I’m in the middle of an eight-week small group Bible study at my church. Our ministers asked a group of people to participate and go through this sort of training period, so that when they open small groups up to the congregation next fall, we will be the small group leaders. I’m super excited about it. I love small groups when it comes to spiritual reflection. I think I get more out of a group of 6-10 people than I do in any other form of worship.
The method of studying the Bible that we are learning is actually a monastic style of study. It is based on principles of worship and reflection that monks have used for hundreds of years. I love the ideas behind the practice, but, to be honest, it feels pretty foreign to me at this point. We have been talking a lot about being versus doing in our faith, and we’ve concluded as a small group that it is much easier to DO than it is to BE. To do gives you tasks and things to accomplish. Tangible boxes to check and a sense of accomplishment when you finish. Often, doing is led by others – a minister giving a sermon, an author writing a book, a small group leader directing the discussion. But to BE is very different. To be is to simply be in God’s presence. To not ask for anything, to not give anything, to not focus on anything other than being in his presence and listening.
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot lately about being and about listening. As a pretty outgoing person, I tend to talk a lot. I’m always telling stories or sharing my point of view. As a blogger, my world revolves around my experiences and my challenges and my struggles. If you were to put a label on me, you could call me noisy. But lately, there have been huge indications that perhaps it is time that I listened for a while. For one thing, this Bible study came right as I was pondering this issue for myself. How strange (or divine?) that I would be thinking about this topic myself and then suddenly my small group at church is discussing it. For another, I’ve been doing some writing on the side other than for this blog, and I just finished an article about silence last week that was not really related to my small group discussion, but ended up being exactly what our discussion was about last night. I may be a little skeptical of burning bushes, but I know enough to recognize when God is trying to get my attention.
Message received, Lord.
But my thoughts about silence and listening have actually gone beyond my faith. I think these might be principles that could serve anyone of any belief system. The idea that sometimes we need to BE, instead of DO. That sometimes we need to put it all down for a while – the phones, the tablets, the television, the jobs, and even the spouses and the children – and just be still. For me, that might mean be still and know God more fully, but for others that might mean to be still and reconnect to ourselves, or hear the heartbeat of the universe around us. For some it might mean to be still and clear our mind of clutter, doubts, fears, and anxieties. And for others still, it might mean to be still and simply sit in peace. Whatever it is that you hear, I’m pretty sure there are some things that we only hear in the silence.
A big focus for me in the past few weeks has been to be still and listen in my marriage. Chris is such a laid back, gentle person, and it is usually me who drives our communication. Normally, that’s not a bad thing. Someone has to get us talking, and that task just usually falls on me. I don’t mind because Chris always talks back. He’s just generally not going to be the first one to bring it up. But lately as I have sat in silence and thought about the importance of silence, I have wondered if maybe that’s not true. Maybe Chris would bring things up. Maybe he would speak first more, if only I was quiet enough to let him have a chance. Maybe it’s not that he’s quiet. Maybe it’s just that it takes him longer to prepare what he wants to say.
I’ve focused this week, especially, on being quiet in my marriage. On listening. On asking questions about Chris and his day-to-day life. I make sure to listen when he speaks, even if what he is saying seems small. I heard someone caution one time that small does not mean insignificant, and I need to remember that when my husband speaks.
I’m working on finding silence in my life right now. I’m learning how to quiet my head and listen with my heart, to both God and my husband. Perhaps it was no coincidence that God gave us one mouth, but two ears. It’s probably time I learned to use them.
Chris and I are coming off the heels of a tough month for our marriage. We go through these periodically, and I’m hoping that’s fairly normal. About once a year, there’s a big explosion in our marriage where everything that’s been piling up gets aired out. Our big one was last month, and, boy, did it encompass a lot of issues. We’d just been through the holidays, he was going through a really hard time at work, I was feeling the pressure of a standardized test my kids were preparing for (took it today, actually, and I think they nailed it!), we had just buried my dad, and we were on hold for a big project that I’m hoping comes through in the next few months. Stress levels at our house were soaring.
I’ve been making a big effort lately to not take my frustrations out on Chris. Which is a good thing. But one of the side effects was that I sort of stopped talking to him about anything important. In an effort to avoid arguments and make things less stressful for us, I just stopped communicating. I didn’t have the energy for a fight or even the energy to work through things that just seemed trivial, but in actuality, when you stop working on even the small things, the big things just pile up and up and up. Which is what happened.
The fight began one night about household responsibilities. Trivial, right? But if you’ve been married for any length of time…like, even two days… you understand that household responsibilities are a big part of married life. Afterall, you can live happily ever after, but someone is still going to have to take the trash out, and your pets are still going to need to be fed, and your children are going to need to be cleaned. Princes who ride white stallions still need clean stalls to put them in.
And my prince? Well, he kind of stopped mucking out the stalls, if you know what I mean.
Chris and I have very distinct responsibilities around the house. We’ve spent the past eight years perfecting who does what chore, and we have a nice little system going. But with Chris working so much, I had started to naturally take on more of his housework simply because I was the one who happened to be home. But Chris sort of started taking advantage of that by not picking up his chores again when he WAS home.
Finally, I exploded one night. I told him that he seemed to have forgotten he wasn’t the only working parent in our house. And that I still worked a full day and came home to care for our family, just like him. Which meant that it should not all be my responsibilty just because he was busy at work. I get busy at work, too, but that doesn’t mean I get to just stop doing the laundry or decide to work late and just not pick up the kids one day. Being a working parent worked the same for both of us, and that meant we had to share responsibilities, and I was tired of things falling on my plate by default.
I thought it was an excellent point. And it was. But so was his response.
He said that he had no idea this was bothering me. He said that I had stopped talking to him about my job and about things like chores around the house, so how was he supposed to know that there was a problem? (To which I responded, “Are you a third child? Do I have to nag you before you change your behavior, too?” Another excellent point, I believe…) And he was right. My lack of communication made it hard for him to know when there was a problem because as much as I would like to believe that my husband just KNOWS what is wrong, he really doesn’t. He’s not a mind reader. If he doesn’t give baths to the kids for a week and no one says anything, then how is he supposed to know that that’s becoming an issue?
Fair enough, and well played, Husband.
But, naturally, this one issue (well, two really) led into deeper issues, which I don’t really need to go into because they aren’t just my issues and I’d prefer to not air our dirty laundry that much. Suffice to say that the issues covered the topics of death and grief, spending equal time with our families, and setting priorities for our family. All important. All worth a good discussion and/or fight.
Since our explosion, things have gotten much better. We’re both more aware of the needs of our partners. Chris knows that I need him to step up, even when I don’t have the strength or time to ask him. And I know that I need to make more of an effort to communicate BEFORE there is a problem.
One thing I’m really focusing on after our fight is nagging versus communicating. Nagging is not communication. Nagging is just saying the same things over and over again while getting the same response. Which, coincidentally, is the same definition as insanity, by the way. Communication – good, positive communication – should prevent nagging. Good, positive communication is about expressing needs, thoughts, emotions, or ideas before there is a problem at all. And I’m trying to learn to do that. I’m trying to learn to ask for help before the help becomes critical. And I’m discovering that’s a really hard thing to do.
Mostly, I’m finding that being a good communicator means being a good predictor of my own needs. I have to anticipate what will be challenging or what will be successful, and then include Chris in that process before it even really begins. A simple example of this is dinnertime. I know that is a busy time of day for our family, and the exact point in the day when both our kids get crabby and whiney. Normally, I try to prepare in advance for that dinner rush by meal planning and prepping on the weekends or the night before. But when I can’t do those things, I have to let Chris know that HE needs to anticipate that time of day, too. Now, I send him little emails to let him know when dinner is going to be late that night.
“Hey – I forgot to thaw the chicken last night, so dinner is going to be a little late. Any chance you can make it home a little early?”
This preemptive response prevents the frantic phone call I make to him at 6:25 asking him where the hell he is and why he hasn’t made it home yet and doesn’t he know that I need some help around here?!?!
Preemptive communication is gooooooooooood.
What Chris has been making more of an effort on is picking up the slack when there is no advanced notice. Come home late and the house is crazy? Better jump right in and help. Someone has to work late or work from home? Better jump right in and pick up the slack. He is paying more attention to what he can do around the house before I even have to ask him. He has also had to make a slight shift in priorities. Some days, I need him home early – or at the very least on time – so that I can get my things taken care of. Sometimes, he’s going to have to say no to a project or two simply because he is needed at home to help with things like feeding all of our beings.
Cutting back at work really drives Chris crazy because he has such stellar work ethic. It’s what makes him an excellent provider for our family. But I am a provider, too. And my work ethic is top notch. And I can’t always be the one who sacrifices so that Chris can succeed at his job. It has to be balanced. And we’re working on that balance right now.
Are things 100% fixed? Heck no! But we have at least identified a few key issues, and we’ve got good game plans to help ourselves get stronger in areas where we are each weak. And I think THAT is the mark of a healthy marriage. It isn’t how much you fight or who gives more at home or who works harder. I think a strong, healthy marriage is one where both partners are working to make each other stronger, better people. And I’m really glad Chris and I can do that for each other.
I realized the other day that it had been a while since Chris and I had a good knock down, drag out fight. Which is saying something because we are smack dab in the middle of our 7th year of marriage, and isn’t that supposed to be the big one? The seven year itch one? The one that every young couple dreads?
The seventh year. (insert high pitched, horror movie scream here)
But we are in the middle of Year Seven, and I would say that this year we have had less fights and arguments than any previous year. So, I was pondering that the other day. I’ve been really focusing on joy in my life by trying to recognize what gives me joy and what takes my joy away. One of the things that gives me the most joy is Chris. He’s a keeper. He makes my toes tingle and my heart flutter. We aren’t a really dramatic couple, I would say. We aren’t exploding into fights all the time, but we do have our fair share of arguments that occasionally build up into a pretty good fight. But it’s been a while, and as I was driving home from my mom’s house this weekend, I tried to figure out how that had happened.
About six months ago, I started trying something new in my marriage. It was actually something new in my life. I started to think before I spoke.
Radical, I know.
I had never done that before. Anything that goes through my head, usually comes out of my mouth (and onto the blog, in most cases…). There is very little filter going on inside of me. What you see is what you get, and I’ve always liked that. No games, no guessing. I yam what I yam.
But at the beginning of this year, for some reason I started to notice that what I said off the top of my head wasn’t always the right thing to say to my husband. With Chris, I REALLY have no filter. We’ve been together for over half my life. Talking to him is a lot like talking to myself. And I can sometimes talk very harshly. I can be critical and demanding. I can pick at things that in hindsight weren’t that big of a deal.
So, about the time I became a “Yes Mom,” I tried becoming a “Yes Wife,” too. I started asking myself when I would feel a criticism or argument coming on, “Is this worth a fight?” And more than half the time, it really wasn’t.
My mom always told me that I needed to learn how to pick my battles. “People can’t always be perfect, Katie,” she would say. I have incredibly high expectations – both for myself and the people around me. And she was reminding me that sometimes I needed to let things go. In the early years of my marriage, I thought picking my battles meant picking what we fought about. But all that would do was make me hold in my anger and frustration until I was seething and then I’d erupt days later over something completely unimportant and unrelated to the actual problem.
Now, in my wise old seven years of marriage, I have learned that picking my battles has nothing to do with fighting. Picking your battles means choosing what’s worth getting angry over. It doesn’t do me any good to say, “I’m not going to fight with him about that, even though I’m still really angry about it.” The anger is the problem. Not the fight. What I needed to focus on instead was learning when anger was the appropriate response and when I needed to really let it go.
Here are some things that have come up just in the past week where I had to reevaluate my battle:
1. Chris took Bean to pick out socks for church. They bought very expensive, bright blue and green socks with monsters on them in the wrong size. Is that annoying? Yes. Did it drive me nuts? Yes. But is it worth my anger? Absolutely not. They are SOCKS.
2. Chris has been painting the outside of our house for three months. It’s a big project. The weekend after Christmas was beautiful weather, and the kids were at my mom’s house, so it was optimal time for Chris to finish the house up. Instead, he asked if I thought it would be okay for him to go golfing since he’d gotten a new golf club for Christmas that he hadn’t used yet. Is that annoying? Yes. Was it what I wanted? No. But is it worth my anger? Not really. It’s just a house. Houses can wait. Why not enjoy his last free weekend before Christmas was over? So, I sent him out to play golf AND I booked he and his friends another round at a different course the next day.
These are not major life problems. They are small annoyances or slight changes in my plans. Not only are the not worth me fighting with Chris over, they aren’t even worth my anger. I’ve started asking myself when something comes up, “Why not?” And I mean that literally. What are the REASONS that this isn’t a good idea? If there aren’t any, then why get angry? Now, there have been times when it IS worth the anger. Times when it is important to me and it does bother me and I will fight for those. But just stopping to evaluate how important something is to me before I jump into action has made a huge difference in my marriage because I’m taking control over the things that I can actually control.
My job is not to control Chris. He is not mine to possess. What I can control, though, is how I react to situations. And as I looked back over how I’ve changed my reactions over the past six months, I started to notice that somehow this has changed CHRIS’S reactions, too. Both of us are more considerate of the other. We are both slower to anger. We are both thoughtful in our responses now. Changing myself made a huge impact on both of us.
I heard a sermon recently about giving away your joy. It talked about how every time you come up against a challenge or a frustration, it is your choice if you are going to give your joy away or not. By choosing to become upset and give in to that anger, you are choosing to give some of your joy away. I think that really sums up how I’m trying to keep joy in my marriage. In choosing what angers and frustrates me, I’m choosing how much joy we keep in our marriage. And the result has been a joyful six month period with much less fighting and arguing.
Picking your battles is not about choosing when to fight. It’s about choosing what is worth your anger and what is not. The battle is not with your spouse. The battle that you are choosing is about you.
And it only took me seven years to figure that out.
I am swamped right now. It’s just one of those weeks when the sun, moon and stars align and suddenly I am needed in 300 different places at once. At school it is exam week for my students, which brings it own *special* problems (i.e. we have been reviewing for our exam for the past week, and at least 6 students walked into my classroom today and said, “WHAT???? We have an EXAM today?!?!?”). Exams are tricky because we have to give them and have all 130 of them graded and submitted online by Friday for report cards. And since I am a mean teacher, I gave a huge exam and a long essay, so I have a lot of grading to do. Shot myself in the foot on that one…
At home, things aren’t busy as much as they are chaotic. We’re still recovering from our trip to Atlanta this weekend when my nephew, Tillman, was baptized (blog post coming soon!), which means no one has any clean socks and I haven’t been able to find Gracie’s toothbrush or my cell phone charger since Sunday. I’ve also been tutoring in the afternoons, so I haven’t gotten home early one night this week. On top of that, we had absolutely no food in our house. None. Tonight the kids had toast, yogurt and baby carrots for dinner. Judge not lest ye be judged, my friends. I just haven’t had a spare minute to get to the grocery store. Grocery shopping is a process because I meal plan and clip coupons, and I haven’t had a spare night to get all that done.
So, Chris comes home from work tonight right in the middle of me flying around the kitchen trying to scrounge up food for dinner. And he starts getting pissy. I can just tell. He didn’t even have to speak. My super marital powers told me it was coming.
Wait for it… Wait for it…
“Why isn’t there any food in the house yet?”
THERE IT IS!
So, Chris goes on to complain about how we’ve been home for two days and there’s still no food in the house. He does this all, though, without specifically mentioning me directly, even though we both know that grocery shopping is my chore and so when we need groceries that’s on me. In his defense, he didn’t really know how stressed I have been this week. Mostly because I haven’t had time to stop and tell him! So, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t realize what kind of terrible mistake he was making in bringing it up.
I told him that I had planned to go tomorrow afternoon because I get out of school a little early on Wednesday, but he complained that we couldn’t go on another day without food.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, then I’ll go right now.”
“Good! I think that’s a great idea!”
So, right there in the middle of the chaos that is getting two children fed, bathed and put to bed, I walked away. I just walked out of the kitchen, leaving him with two kids and an empty pantry.
For the next hour, I sat on the couch and leisurely made my meal plan and grocery list. Then I got out the three newspapers I’ve been collecting that I haven’t had a chance to clip coupons from, and I slowly perused the newspapers, clipping coupons. I could hear the kids whining and Chris panicking in the kitchen. I could hear the dogs barking to go out and then barking to come in again, and I knew Chris wanted to ask me to come help, but he couldn’t because I was technically doing what he asked me to do. But I sat on that couch and got myself ready for my shopping trip and didn’t offer an ounce of assistance. Then, just before the bath and bedtime rush, I sweetly kissed the kids goodnight and then headed out to grocery shop, leaving Chris at home with the two kids and two dogs.
I realize that that silent little protest could probably have been timed better. Perhaps some more open communication would have helped. Maybe a sharing of feelings or a mature discussion about household responsibilities. But I don’t know… When I came home, Chris said he’d had a lot of fun with the kids and the headache I’ve had for three days had finally lifted and I was in a better mood, too.
Moral of the story: I really have no idea. It’s just how we roll, yo.