy that, honestly, a lot of people can’t imagine. Both brothers died young, one from alcohol, the other from drugs. A divorce. Two close friends died in Afghanistan, and I was lucky enough to make it out. We’re both luckier than most. And life is so weird and short and bizarre that you can’t worry but just deal with the next curveball coming. Did I worry about the newspaper industry? No. What’s it going to matter? I just felt like I was lucky enough to get out before a proud national newspaper was reduced to a pretty-good local paper. Why? Because my boss got fired from his previous job for complaining about budget cuts and my current employer hired him. And he hired me. When it comes down to it, most of life is just plain damn luck. Most people can’t accept that. So, no, I don’t care about the cracks in the wall that have since been plastered up or the house sinking an inch. Or whether I have 3 percent or 10 percent in a 401(k).

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If you worry about everything, you don’t spend enough time living. Hey, we’re all going to die sometime. Will I live to be 96, in a wheelchair, drooling and talking about my time reporting from a Marine combat outpost in Afghanistan? Maybe. If so, stick my body under the house and shore it up.

Brigid: It’s a good thing you make me laugh. But honestly, you also really make me mad. I agree that we are incredibly lucky. And that life is bigger than all the crappy little things that wind up on a never-ending to-do list, the stupid drudge work of dental appointments and dishwasher repair people and fixing the hole in the kitchen ceiling after we (I) got the toilet leak repaired.

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In some ways, I feel like this “Mommy is a worrywart” refrain that you used to teach the kids is a proxy for all the invisible, unnoticed, and often unappreciated household labor and logistical planning I do. That research shows most women still do. We’ve gotten a lot better about splitting chores and kid responsibilities more fairly: In recent weeks, I’ve been to our daughter’s parent-teacher conferences and the oral surgeon. You’re going to take her to court to get her driver’s license. You cook and shop. I do dishes and laundry. But I do feel like my life is sometimes reduced to one big, dull, worrisome to-do list. The stuff, the anxiety, narrows my vision, crowds my brain, bolts me awake at night and robs me of living with a sense of wonder and awe. I’ve known tragedy, too. I know we’re here for a limited time only. So maybe if you worried a little more—the taxes do need to get paid, shit does need to get done—I could worry a little less. And I might be able to be more of a Zen master, too.

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Tom: OK, that’s fair. But I do a lot more of the drudge work than I used to. Don’t you remember your book, Overwhelmed? I was a villain in the first few chapters, but I did get redeemed later in the book.

I’d be more inclined to cut down on the list. What really needs to be done? What can be put off—or just not done? Oh, and I will take our daughter to get her license.

Brigid: Ah, classic Zen master Bowman. Putting things off until—whenever. I’ll remember that when I’m opening a can of Spam for our dinner at 89 and blissfully watching the sunset after propping you up under the sagging house. At least our son will have a college degree, and our daughter will be able to drive over for a visit.

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Tom: Listen. I love your smarts, your beauty, and the way you have the biggest heart of anyone I know. I’ve been attracted to you since I saw you walk across the newsroom with those weird flowered pants. You don’t hold grudges the way I do, and you’ve taught me to be more open and actually talk about what’s on my mind. That can be hard for someone from a Boston Irish background where we talked about nothing, and the only sound at dinner was a fork scraping across a plate.

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I think we’ve lasted this long because we really like each other, and respect each other and trust each other, and can laugh about just about anything. And I’d like to think we’ve gently taken each other by the arm toward a better place. So for me it’s that openness thing. For you, I’d like to think I’ve coaxed you away from the good Catholic girl who wouldn’t challenge or question anyone. Now you take insurance companies to task, and handymen, and bureaucrats, or anyone who fucks with our kids with a crisp comment or a single arched eyebrow. (The one that scares the kids.)

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At any rate, I’m looking forward to our retirement someday, living near the beach and skiing in the mountains. And I’m sure we can do it. My 401(k) is looking much better, for some reason.

Brigid: For all the ways that you exasperate me, there are so many more ways that you surprise me, challenge me, and delight me. There is so much more between us, beyond just our rich shared history, than our annoying differences. I remember when I was reporting a story about how the fastest growing divorce rate is actually among people over 50, a group of marriage counselors said the key to a long, happy relationship is actually having several different relationships with the same person over time. Because people change, because life, as you say, is weird and short and bizarre and keeps throwing curveballs.

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I think that’s what we’ve been able to do—change. And those often-painful curveballs have been good and constant reminders to both of us of what’s really important: not my worry, not the endless drudge work, not your sometimes clueless serenity, but the fact that I can’t wait to see you at the end of the day, that I fall asleep easier when you’re holding my hand, and, like I told you once after 9/11 when the world truly did feel like it might end, that it really doesn’t matter what’s in the bank account, or if the house falls down. As long as I’m with you, I’m home.

Read other entries in Slate’s Our One Fight series:

Stability vs. Adventure

• Fast vs. Slow

Your Stuff vs. My Stuff

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