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I promise to love, cherish and never cut my hair Add to ...

'Tis the season of contracts. Wedding contracts. Pledges to honour, love, cherish. And not cut your hair short? You'd be surprised what underpins some agreements for happiness.

Joan Chang, a 27-year-old associate producer at CBC Radio who has been married for four years, has an appearance deal with her spouse. "He will not grow facial hair. And I will not cut my hair really short. Or wear a hat. He doesn't like hats on ladies at all," she says with a laugh.

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"It isn't like a written agreement," she adds hastily. "But it's completely understood. And we did sit down and define it. I'm not going to show up at home in a pixie cut with a straw bowler hat on."

During our 18-year marriage, my ex-husband and I had an unspoken appearance deal. I was to keep my hair long. He should keep his beard. We preferred each other that way. It's common for couples to let the other know how each likes the other to look.

"My wife often tells me that if I grow a ponytail she'll divorce me," jokes David McKenzie, a counsellor in Vancouver. "I don't think it's a big deal that couples have preferences for how the other looks. The devils and angels of relationships are in the details, and if you can make those tweaks to please the other, why not?"

And who hasn't experienced pleasure from someone making the smallest of gestures out of consideration for one's feelings? When my sons were younger, they had a thing about wearing baseball caps morning, noon and night. Hair-flattening devices, they were. So much more efficient and effortless than a brush. But the boys knew that to please me they had to remove them at the dinner table. All I had to do was give them one look, flip a hand in the air as silent indication of what was required, and off came the caps. They'd smile, tight-lipped, at me - an acknowledgment that though my preferences about dinner-table appearance were a pain, they would comply because I was their mother. And I'd gaze beatifically back at them over the spaghetti bowl.

Peace.

To this day my mother, who is in her late 70s, puts herself together in the morning in a way she knows will please my father. She comes to the breakfast table with her "face on" as she says of her makeup.

Such appearance issues in a relationship can become more devil than angel when things go awry, I hate to add.

At one point, a few years before the Official End of our union, I cut my hair very short. I warned my then-husband, of course, partly because I was concerned whether he'd like it. I wanted him to. Or I think I did.

Well, he didn't. In fact, if I recall correctly - this was almost 13 years ago - he took one look and wouldn't speak to me. For days.

What, you didn't know? The conflicts of relationships can be expressed in petty, silly ways. And you know what they say about women who cut their hair - it signals a desire for change even if they're not ready to admit it. Maybe it's a weird subconscious test of a relationship. You mean he's not going to love me because I cut my hair?

Strange as it is to admit, my ex's reaction underscored that there was an issue of unpleasant control in our relationship. It seemed he wanted me to remain who I had been in my early 20s.

And the beard? During our marriage, he would occasionally shave it off, especially for a beach holiday. But he always grew it back, largely because he knew I liked it.

But what happened as soon as he left the house when we separated? Yup. He shaved it off for good.

"One partner's unsolicited edict about the other person's appearance is often, over time, experienced as controlling and disrespectful and sometimes demeaning, no matter what the motivation," explains Deborah Brakeley, a psychotherapist in Vancouver.

Relationships are intricate fabrics of carefully knitted strands of feelings, fears, desires and needs. When they work, they're beautiful and comforting - a work of art. Ms. Chang sees her appearance deal with her spouse as part of how they work as a couple. "We're very Type A and the nature of our relationship tends to be very collaborative," she explains. "We make very joint decisions. So this feels kind of normal. It doesn't feel controlling at all."

It doesn't bother her that she's complying with his version of idealized female allure. "I don't think of it that way," she says. And as for her directive that he not grow facial hair: "I think clean-shaven is better for him at work."

They do give each other some leeway. Last November, her husband grew a mustache in support of prostate-cancer awareness. "I really hated it. A mustache is a statement, and it's not a very good statement. But I tolerated it."

And for her? "I can wear a toque if it's cold."

 

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