One of the areas I have been trying to work on in my marriage has been truly listening to Chris and then reacting to his needs. You’d think that would come naturally in a marriage, but it has taken surprising focus on my part. The listening part I have really been working on and that is becoming much more natural to me. But the second part that I have discovered our marriage needs is for me to react to Chris’s needs when I hear them.
I had gotten in this habit of subconsciously thinking that Chris’s problems were his problems, and that there wasn’t really anything I could do about them. He doesn’t really like a lot of advice or help when he is dealing with something, and so I thought that was my Golden Ticket to getting out of having to DO anything about his issues. But over the past month as I have really been working on becoming a more supportive wife, I have learned that there are things I can do for Chris that don’t require me solving his problems.
One area where Chris carries tremendous stress is his job, particularly in the summertime. He loves his jobs, even on really tough days, but the stress it brings to him is palpable when he walks in the door some nights. I first thought that I could just start listening to him talk through some of his work stresses. And that made a huge improvement. I noticed that just spending a few minutes actively talking to him about his day (including me talking back to him, instead of just standing there nodding my head as he talks) made a big difference in how our evenings went. Letting some of that stress off his chest in a 10 minute conversation somehow cleared Chris’s head and put him in a much better mood for the rest of the evening. I always avoided listening to him talk about work because I feared it would take over our evenings. But in reality, he doesn’t talk long about it and it makes a world of difference.
Turns out that listening is a powerful action.
But I have even started taking listening to a whole new level in the past few weeks. One night last week, Chris came home after a particularly stressful day. He and I really talked about it for about 15 minutes while I cooked dinner, and then we sat down to dinner with the kids and went through our evening without ever mentioning it again. That night, as we went to bed, Chris leaned over and said, “Thank you for making my day better today.”
I really hadn’t done anything different, other than the listening. But it got me thinking. Maybe what Chris needed from me in the evenings was not advice or a solution to his problems. Maybe he just needed something to take his mind off of his day. I started to cringe as I thought about all those times he had walked in the door from a really long day, only to have me rattle off things I needed him to fix or do at home. None of them were essential. None of them were even necessary at that moment. But instead of making our home a place where Chris could find refuge, I had turned it into another place of immense responsibility. Yes, running a household and a family is in itself a responsibility, but it doesn’t have to feel like that every time Chris walks in the door. My job was not to solve his problems. It was to give him a place to come home and refresh. That was a huge lightbulb for me.
I have started subtlety trying to find ways to take Chris’s mind off his work in the evenings since that epiphany. Yesterday, Chris had a particularly tough day at the office. He came home and told me about it and we talked about it for a while, longer than usual, actually. He was quiet during dinner, but he seemed to come alive a little bit when he gave the kids a bath. After they went down for the night, instead of just flipping on the TV, I grabbed a board game. Risk. It was one of those long, strategy games that required lots of thought and attention. We’d never played before, actually. But it seemed like a good night to try. It was raining outside, it was early in the evening. Why not?
Chris and I played for almost three hours. We laughed and we went to war over countries. We ate chocolate covered almonds and shared a giant water bottle. And by the time we turned the lights off around 11:00, Chris and I were both happy and content.
In marriage, I find myself going back to that tendency I have to solve the problems and take control. Chris has a bad day and I have 100 ways he could have solved the problem, and then when he doesn’t want to hear my advice, I just shut down and go back to nodding along while he talks and I mentally make out my grocery list for the week. But I am learning through listening that my job isn’t to solve Chris’s problems. That’s not what he comes to me for. He has plenty of much more qualified peers at work to solve the issues. What Chris wants is someone to loves him unconditionally. Someone who he feels safe and comfortable with. THAT is my job. THAT is why he comes to me. Before I started actively listening in my marriage, I never knew that was what he needed.
What a learning process listening has been. And what a powerful, powerful tool listening can be.