marriage: an investigation

What It’s Like to Like When You Can Never Get Away From Your Spouse

Photo: Courtesy of Sally O’Neill

Sally and Peter, Married 31 Years, 7 Months

Sally: The boat is a catamaran, and it’s like a tiny condo. We have a tiny living room, which is about 10-by-12 feet, and two hulls, which have our bedroom in one and the galley and guest cabins in the other. Then there’s a big cockpit outside, where we spend most of our time when it’s warm, and there’s the bow of the boat that I do yoga on. We’re never more than about six meters apart. Physically, we have no privacy, but we don’t seem to mind it. Actually, at this point it would be weird to have it. At home I felt more often that need to “escape,” perhaps because there were lots of demands on me. Here I don’t feel that same tug to spend time on my own.

Peter: Our house in Toronto was huge compared to this, but the boat has more nooks and crannies. Or maybe it just feels that way because there’s always so much to do and it’s so much more pleasurable to do it. I can go off and putter about in the generator locker or in the engine room, or I can go and sit on the cockpit. In fair weather, this boat is vast. In foul weather, we get a little more claustrophobic because we’re limited to this tiny living room and then we get a little itchy. I feel that most when we have guests come, because then I can’t always find a space to do my own stuff on my own schedule.

Sally: Even though it’s a small space, I think we’ve both figured out ways of being alone in our own minds. We’re not together spiritually every second.

Peter: No, spiritually we’re together every second; physically, we’re not. Today, for example, I went to do some repairs on the seawater pump, for the engine, and you went about your business. You went out to the market.

Sally: That’s true. For the past three months, we’ve been at dock in Turkey, and then I will often go off with the other women around and go shopping or do a yoga class. But we tend to do things together because we are each other’s preferred company. We were just staying in an Airbnb in Cyprus, and it was huge, with tons of rooms. And where did we sit almost all the time? At the kitchen table together.

Neither of us are yellers — even when angry, we very, very rarely raise our voices. But during our trip north along the Brazilian coast, our reefing line for the mainsail chafed through, which meant that Peter had to go up on the roof of the boat to jury-rig a fix in high waves, big wind, and total darkness; he had his life jacket on and was tethered to the boat in case he fell. With winds and waves, our communication often had to be yelling at each other to make ourselves heard. All of this raised the tension and anxiety. I knew Peter wasn’t angry, but it still made me anxious. Eventually, we remembered a long-ago boat-show purchase called “marriage savers.” They were wireless radio earphones so we could talk to each other in normal, calm voices with hands free. It made all the difference. Gradually, as we became more practiced and my comfort and knowledge increased, we used the marriage savers less. Now anchoring is done completely by sign language — no talking, even calmly, required.

Photo: Courtesy of Sally O'Neill.
Photo: Courtesy of Sally O'Neill.

Peter: Coming out here, you have to trust someone’s judgment in a different capacity — not in the social capacity, with all that exists in the urban world.

Sally: The biggest issue we’ve had to adjust to is that I am a pretty ardent feminist, so in our married life before the boat we were pretty equal. But cruisers tend to have denoted jobs into “pink” and “blue.” This in itself is offensive, not only in the choice of those stereotypical colors but in aligning jobs into masculine or feminine. To my dismay, as we went on, our jobs actually did start to align with the false gender categorization. Peter was the most knowledgeable when it came to sailing and maintaining all the systems. Meanwhile, I cleaned, cooked, did laundry, and organized all the provisioning. It bugs me still just to say this. On the other hand, I had no wish to take on the responsibility of being captain. In a crisis, the captain’s word and direction must be followed to be safe, and I am happy to give this to Peter.

Peter: I used to teach sailing when I was younger, and initially I would just speak to her as if she were a regular crew member. That was a mistake.

Sally: At first I was fine about being told what to do when it came to sailing, but a couple of times Peter told me what to do about basic living, things I had been doing for 50 years. That was extremely irritating. As time went on, I often knew what to do with the sails or navigation, but Peter would still tell me. Eventually, I told Peter that I would ask if I needed direction; otherwise he should let me do the task on my own. Now we know our tasks and can work together pretty seamlessly, almost like a dance where everyone knows their part. Although I would like him to cook more.

Peter: I don’t really cook at all. It’s pathetic. She says that I should cook this winter, but I still haven’t done it. It’s a good question as to why.

Sally: Even the cleanup is mine. I have often kind of hinted and it hasn’t worked. Still, taking care of a house is way simpler than taking care of this boat. I guess if I was really serious about this cooking thing, then I should by rights take on learning about diesel engines. And I’m just not all that interested.

Over our marriage, we differed a bit in how we handled conflict and irritation with each other. I immediately wanted to talk about it, often in tears. Peter became very quiet and withdrew completely. Gradually, we have changed the way we manage irritability. We never discussed this, but I think we both understood that the way we had managed in the past was more damaging than the original minor problem. Now we tend to talk about whatever it may be much more quickly. When you’re with someone in the middle of the sea, it’s not worth being angry.

*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

When You Can Never Get Away From Your Spouse and You Like It