05/01/2015 10:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Putting Yourself in Parentheses

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

In Nick Hornby's charming and disarmingly thought-provoking new book, Funny Girl, we meet a group of people working on or near a 1960s U.K. television comedy called Barbara (and Jim). A dazzling and talented young actress who calls herself Sophie Straw is cast as Barbara, and the show blends her instinctive and spectacular comedic timing with her approachable beauty. Clive, the seasoned actor who plays her husband, finds himself determined to perform better than ever, inspired by the sheer talent and force of nature that is Sophie.

Along with Sophie and Clive, the novel explores the complicated and touching relationships of--among others--the writers, Tony and Bill, and the series' producer, Dennis, and his wife, Edith. Between the tales of backstage turmoil and script challenges, I found myself immersed in complex relationships that were often heart wrenching, sometimes touching, and all bursting with situations and choices that would never translate into a madcap series of misadventures, no matter how much you hope for tidy endings for everyone.

With everything Hornby writes, I find myself considering aspects of his work long after I've closed the book. In this case, one of the things I keep thinking about is the show's title, Barbara (and Jim). After considering and trying out a number of options, the writers and producer choose it because it clearly conveys that Barbara is the lead, gamely and lovingly supported by her husband, Jim. Their decision notwithstanding, they faced a challenge selling old Clive on the concept: "You're saying that my character is now parenthetical?" he asks. "It's just a little joke. To show that she's the boss" is their answer.

Well, it worked for Clive. But then I started wondering: Who is in the parentheses in my marriage?

Before we go there, here's a little reminder about what grammar has to say about parentheses. They "enclose information that clarifies or is used as an aside." Writers use them to identify information that could be considered less important, an afterthought. Great. That's encouraging.

Think about the couples you know. Whose name comes first in your mind or in your speech? Why? In the case of family members and their partners, maybe your relative comes first. With friends, it's probably the friend you've known longer. Do they ever switch positions? Maybe, but it probably sounds "wrong" when they do.

Moving on to your own marriage or your own partnership: Who is in the brackets--excuse me, parentheses? (Brackets are entirely different grammar tools.) That order may change, depending on who is referring to you. But forget the rest of the world: What order do you use? And now ask yourself: Does it matter? Maybe not, but consider this about your relationship: One of you may be subconsciously costarring in the other's life. One of you gets to rely on your partner being the wind beneath your wings, if you will (and I won't, but you get my meaning). Then again, one of you is the wind...that never lets up, that never diminishes, that keeps someone aloft and soaring in the midst of life's uncertainties.

That's spectacular. Until you run out of wind. Then what?

It's possible that this is of no consequence and who is first and who is second is simply habit or a speech tic. But it's also possible that we put people in parentheses because they are (sort of, maybe, kind of) "an afterthought." OK, maybe not literally, but one person may be the stronger personality, the energy that creates the public face of a couple. Top billing matters on Broadway and in the movies, but the question is whether or not it counts for anything in real life. In a partnership of two, must there be a star? Is every duo destined to be a Simon and Garfunkel? A John and Yoko? A Jay Z and Beyonce?

I imagine some people sit squarely and comfortably within their own "couple parentheses," and God bless. If that means they're healthy, happy and content, they're already way ahead of most of us. But I do wonder. Instead of resisting them, embracing the parens and what they imply could be the smartest thing any of us can do. When we feel stress or sadness or uncertainty, it may be time to take shelter in their little arms. Take a breath and admit to your partner: "I'm still here, but I need to be in the parentheses for a little while. I'll be in the background until I figure a few things out. Thanks, honey."

Barbara (and Jim). (And Nick). They may be onto something here.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

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