When I was 25 years old, I was in a band. It was a dinky little coffeeshop folk-rock band, but MAN it was fun. I had just enough skill to compose but not enough to accompany myself, so I made embarrassing recordings of half-formed songs, brought them to my bandmates, and we workshopped them together. You know how being the lead singer of a band looks really fun? Well, it IS. Seriously.
My bass player was in about 95 bands total, and he cajoled me into attending a gig for one of these other projects sometime in early November. As I sat listening to an engaging string of jangly, jazzy pop songs, I saw a cute guy sitting alone in the audience. I mean he was so cute I had to keep myself from staring. My exact thoughts were, He looks like the guy I’ve always wanted to date. After the set wrapped up, I saw this cutie chatting with the night’s performers. So once the show was officially over and he’d disappeared, I approached the singer and requested status on guy-I’ve-always-wanted-to-
They showed up for a bar gig we played in late November. Our first official date was on December 1. By August 30 of the following year, we were married. We’ve been married for over nine years now, and I consider ours to be a solid, healthy, strong, all-around fabulous marriage.
HOWEVER. When my dinky little coffeeshop folk-rock band broke up, my husband and I thought we’d try playing music with each other. I mean, why not, right? We were both seasoned musicians, both loved performing, sang well together, lived in a house lousy with guitars and recording equipment. It just seemed natural. So we cooked up a few songs, wrangled the backup singer from my former band, and started working.
It was awful.
By this time, we’d been married for several years and had been through some pretty serious fights, loads of tension, and rocky times. But people, we were — and still are — amazing at fighting with each other. There is no yelling, there is no storming out, there is no going to sleep mad, there is no punishing silence. We may raise our voices, we may give each other nasty looks, and we feel perfectly free to call each other out on unreasonable words and actions. But we do it all with the idea in mind that we’re on the same team, that the goal is to find common ground and compromise, and with the explicit understanding that, individually, we may be wrong on many counts. I must also credit my husband with the world’s most effective disarming tactic: Touch. When we fight and I’m furious at him, I want him to stay the hell away from me. But he makes sure to touch my hand or my knee and it is pretty much impossible to stay furious. We fight infrequently, effectively, and beautifully. That’s how it had always been.
But the fights we had while trying to play music together were entirely different. We’d always understood each other on just about every level, and I expected the same to hold true in artistic collaboration. But no. No indeed. I would bring my crappy recordings of hacked-up song ideas to my husband, and we’d try to craft arrangements for them … but he never quite got what I was going for. And when I tried to explain it better, he would push back and explain his choices, and we’d fall into this vortex of trying to fit words around musical ideas and eventually just end up with a lot of, “Fine.” “Fine.” “Whatever.” It was like I spoke Swahili and he spoke French, so it didn’t matter that we were talking about the same subject because we couldn’t understand the other person at all. It never got ugly, of course. There weren’t any knock-down, drag-out fights, or swearing, or throwing beer bottles. But it was astonishing to me that two people who got along so well — who fought so well — and who were working toward a common goal could so quickly become tight-lipped, adamant, stubborn, and uncommunicative. It was a truly miserable experience.
We worked and fought and gritted our teeth for several months, until we’d managed to cobble together enough songs for an hour-long set. We performed in public twice before the backup singer announced she was pregnant and needed to retire. Everyone heaved a collective sigh of relief, and we quickly dissolved the band.
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure we were caught up in a subverted power struggle. Since I could only write and sing, I assumed I’d front the band and my husband would just play guitar. He was happy to play guitar, but he’d fronted nearly all of HIS previous bands, too, so he wasn’t quite comfortable just being an accompanist for me. He had more musical experience, being older than me and having launched his performance career much earlier, so he thought he knew better. And maybe he did, but I was used to working with musicians who took my ideas and fleshed them out in ways that pleased my ear, so I had no intention of yielding. We didn’t understand it while we were living it, but looking back, I’m pretty sure that the main issue was control: We both wanted it and believed we deserved it, but couldn’t find a way to share it.
I think some romantic partners can create amazing art together, and don’t want to discourage anyone from trying. But after living through this frustrating debacle myself, I have a bit more insight into rock star couples that burn out and break up. My husband and I have an amazing marriage that makes us both incredibly happy, and we communicate effectively on nearly every front. But, clearly, there are some activities that need to be done individually. Just because we’re soulmates doesn’t mean we should be bandmates.
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based blogger, freelance writer, and communications professional who writes the daily style and body image blog Already Pretty.