Full Title: Sometimes Marriage Is a Butterfly, and Sometimes It’s a Six-Eyed Sand Spider
Part One: On Family and Mortal Fear
“…and so I got us tickets for this weekend!”
My husband gapes at me silently while I wait for him to join me in this celebration. He looks as if he’s tasted something slightly sour, but this doesn’t fully register with me through the haze of my excitement.
“I thought we could invite Jill and her kids, and I bet the baby is going to love the Pavilion…”
Even bubbling over with details about the surprise I’ve planned, it is impossible not to notice I am alone in my delight, and I finally peter off when I notice Mark continuing to gawk.
“What?” I say defensively. “Doesn’t it sound fun?”
“It” is the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, and the year is 2017. Mark and I have been married for eight years, together for twelve; we have a two-year old son. We are starving artists who live paycheck to paycheck, but our coffers are overflowing with love and gratitude. My husband and I see eye-to-eye about nearly everything in this world…except, apparently, about insectariums.
The Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion is a science museum in the northeast corner of the city, situated along a nondescript stretch of road at least forty minutes from the skyscrapers and the Liberty Bell of Center City. It self-identifies as presenting “one of most diverse living arthropod collections in the United States,” which is super impressive even if we are talking about, you know, bugs. But even more impressively, it purportedly features a gigantic, enclosed annex absolutely filled with every type of free-range fluttering butterfly you can imagine, and a few you probably can’t.
“It actually does not sound that fun,” Mark finally answers. “It sounds anxiety-producing. It sounds like a fight or flight situation.”
Mark, I am now recalling, is not a fan of insects. He’s pretty non-discriminatory in his hatred of that particular phylum, but he’s particularly wary of insects that fly.
And it would seem, as I am learning in this very moment, his fear extends to butterflies as well.
“Seriously?” I ask. “You have a butterfly phobia?”
“No,” he says defensively. “I just really don’t like insects flying at my head.”
“Ok,” I respond soothingly. “I totally get it.”
“But can we please still go??”
Part Two: On Darwin and Mental Health
It was 2017, and – at the time – I did not see my own insensitivity.
I considered myself pretty progressive. I strove to acknowledge and honor everyone’s personal journey. I recognized the strengths and weaknesses we all share; I understood the value in the broad range of our unique experiences. As I do now, so then was I proud to hold the quality of every human life in the highest regard, and I have always respected my husband’s perspective more than anyone else’s point of view.
I just really didn’t think a phobia of butterflies could, you know, actually be a thing. I mean…butterflies. Wherein exactly does the terror lie?
(However, as I would come to learn, it is totally a thing. I formally apologize to all the lepidopterophobics out there; I can admit when I’m wrong.)
Up until the eve of our planned visit to the butterfly pavilion, however, I simply could not comprehend my husband’s terror. I mean, consider this: we are genetically wired after millennia of evolution to avoid that which threatens our existence. Phobias, then, seem to be a sort of Darwinian hiccough, a misprint in the human genome. As I see it, they symbolize mistakes in the code, alleles gone awry, evolutionary flaws which have heretofore dodged natural selection’s eraser. A phobia stems from our instinct to preserve the species, and – at the time – I did see how a butterfly could possibly represent a threat.
Of course, now I have the benefit of hindsight bias; now I understand I really shouldhave found more empathy back then for my husband. And not just because it turns out his lepidopterophobia actually is a thing.
After all, I myself am severely arachnophobic. That is, I am arachnophobic to the point of dysfunction. I will break out in hives at the mere sight of an arachnid; I have fixations about spiders crawling on my body. I am physically incapable of entering a basement, which results in an admittedly-unfair proportion of the laundry duties falling upon Mark whenever our apartment doesn’t have a main-floor washing machine. I do not picnic. I do not camp. I do not feel at all at ease surrounded by nature. To be clear, I am someone who is significantly impacted by an irrational phobia every single day, so you’d think I would recognize the same discomfort in my soulmate.
But arthropods aside, the other reason I should have shown my dear husband more empathy is simply because I owe him; I owe him big.
This debt is a result of my own journey with intrusive thoughts, mental illness, and existential suffering; it is a result of Mark having to carry more than his own load. He has offered limitless affection and unwavering support while I have navigated the quagmire of the mental healthcare system and the agony of trauma therapy and the shame of a psychiatric diagnosis, and he does it (almost entirely) without complaint.
In retrospect, I can see that writing off Mark’s irrational fear of the insectarium – his outsized angst in no small part a symptom of his own battle with anxiety – was extremely unfair. It was to dishonor the help and encouragement he has gifted me selflessly over the years. While he never could understand the self-hatred and self-harm that accompanied my eating disorder, for example, he still tried to help; he still respected my pain. Therefore, I now realize, I owe him at least the same concern and consideration he has bestowed upon me; I owe him for his unconditional love.
And while I still have a hard time understanding a phobia of butterflies, I really should have been respecting his pain this whole time, too.
Part Three: On Butterflies and Distress Tolerance
“Are you ready?” I ask Mark, poised to push open the door with one hand, clutching my toddler’s fingers with the other. Our friend and her children are a few steps behind, and we are all about the enter the cavernous, climate-controlled little ecosystem that is the Butterfly Pavilion, in which any one of 4,000 butterflies of any one of 52 species might land atop your very finger like a Disney film.
We have already explored the three floors of the Insectarium. Feeling holy like a martyr for providing my child with this experience despite my arachnophobia, I nonetheless cower before every insect cage we encounter. There are scorpions. There are stick bugs. There is a Six-Eyed Sand Spider, and it is this last one which keeps me from approaching any more cages at all.
But nothing escapes, and nothing bites me, and I am finally ready for the butterflies, proud of myself for surviving the spiders at all. Mark, however, is not ready; Mark is contemplating the doors to the Pavilion like a man would contemplate a firing squad.
“It’ll be ok!” I coax enthusiastically. “It’s going to be so pretty!”
“Uh huh,” Mark replies, and we walk inside.
The first thing I notice is the humidity, a moist stickiness that enters my lungs and coats my bronchioles with wet cotton, making breathing difficult. The second thing is the flora, giant ferns and flowers and vines straight out of a travel brochure, typically more at home along the equator than on Frankford Avenue. This also explains why we’re standing in 80 degree heat – tropical butterflies, unsurprisingly, are more comfortable in tropical temperatures, and this 7,000 square foot oasis seems to be all about butterfly comfort. I see paths and ponds and lily pads wherever my eyes happen to land, and that’s when I start to spot the butterflies.
They are every color of the rainbow, splashes of color in every direction, primary colors and pastel colors and contrasting colors and patterns. Everywhere, there is motion, oftentimes a bright hue in my peripheral vision that is somewhere else by the time I turn to spot it. Gradually, I learn to focus my eyes, tracking the individual flight patterns of single butterflies, just like watching the blades of a ceiling fan. The space is downright surreal; it is ethereal like a dream. I feel like I am live-action role-playing a princess in a fairytale who has friendly forest companions, and I find I am hoping one will actually settle on me.
“This is so cool!”
I hoist my son onto my hip and start pointing out the different butterflies, able to refer to them only by color but correctly identifying a few Monarchs by their orange wings nonetheless. He stares with wide eyes, then struggles to get down and takes off, darting down a labyrinth of paths and jumping in puddles of moisture. He is obviously loving the experience, and I am overjoyed.
Then I notice Mark huddling by a wall, carrying everyone’s jackets, looking miserable. For weeks, I had callously assumed he would be transformed into a butterfly-lover upon entrance to the pavilion, his phobia fragmenting at the sight of all this beauty and eventually falling away entirely.
But you know what they say about assumptions.
As I watch, a neon blue butterfly starts to loom, dropping from above like a deus ex machina, veering for Mark’s head. Hyperaware, he glimpses the movement and ducks instinctively, his brain clearly running on overdrive. Immediately, I feel a rush of remorse.
“Oh, honey,” I say sadly, walking over to join him. “I’m sorry. I really thought you’d be OK.”
“These are, like, kamikaze butterflies,” he responds. “Can you solo-parent if I wait in the hall?”
“Of course,” I answer, guilt beginning to creep in. I never thought he would be scared enough to have to wait in the hall; this whole time, I thought he was exaggerating his distress, like when he has a Man Cold.
“I’m sorry,” I call again as he exits, my regret genuine, my apology extending to the entire gestalt of the situation and not just his brief exposure to an aggressive butterfly. I rejoin my toddler, guiding his hands and talking about “gentle fingers” every time he attempts to crush something with petals or wings. This fully occupies me for the next half hour until our friends are ready to leave and we join my husband in the hall, our need for beauty finally satiated.
“I love you,” I say immediately. “Thanks for trying.”
“I love you, too,” answers Mark. “I’m never coming here again.”
“Ok,” I agree, still feeling contrite for forcing him to go. I shiver as we walk past the Six-Eyed Sand Spider, and then we lead our son to the car.
Part Four: On Marriage and the Six-Eyed Sand Spider
In August of 2018, roughly eighteen months after our visit to the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion, CEO Dr. John Cambridge arrived at the museum one morning to discover 80% of its inventory had been stolen.
And let’s review: the museum’s inventory is bugs. Live ones.
The cages were empty; the back storeroom for off-display exhibits was stripped of its contents. These were centipedes and millipedes and mantises, snails the size of dogs and cockroaches straight out of a Kafkian fever dream. It was estimated that 7,000 specimens were missing, a haul that equated to roughly $50,000 in squirming, segmented, creepy-crawling increments.
Police suspected an inside job, thanks to employee uniforms found pinned to a wall with kitchen knives. The FBI got involved, thanks to eight tarantulas currently housed at the Insectarium that were evidence in a high-profile smuggling trial. By stealing these furry arachnids, the thieves had inadvertently committed a federal crime, and that’s when news of the theft really started to spread.
I was understandably fascinated by this developing situation for its sheer absurdity. I had been following coverage by The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post since the story broke. I watched the jokes and the comments roll in from all over the country, this true-crime whodunit capable of transcending all geographic and political borders. The heist was even mentioned during Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night monologue – generating even more on-brand notoriety for our fair city, Philadelphians would agree – the catalyst none other than my old friend, the Six-Eyed Sand Spider.
The Six-Eyed Sand Spider is said to have the most potent venom of any arachnid. Entomologists claim a single bite can rot over 25% of a human body in a matter of days, necrosis setting in almost immediately. What’s more, there is no known anti-venom, meaning a bite from this spider is almost certainly fatal. This was obviously the tidbit of information onto which most of the world glommed, particularly once it was suggested (somewhat far-fetchedly, in my opinion) that the misplaced specimen could be utilized in a terrorist attack.
Due to this abstract-yet-looming threat of a bioweapon, Detectives were under a great deal of pressure to solve the entire robbery. Launching a massive search, police recovered a single Fireleg Tarantula, but had little success locating any other missing specimans, and therefore surmised they were intended for the exotic animal trade.
Animosity between executives and employees and entomologists came to light, each accusing all the others of the crime. It was theorized the Insectarium’s founder and former owner was out for revenge after losing the Insectarium due to back taxes. Security footage seemed to show employees in the animal care department swiping cages and loading them in a car. Those employees claim they had instead loaned their own specimens to the Insectarium during a period of underfunding, and, upon quitting, were merely taking them back.
Regardless of the culprit, my arachnophobia was naturally having a field-day with this entire scenario. I immediately recalled my distaste for the Six-Eyed Sand Spider the first time around; I immediately recalled its sinister little scuttling legs. I recalled Mark’s hatred of butterflies that day in 2017, and that’s when the irony really set in.
Now, it’s not that I actually believed I would be bitten by the wayward Six-Eyed Sand Spider; I know better than that, thank you. Rather, the sheer thought of the thing would spurn my obsessive-compulsion brain into action, intrusive images circling like a whirlpool, until I felt spiders crawling on my flesh with every breeze and kept conjuring them in corners at the first sign of movement. I tried not picture it, which caused me to picture it more, and I’ve never really developed the coping skills to interrupt that cycle.
It was a tense several days, images of the Six-Eyed Sand Spider on every screen I viewed. Every glimpse of the tiny brown arachnid shot my blood pressure into the stratosphere; I kept unconsciously scratching at any exposed flesh on my arms. However, the buzz about the Insectarium theft eventually died down, and my thoughts gradually fell away from the Six-Eyed Sand Spider and its compatriots.
As of yet, the case is still unsolved. But it taught me a valuable lesson about my relationship.
The year is 2022, and I have learned a lot about marriage since my wedding 13 years ago.
The summation of this knowledge can best be expressed in a single aphorism, passed through generations along a matriarchal line, wisdom to be imparted upon every newlywed:
Sometimes marriage is a butterfly, and sometimes it’s a Six-Eyed Sand Spider.
Let me explain.
Marriage is never mathematically equal; the emotional weight of the partnership is never evenly divided. But in a healthy relationship, one partner gives more – more time, more love, more effort, more responsibility – when the other cannot, and the situation reverses in kind. Your strengths and weaknesses cancel each other out, juxtaposed like the colors in a yin yang – and occasionally, to make your marriage work, you’re just going to have to carry more than your weight for a while.
Mark does the laundry in the spider-infested basement, for example, even though it should be my job at least half the time. In turn, I’m much more likely to accompany our children to lessons or playdates, because my introverted husband can find interaction with other human beings to be a chore from time to time. When I am plagued by intrusive thoughts, unable to be present in the moment with my children, Mark bathes them alone and puts them to bed. When he is unhappy, mired in a depressive stasis, I do his errands alongside my own.
Everything is about balance, about the times we underperform or overcompensate in our relationships, and being mindful of that balance is the best adhesive for maintaining the bond in a marriage while everything else is going on. Things are not always even, and they are not always fair, but more often than not, it all comes out in the wash at the end of the day.
Because sometimes, your marriage will look like your own arachnophobia; sometimes, it will look like your husband’s fear of butterflies. It could be you enduring mental torment, or it could be your partner, but marriage will always require a Sisyphean push-and-pull to survive. In viewing butterflies as Mark’s personal Si-Eyed Sand Spider, I better understand his emotional state, and when I better understand his emotional state, I better understand the emotions we share. That is the nature of empathy; that is the nature of love.
And that’s marriage for you, isn’t it?
Marriage is constant discovery; it is constant growth. It is a learning curve over the course of a lifetime. Ultimately, a marriage is just a whole greater than the sum of its parts, the good of each individual transcended by the good of the unit. It is mindfulness and compassion and good times and bad – and sometimes, it’s tagging along to the insectarium despite your raging lepidopterophobia because you know butterflies will make your wife happy.
Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children and soulmate. She is the author of “These Are a Few of My Least Favorite Things”, a full-length book of poetry available from Really Serious Literature, and “An Oral History of One Day in Guyana,” a fiction chapbook forthcoming with Bullsh*t Lit. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.