DULUTH, MN—Continuing a decades-long pattern of displacement, Carl and Barb Kulick channeled their marital frustrations through their home's Honeywell T87 manual-control thermostat Monday.
"You should have heard Carl scream when he saw I turned the heat on today," said the understimulated, affection-starved Barb, 62. "It was chilly, and our grandson Cory was over. There's no reason for a 4-year-old boy to feel like he's freezing to death, is there? I didn't think so, but apparently, somebody around here thinks there is."
To anyone familiar with Carl's long-standing rule that the Kulick thermostat stay securely in the "off" position until November, Barb's use of it could be interpreted as an act of defiance.
"There's no need to turn it on yet," said Carl, 64, who for 20 years has strongly suspected that his wife had an affair with neighbor Phil Tewksbury in 1981. "It's a goddamn waste of money. That woman acts like we're made of money."
On numerous occasions, Barb has pointed out the illogic of tying thermostat use to a date rather than temperature. Carl, however, stands firmly by his Nov. 1 start date. As the family's sole breadwinner, working long hours at a cement-supply company, Carl said it is his right to make the rules and his duty to protect the family from Barb's "dingbat notions."
"If I didn't put my foot down, Barb would have that thing turned up to 100 all the time," Carl said. "She'd have the heat on in the middle of summer and a fan blowing it out the window."
Barb's having "no concept of the value of the dollar" is just one of Carl's many dissatisfactions with his wife. He also feels she is not as bright as him, has annoying friends, and lacks personal ambition. He has also always resented her failure to bear him a son, having given birth to four girls.
Barb has complaints about Carl, as well, including his emotional inaccessibility, his refusal to include her in major household decisions, and his inability to "let loose and have fun."
"I am married to a big bump on a log," Barb said. "Other women go out dancing and get flowers. I don't even get a present on our anniversary unless I buy something for the both of us."
The thermostat is ground zero for a battle of wills all winter, with Barb silently turning the thermostat up and Carl yelling loudly as he turns it down and commands her not to "futz with it."
"I tell Barb to turn the thermostat down to 63 before she leaves the house, and she can't even remember that one thing," Carl said. "She says she forgets. That's a load of bull puckey, she forgets."
According to the couple's now-grown children, it was always easy to tell when their parents weren't getting along.
"As kids, we could tell something was up whenever ice started forming on the windows," said Deborah Wickson, 37, the couple's eldest daughter. "Mom was always edging the thermostat up half a degree at a time. Then, Dad would come in and do the same thing in reverse. He'd even get up in the middle of the night just to double-check that he'd turned it down before going to bed."
It seems unlikely that the thermostat war will end anytime soon. In fact, the situation seems to be getting worse.
"Do you know how much the price of water has gone up in the last few years?" Carl asked. "You should see the bill. How we use so much hot water in this house, I'll never know."
With the kids gone and the house paid for, Barb said that she and Carl can afford life's little luxuries.
"I worked hard all my life, too, raising the kids. Not that Carl would notice," Barb said. "Now, I think it's time to enjoy ourselves a little bit—buy some new curtains, turn the heat up, even leave the Christmas lights on overnight instead of turning them out after the news."
While she said she would never intentionally waste energy, Barb admitted she is "forgetful sometimes" when it comes to conserving resources.
"Last winter, I baked some pies and put them out to cool on top of the deep freeze," Barb said. "Well, I must have left the oven on with nothing in it, because when Carl got home from work and found it, he came barreling down to the basement where I was doing laundry."
"His face was as red as a tomato and, boy, was he cursing up a storm," added Barb, holding back a smile.