One of the things that came out of the Big Fight of 2013 is the realization that Chris and I had stopped sharing small things about our days with each other. Either because we were afraid it would lead to some kid of argument over something silly or because we just didn’t feel like talking to the other person, we would ask, “How was your day?” and each of us would respond, “It was fine.” And that was about it. For, like, two months.
We’re really trying to make an effort now to listen and share about our days. Which means that when Chris says, “My day was alright,” I am now trying to ask, “Just alright? Anything going on?” Instead of pretending like I didn’t hear him so that I didn’t have to get into a conversation about it. If you haven’t been around the general and production manager of a regional theater in a while, let me share the suspense – their daily list of annoyances are just the same as in any office anywhere in the world. Which, to be frank, is sort of boring to listen to. But, I’m trying to make an effort, so I have been asking about his job and I’ve even been listening to what he says! Look at me go!
What I’ve learned is that in listening to him talk about his days, I’m not necessarily listening for office gossip or irritating frustrations. I’m listening to how those things impact Chris. Is he stressing over them? Is he angry about them? Is he fed up with them? Is he humored by them? Because how he handles his work life greatly impacts how he handles his home life. So, if I know that something happened at work that day that put a lot on his plate and stressed him out, I’m going to respond to that by giving him a little room when he gets home. Maybe picking up some of the chores that he usually does to give him a break. And he has been doing the same thing for me, too.
Hearing about each other’s work life is important because, whether we like it or not, our work life does come home with us. It comes home in our attitudes and in our moods, at the very least. And paying more attention to what’s happening to Chris during his days is making a big difference in how I communicate in the evenings.
Look how smart I got! All because World War III broke out in my kitchen! Who would’ve thought?
I have mentioned that we are in the process of tearing down and re-building our back deck. And when I say “we,” I mean exclusively Chris. Other than saying, “Man, I hate our deck,” about six months ago, I have done little else. He went all technical on me and used his drafting program from work to draft out our deck plans a few months ago. Then we saved money for, like, forever because a deck is no cheap project. And we are finally now ready to start the project.
In one weekend, Chris demolished the current deck, but was smart enough to leave a little section that is connected to our stairs so that we could let the dogs out.
Our current deck is on the second floor of our house, which posed a few problems. It was really removed from the yard and pool for one thing. It was really inconvenient to get out of the pool and not have anywhere to sit or put food or towels or anything. You had to go all the way up to the second floor for those things. Another problem was that the deck was the major thing you saw when you opened the windows off our living room. And the deck was nasty looking. So it gave a really bad view, and we kept our blinds closed most of the time.
What Chris decided, in his brilliance and glory, was that we should drop the new deck down to pool level. That would give us an actual pool-side area for hanging out. You can see in his drawing that there is a little platform at the top, just outside our back door, for the grill. That way we don’t have to go all the way down to the pool level if we are just grilling something for dinner. Also, you can see there will now be two ways to access the backyard. You can come out the backdoor and go left down to the pool area and deck, or you can go right and go out to the backyard itself where all the playground stuff is. The entire pool will be fenced off, so when we are playing out in the backyard, we don’t have to worry about the kids and the pool. Chris is also going to build bench seating all around the sides of the deck which will have storage areas underneath for our pool floats and toys.
Last weekend Chris finished the demolition of the old deck, and this weekend he and two friends officially broke ground on our new deck. They cleaned the area out, marked it off with string for measurements, and dug giant holes which they filled with gravel and cement for the support posts for the new deck. Next weekend, Chris will start actual building, and given that he has a Masters degree from Yale in Building Stuff (didn’t know that was a real degree, did you?), I bet the entire thing will be finished or at least useable by next Sunday. He’ll spend the next month or so putting finishing touches on it (i.e. installing bench seating, outdoor lighting on the stairs so we can see at night, etc.) and it should be ready to go by summer.
I’m so happy Chris is finally starting this project. For one thing because I can’t wait to have a new deck to enjoy this summer. But mostly because he is happier when he is DOING. Chris is a doer. He likes to be busy, active, and productive. Sometimes that drives me crazy. It makes me want to take a nap just watching him. But, really, that is one of my favorite parts about him. I love that he takes pride in our home, and in the projects he takes on around our house. I love that he thinks outside the box, too. Most people would probably have just rebuilt the deck as it was before. That was the more traditional deck to have. But Chris saw something totally different in his mind, drew a picture on the computer, and is now making it come to life.
This weekend, it was pouring rain. Did I mention that? POURING RAIN. Chris and his buddy, Tray, were outside getting ready to pour the first cement post when the heavens opened up. I watched them when it happened. They stopped working and started laughing and complaining, “What?!?! NOW???? It does this NOW?????”
And then they debated what they should do. Stop or keep going?
And then, being the hard working people they are, they just went on working in the pouring rain for two more hours.
It’s that attitude that keeps our marriage on track, too. Rain or shine, taking it easy or really working it out, Chris is going to show up for me. He will be there because you can always make things better, according to Chris. Sometimes that means tweaking what we already have, and sometimes that means leveling the whole thing and building it over from scratch. But no matter how much we have to work on in our marriage, Chris is going to show up and do whatever it takes. And that makes him the best kind of partner.
Chris and I are coming out of rough patch that we’ve been battling for a couple months. Those are never any fun to be in, but they are even LESS fun to come out of because in order to get out of a rough patch, you have to speak to each other. Without fighting. And you have to agree. Without holding resentment. And, in my experience, being in a rough patch by definition means I don’t really want to get along with my husband, much less AGREE with him on anything. So, the working through it part is often much harder than the going through it part.
Being an adult sucks.
For a few months now, I have felt judgment from Chris. I felt like he was angry and irritated, but just wasn’t saying anything to me about it. Which made me do two things. First, it made me feel guilty all the time. I kept asking him if he was mad about something, but he never gave me a reason. I knew there was more going on, so I spent all of the month of March walking around with the weight of the world on my shoulders, all because I felt like my husband was mad at me for any and/or all of the following reasons:
a) I wasn’t doing enough around the house
b) I was going out on week nights too often, leaving him home with the kids too much
c) I wasn’t taking care of myself and so I looked like crap and gained a bunch of weight
d) I was nagging him
e) I was spending too much money
March was not a fun month for me.
By April, though, I began to get pissed off. I was tired of being silently punished, and so I began to silently punish back. Chris wasn’t talking to me? No problem. I wouldn’t talk to him. So, we didn’t. We took care of the household responsibilities, we took care of the kids, we took care of our family obligations, we took care of our jobs, but we decided we didn’t care enough to take care of our marriage. So, we sat in front of the television at night or we came to bed at different times or we planned fun activities with other people instead of with each other. And, quite frankly, we just didn’t care.
Thankfully, though, we had The Great Fight of 2013. We usually have one big, giant blow out fight about once a year. They aren’t usually this early in the year, but it was about time. The subject of this particular fight was money. How we made it, how we spent it, how we saved it, and how we budgeted it. Money, money, money.
But, here’s the thing. The fight wasn’t really about money. How do I know that? Because we ended up screaming at each other, only we were saying things like, “YOU’RE RIGHT, DAMMIT!” and “I COMPLETELY AGREE, YOU ASS!” We weren’t even arguing right. We were actually agreeing with each other more than we were disagreeing. We just needed an outlet for our frustration with each other. We needed a reason to just let it all out. And, yes, to yell.
The Great Fight of 2013 ended with Chris storming off to work, and me storming off to take it out on the dishes in the kitchen sink. While he was gone, I called my sister (isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you fight with your husband?), who validated how I felt like a good sister should, but then who prompted me to share some deeper things with Chris. Like, about how I felt like he was angry at me all the time, and how I was tired of feeling guilty and not even knowing what I felt guilty for. And she said I needed to give him a hug. I started laughing, but she stayed completely serious.
“You need to hug him for at least 30 seconds. And then you need to sit down and fix this. It will be awkward. It will feel forced and uncomfortable, but that’s what you need to do. Because you need to remember that you’re fighting because you love each other, and you’re working through it because you love each other even more.”
She’s a smart cookie.
So, I did what I do best and I wrote some things down. I made a list of the things that I thought were wrong with us. Some of them were things that I thought I had done wrong and some were things that I thought Chris had done wrong. Some were things that we needed to work out together. And I made a list of the three things I could sacrifice in order to make our marriage more of a priority again.
And then I put the list in my bedside table drawer, and haven’t looked at it since.
I thought about getting it out and sharing it with Chris. I’m sure that’s what a good marriage counselor would tell me to do. But the truth is that I’d rather TALK TO him than WRITE AT him. The writing just helped me get my talking thoughts together. And so when Chris came home from work that night, I gave him a 30 second hug like Ginny suggested (freaked him out and I think pissed him off…), but then we sat down and talked.
And that talk was harder than the fighting. Fighting is easy and weak because you can say whatever you want in the heat of battle. You aren’t prepared or planned, your ideas aren’t courteous or polite. You just push it all out there all ugly-like. And I do believe there is a place for that in a marriage. But if you’re going to fight it out, you’ve also got to be willing to take the next step, and that is talking it out.
Fighting it out involves lots of “you” statement. “You never do this…” or “You always do that…” But talking involves thought and planning. It involves lots of “I” statement, “I hear what you are saying, but…” and “I will try to do better.” Talking is about your actions and how you can change. And that’s really when a marriage moves ahead.
So, that’s what we did. And it was hard for Chris. When I first started talking, I explained how I felt and then asked him what he was so angry about. I must have asked 5,000 times in a variety of ways, and the response was always the same, “There isn’t anything. I’m not angry about anything.”
Which made me want to punch him in the face. Really. How the heck was I supposed to fix a problem if he wouldn’t tell me what the problem was????
But then I realized that I needed to LISTEN. I needed to hear what he was telling me. I was waiting for an ADMISSION from him, but that isn’t the same as listening. Listening is hearing what you haven’t planned to hear. And what I hadn’t planned to hear was that Chris wasn’t mad at me. I hadn’t planned to hear that the problem was not me. Chris was having a hard time with something else, and it was coming out as anger and frustration directed at me. I had created a problem in my head, become angry about that problem, reacted to that problem, only to discover that that wasn’t actually the problem at all.
We talked about how Chris can get better at dealing with this issue. We talked about how I need to stop making everything personal and about me. Mostly, though, we talked about how we could both work to make our home a place where we wanted to be. A place where God, our marriage, and our family were the top priorities. We set some new guidelines and rules (i.e. no house guests without warning, no purchases over $100 without planning, etc.) and we put our family in time out.
This weekend, we are in family time out. We aren’t allowed to leave, to travel, to make plans – nothing. We are in lock down until we get ourselves stable again. We can’t grow our marriage if we’re always on the go. Sometimes we need to stop and reset. So, that’s what we are doing this weekend. And in the next few months, we are wrangling in our obligations. I’m not committing to anything else, we’re not traveling anywhere, Chris isn’t hiding behind house projects to avoid having to hang out with me. We are here at home, and we are together.
AND WE’RE GOING TO BE HAPPY ABOUT IT, DAMMIT!
Marriages aren’t built in the land of unicorns and good lighting and perfect parenting. Good, solid marriages are built in the land of “YOU NEVER LISTEN TO ME!” and runny noses and never quite making it to church on time (or at all…). Because good, solid marriage are not about where they are built. You can build good, solid marriages in whatever surroundings you have. All you need is a willing spirit, a whole lot of patience, a determined attitude, and more love for your spouse than you think you have inside of you.
I mean, how hard is that?
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.