Maybe Constant Mockery Is the Key to a Happy Marriage?

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Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney on Catastrophe.
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney on Catastrophe.Photo: Courtesy of Ed Miller/Channel 4

My husband and I recently devoured the new season of Catastrophe. For those who aren’t familiar, the show is a cry-with-laughter delight about a 40-ish Irishwoman (Sharon Horgan) who lives in London and gets pregnant after a hot six-night fling with an American (Rob Delaney). In a bold roll of the dice, they decide to stay together and raise a family; the show follows their struggle to keep love alive while exhausted and covered in breast milk. And while many shows have done “wacky early days of marriage and parenthood,” I’ve never seen it done quite like this.

Take the scene where Rob tries in vain to get rid of an erection before their young son bounds into the room. As a helpful boner deflater, Sharon suggests he envision Liz Minelli eating hummus. Rob then proceeds to roll his eyes back and moan like the thought brought on an instant orgasm. In another scene, he sits glumly on the couch, and announces that he got a raise at work. “That’s great!” says Sharon. Then eyeing his frown, says, “What’s wrong? Did you have to blow Harita?” She then cackles at the idea of her husband blowing his female boss. Their banter is both foul and ridiculous, and it had my husband and I curled around each other, basking in their romance like we were watching Casablanca.

Granted, we are sort of the inverse of Rob and Sharon: I’m American, he’s Irish, and I’ve trapped him in New York City, where we’re raising our toddler. We relate to the show’s parenting tribulations, as well as the frustrating miscommunications that occur between the cultures. There’s a running argument between Sharon and Rob about the tongue-twister of an Irish name she insisted on giving to their child — a moniker her husband struggles to say correctly. My husband and I similarly clashed when he revealed his favorite name to be Caoimhe — pronounced, most unfortunately, as “Queeva.” I carefully explained that while it might mean precious in Ireland, in the States our child would spend her days reminding everyone of a vagina’s audible expulsion of air.

So there’s a lot in the show that resonates for us. But what really rings true is the filthy, relentlessly teasing way they speak to one another. For we converse in much the same way.

One night my husband flicked off the TV, and asked, “So wait. Does this mean all couples speak to each other like we do? Or is part of the show’s joke that they’re so awful, and no actual couple would talk that way?” He thoughtfully paused from pouring a bag of stale Easter candy into his mouth. “Do you think there’s something wrong with us?”

I hadn’t really considered this. I simply found the characters and their relationship real and reassuring. Of course all couples talk that way behind closed doors! But the very next day, when laughing about the show with a friend, she said, “It’s funny, because I would love to have a relationship like that. Even though they’re so awful and mean to each other.”

Wait. They are?

When I first met my husband, I came home to my roommate and gushed: “He’s super smart. And his accent is so sexy. Also, he makes fun of me constantly!”

At this last part my friend’s brow furrowed. “Oh,” She said. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, no!” I said. “It’s great!”

And it is. My husband and I rip on each other incessantly. We love to — as the Irish say — take the piss. For example, the other night:

Me: Wait, why did you just shower before dinner?

Him: Felt sticky.

Me: Because you were covered in cum?

Him: Yes. I spent the whole day at the office having people cum over me. [Sighs. Pops a beer.] Fuck. I may as well have. What a day.

This chatter is so commonplace for us that it’s hard to imagine all couples don’t communicate similarly. Isn’t everyone making jokes about their spouse being covered in semen at his software-developer job? Or are other people really smiling over plates of steamed salmon and saying, “Sorry your day was rough, darling. Please. Tell me more about it.” To me, this sounds terrible. (Have you ever heard someone talk about a bad day of computer coding? You will crave the crunch of a cyanide caplet between your teeth.)

But does this make us awful and mean? Or is it just that my husband possesses the bone-dry humor of the British Isles, while I … well, I am merely gross? I don’t know, really. But in my experience, being horrible to your partner is a rather simple way to keep the spark alive. Not truly horrible, of course. I don’t mean standing in the living room, loudly listing your partner’s failings and deepest vulnerabilities. Just lightly horrible. For example, when I texted my husband recently that I was out buying new makeup, he responded:

“Oh no, you’ve ruined my surprise.”

“Oh,” I wrote back. “Did you already have plans to make me less ugly?”

“Big plans.”

And like that, I was smiling, as if he’d sent me a little love note. For me, him making me laugh at myself is a show of affection. It is definitely hotter than him texting me some horrifying, sand-worm picture of his penis.

Marriage can be such a tricky, exhausting dance. And marriage with a small child is like dancing in a vat of honey to the chorus of a thousand screaming cats: wondrously sweet, but also sticky, strenuous, and often ear-splitting. Making fun of each other helps you to take yourself, and life, less seriously. Which can really cut the tension during tough moments. Like when you’re hung-over and stuck in Dublin traffic on the way to your son’s christening, for instance. Or when you receive the bill for that time you insisted on taking your kid to the ER because he’d had a night terror.

This is not to suggest that we’re some master wits, waltzing through Costco zinging each other à la Hepburn and Tracy. In truth, our bon mots are more along the lines of my husband comparing my genitals to an ailing Chewbacca. And I know this crass line of teasing isn’t for everyone. I have in fact heard that marriage is “no place for sarcasm” —  though I think whoever uttered that must have done so sarcastically, in a high whiny voice, while making a stupid face. Because for my husband and I, mockery actually eases the monotony of monogamy. Which in turn eases my occasional desire to splinter my beloved’s PlayStation controller over his skull. It’s simply hard to hate someone when they’re cracking you up. And truly, I am never more attracted to my husband than when he is throwing his head back in a guffaw, his dimples on display in all their Shar-Pei-like glory.

And that is what Catastrophe gets, and why their relationship seems both rough and raw, but also wonderfully romantic to me. Their barbs most often come from the very real desire to connect — to break through the surrounding chaos and noise, and light up the very tired eyes of the person they love so much – saying, “Hey, here we are. And we’re laughing. We’re okay.”