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In defense of my marriage — and maybe yours, too

Updated: August 7, 2013 6:02AM

The speedometer needle hit 100 mph before I eased slightly off the accelerator. I felt no relief, so I stepped on it again.

I was venting anger. Righteous, wholesome anger, or so I believed.

No one else was in danger, as I was vastly alone on Interstate 8 in western Arizona. The next town, Gila Bend, was over an hour away.

My wife and I had just had one of our worst quarrels in 22 years of married life, while nearly 2,000 miles apart. She had been standing in the kitchen of our South Side home, while I spoke to her from an Albertson’s drug store in Yuma. And then I slammed down the phone and seethed all the way out to the parking lot.

The reason for our fight, for my skyrocketing blood pressure, for the reckless speed, and for her painful tears was almost beside the point of this essay: Which is that remembering a simple piece of advice whenever a crisis emerges can save the day, not to mention your marriage.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples, I offer a personal DOMA that can defend and thereby save any kind of marriage, gay or straight, while possibly reducing divorce rates up to 60 percent.

To explain: the reason for my apoplexy in Yuma, it turns out, had more to do with my pride than with my wife. Traveling through the West to conduct some business and visit relatives, I had checked into a Yuma motel for two nights.

Returning at the end of the first day, I found my luggage and belongings scattered in the parking lot outside my motel room door, which was padlocked on the outside.

I stormed the office, where the motel manager informed me that my credit card was no good. A testy and ultimately futile exchange ensued, which led to Albertson’s and the aforementioned phone call home, at which point I learned that Marianne had mailed the payment to the credit card company one day late.

Though I don’t recall my exact words of rage directed at my wife, they were so toxic that taking them back could not have waited till Gila Bend, even if I drove 200 mph.

Instead, I squealed through the next turnaround on I-8, drove back to the drugstore pay phone, and was relieved she even answered.

Apologies were profuse, and I cited my shame at being evicted, and at having no place to stay tonight, as reasons for my tantrum. Also that perhaps Arizona’s dry heat may have shriveled my brain into blaming her rather than the zero tolerance policy of the credit card company (a practice which has since been legislatively prohibited), or the overwrought hotel keeper.

Or, OK, the main reason was me and my temper that I had yet to learn to control at age 44. The temper that kept me from stopping, taking a deep breath, and realizing that a lousy credit card bill had nothing to do with what we meant to each other.

That arguments over money or child rearing or choices or in-laws were almost always peripheral to what we truly had between us, and why we were together.

Of course, since that kind of reasonableness is rare in the heat of battle, we agreed from then on to use a code word or phrase that either partner could voice if an argument became heated, to remind us of what’s important and what’s really at stake.

It’s analogous to the practice commonly used in professional wrestling, when opponents agree beforehand to a secret signal, to be used only in case one becomes seriously hurt and is not playacting, so that the other needs to ease up.

Fights between me and Marianne are fewer now. But the last one was precipitated by a sardonic, sophomoric comment made by, well, whomever — after a late night party. As tension heightened, or we just got louder, Marianne held up her hand to get in a word: “Monterey? Monterey Bay.”

That’s our code. Nothing exotic or erotic. But it does evoke a memorable vacation, the first time we were able to fly somewhere after 15 years of marriage, after kids, after financial struggle.

I remember the hotel had a spa on the rooftop, overlooking the bay. And that evening’s unseasonable cool temperatures did not matter, since, yes, we were two Chicagoans escaped to sunny California in the depth of winter, but also two people who could hardly believe how lucky we were to have each other.

On top of that building under the stars, looking over the world from its western edge, we knew no one below was happier that night.

Even serious rifts between two people that stem from betrayal, or from a deep hurt, can be better understood, if not resolved, by a reminder of a better time. Mainly because it’s also a reminder that the person before you is complex and evolving, but the same human being who has loved you like no other.

Try it as a defense of your marriage. The process of selecting a code, a secret word just between you and your love, can itself be fun.

The benefit can be crucial.

David McGrath, emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage, is author of “The Territory.”

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