04/18/2013 12:33 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

When Opposites Attract: An Engineer and a Writer Battle It Out


My husband just came up to the spare bedroom I recently started using as my office to ask a question about taxes. He took one look at the bed buried under my books and papers and raised an eyebrow. I held my breath, waiting to hear what he had to say.

Dan and I are opposites. He's a quiet, meticulous software engineer and I'm a noisy writer who has trouble matching her own socks. One of the first times Dan ever cooked for me, I cleaned the kitchen and loaded the dishwasher. I should have known the road to paradise was strewn with boulders when Dan promptly unloaded the dishwasher and reloaded it, explaining about the directionality of spray, the importance of like goes with like, and why you should only fill the soap compartment halfway.

"Huh," I said, admiring Dan's capable hands and broad shoulders, but ignoring everything else. After all, I was 38 years old, divorced, and a single mom with two kids. It wasn't like I was going to marry the guy or anything.

A year later, Dan and I were married in a tent behind the house we'd just bought together. With four young children, two from each side, we knew we were walking into a six-ring circus. But even more difficult than parenting each other's kids was the challenge of pairing my devil-may-take-this-job-and-shove-it housekeeping approach with Dan's need for order.

Dan is a serious cook who has more cookbooks than Barnes & Noble. When we moved into our first house, he created a spread sheet for the kitchen to show me the proper places to put the knives, dishes, and pots. He alphabetized his spices and saved every glass jar "because it might be useful when I'm making chutney." He created flow charts for holiday meals and weekly shopping lists that included what to do with leftovers.

When it's my turn to cook, it's usually taco night. With the kit.

We shared an office, and the battles there were no less fierce. "Do not use my tape unless you put it back where you found it," Dan warned the kids. And me, too, the first 70 times I forgot. He had tiny containers of paperclips, sorted by size, and plastic tubs of rubber bands saved from old newspapers. He filed every receipt and kept up accounts on his computer.

Whenever my bank account became too untidy, my solution was simple: I opened a new one and let the old account straighten itself out over time. When I work, I keep manuscripts-in-progress, along with every other piece of crap, in stacks, piles, and cloth bags.

Somehow, though, we have found a way to live together. He thinks I'm worth it and the feeling is mutual. Eighteen years later, I know where the garlic press lives. Dan taught me to hang my keys on a hook above the kitchen counter, and I'm delighted every time I find them still there. Wow! It works!

Dan, for his part, has learned to relax about certain things. The laundry? He knows I'll just lay the T-shirts on top of his dresser because I can't fold them into those little military squares he likes. He appreciates the fact that I'll suggest a hike instead of housecleaning on Saturday morning.

Now, looking at the bed in the guest room covered with my files and papers, he even gamely names my organizational style: "I see you've become a horizontal filer," he says, and smiles.

That's what marriage is: A complex dance where you and your partner don't just mirror each other's moves, but embrace the challenge of making up new steps as you go along.