Carolyn, a reader of this blog, has given me permission to reply to her two emails here. I asked because I think of lot of you are asking the same questions, as I was 30 years ago.
One thing that bugs the heck out of me with many advice columns, and I say this as kind criticism, is that the remedy is always brought back to the woman.
Absolutely true -- except when the person doing the asking, or the target audience for the article, is a man. Then it all comes back to the man. To tell you how someone else could remedy your problem is to pronounce you helpless. It's like telling someone asking what to do about her peanut allergy to wait for her state legislature to pass a law banning the public eating of peanuts, instead of prescribing Epi-Pens for her.
In this blog, and in many marriage books, the message is not that you must fix this yourself but that you CAN fix this yourself.
While my husband truly is not a philanderer, I've read articles over the years about women who suffer in such marriages and always the counseling comes back to the mentality of the "two way street".
I have to tell you, women have to do it all. They get emotionally hurt, they complain, they are typically the first to seek help, and they are often the only ones at counseling (or the first ones) sessions. It's like we all have our own theatre show that we write, film and direct! lol
Men today aren't, generally, assumed to be accountable or even know how irresponsibly they treat their relationships.
There is a bit of truth to this. Women are likely, through their upbringing and their different hormones, to be more aware of the state of their relationship. Many men are oblivious until a crisis occurs and frantically look for answers then, while many women see the train wreck coming and hope to get their husband's attention to the problems before it's too late. That's where I was 30 years ago. And I am sure it's why the large majority of divorces are initiated by wives, in an attempt to get off onto a siding and stop the adrenalin rush of the impending crash.
As long as you remain convinced your husband is the runaway train and you are right where you are supposed to be, that is really your only choice. For me, the huge lesson of my husband's sudden death in the middle of this drama was that in my case, and in the vast majority of cases, neither of us is right where we are supposed to be, neither of us is a runaway train, and there are a lot more switches on these tracks that we ever noticed.
And either of us can activate those switches.
And because we were unaware of the switches, we've also been unaware of whether our husbands have already activated some of them. Like the one that keeps your husband faithful when so many find this so hard to do.
I seriously believe, from my own as well as the marriages of others, believe and observe that men get married and in their mind, mission accomplished. Now they turn to career, house, yard and financial affairs.
I believe this is true. But I believe many of us women fail to see that this is the way most men actively secure their relationship. Almost universally, for men relationships rest on a foundation of mutual respect. Relationships, for them, cannot succeed without this foundation. And career, house, yard, and financial affairs are the areas our society has set out for earning respect.
Women come to marriage as something that is alive with continual growth. Maybe that's because if you have children at some point, your role is always in flux with their stages, I don't know.
I no longer see these two approaches as being in opposition to each other. Ever deepening emotional intimacy is critically important. So is that foundation of mutual respect. But we're human. If we're tending to one and see our partner not tending to it, we redouble our efforts on the one we're attuned to, giving even less of ourselves to the other, until the day we say forget it and demand a divorce (the ultimate in loss of mutual respect) or take a lover (the ultimate in loss of emotional intimacy).
But it really is sad. If it's the woman's fault that things go awry in a marriage, she knuckles down to fix it eventually. If it's the man's fault, nothing happens until the woman gets ticked and then the focus is on her resentment. If it's a mutual fault, again it falls on the woman.
So, it's not fair, but that's the way it is. I know this but every once in a while I just need to vent it because I don't really want to divorce and he's a very decent guy mostly all around.
Exactly! I did not want a divorce, either. I just wanted out of the way of that train wreck, an end to the pain of a constantly challenging relationship. In retrospect, I realized that every time I had knuckled down to fix things, I had exhausted myself with very little effect. Now, in my second marriage, I have not had to knuckle down at all. The fixes have been fairly painless. And it is those techniques I try to teach in this blog.
Just for once, I'd like someone to realize when I need that birthday, and to set the whole thing up for me. Always -as a wife as well as a mom of 3- having to be conscious and present and doing for everyone all the time, planning my own break time and wrenching my words to figure out how to get a 'deaf' husband to understand it, is just more work to add to the pile.
Mind readers are so few and far between. If you would like "someone" to realize when you need that birthday, you'd probably do better to stay in close touch with a friend with strong emotional intelligence who shares your delight in celebrating birthdays. If you would like your husband to be that someone, you may need a different approach.
I suggest a light-hearted one, and one that supports his goal of maintaining mutual respect. You don't want him taking you out to dinner to avoid being criticized. You want him taking you out to dinner (or preparing some other surprise) confident you'll appreciate it without doing any mind-reading.
You might decide to wear a goofy hat to signal a need to celebrate. Let him remember or ask what needs celebrating and decide what to do about it. You might hang a hotel door tag on your door knob to let him know before he comes in that it's been a challenging day and you need some TLC. Just be sure to tell him what they mean.
If he lacks the skill to read your mind (and most of us do), you may need to read it for him. But then give him some room to thrill you, because most of us want to delight those we love, and most men want it even more than most women do. However, they want it so much that they fear making mistakes a lot more than women do and they have fewer skills at intuiting what would be a delight right now and what would be a burden.
(A little background here: Carolyn, a stay-at-home mom, had fallen into an unplanned nap after cooking a large weekend meal, only to discover her husband left their children untended.)
He wanted to lay down. That's how he actually thinks. He thinks of himself.
It's because the kids are foremost my job, and he sees his role as peripheral, but he sees this inherently without really delving too much into it.
He truly is like another teenager in the house.
I really can't say what sort of man Carolyn has married, because I have never met him. However, I think we can all Assume Love and do away with some unnecessary unhappiness. By Assume Love, I mean try on the idea that there is no question what was behind his actions, that whatever he did he did with love. Then try to come up with other explanations consistent with this possibility. He may actually be an irresponsible father or an inconsiderate husband. But before going with either of these, it's worth asking what might make a considerate, responsible, loving husband behave the same way.
For example, he may not have noticed his wife was napping. He may believe their home is safe enough that it's okay if the kids are awake when neither parent is. He may trust their oldest child to wake a parent in an emergency. He may think of the children as his wife's "job" -- so taking over for her would be as unthinkable as her going to his job when he's out sick. Or he may feel unqualified to oversee children's activities, especially if he's ever been pushed aside or criticized for doing it poorly or grew up with older siblings doing all the "watch the other kids" duty.
Here's why it's worth it. First, as long as we believe the either of those first two causes, the knee-jerk ones, our thinking gets highly focused on looking for more evidence that this belief is true: what else has he done that might be construed as irresponsible parenting? Or when else has he been inconsiderate as a husband?
There's some irony here. Given that this couple vowed to love each other through better or worse, nothing bad happened to any of the children, and both parents got a nap, could it be a bit irresponsible and inconsiderate to tally the children's other parent's mistakes instead of doing a more balanced evaluation of the relationship?
It took a huge wake-up call for me to see the folly of going with the cause I first suspected before considering the alternatives. But when I and others consider those Assume Love alternative explanations, they often jog the very memories our initial anger and fear block from consciousness, providing sudden clarity and allowing love to wash over us.
Don't worry. If you're married to someone who never had the character or personality to truly love you or to someone who has left that love behind, there will be acts much, much clearer than failing to offer some expected kindness. Assuming Love is not an act of kindness to your spouse. It is an act of kindness to yourself, a way to find a lot more enjoyment in your marriage without sweeping anything under the rug or pushing down any anger.
But Carolyn is not married to a jerk.
Again, he's a nice guy. He loves me. He's affectionate. Despite what I've said about him, he is caring. The problem is, while he can at times exhibit empathy, he most usually is coming from a me-first mindset.
I suspect if we asked him, he'd tell us everything he does -- at work, in handling their finances, in caring for their house and yard -- he does for Carolyn and his children. But I also suspect he does a lot on autopilot that they fail to see as being for them.
The following is an example of a typical conversation about something that's irritating, frustrating, or plain hurting my feelings:
Me to husband: "I feel like you're [ignoring me / taking me for granted / not considering my feelings]."
My husband to me: "No I'm not."
End of conversation.
To avoid a critical harsh start-up to the conversation (as she has heard and heeded the research on how such things can doom a relationship), she's careful to say she feels like he's doing these things.
If we assume he doesn't really care as much about her as he does about himself, it sounds like he's shutting her down. If we assume her husband loves her, it seems likely he is trying to reassure his wife that this is not his intent, oblivious to the fact that she's really trying to ask him to do something for her.
Women tend to ask each other for things indirectly. Men generally don't. I suspect it's because they feel a lot more free to say no. But without any practice intuiting our masked requests, they are drawn to articles offering to explain what women want.
Hearing that we feel ignored or irritated when they are not trying to ignore or irritate us frustrates their desire to show us love.
Instead of "I feel like you are...", we can use statements like "I feel lonely today; would you have some time to go for a walk with me?" If walking's not your thing, try make lasagna with me, wash the dog with me, play cards with me, tell me about the story you're writing, etc. "I feel exhausted from stripping and remaking all the beds, and I just discovered we're out of milk. Would you be available to go get some while I put my happy face back on?" "I love that you work so hard, but I feel so frustrated when I get dinner ready and you're not home yet. Would it be possible for us to come up with an early warning system to let me start later when you're running late?"
It was a surprise to me to learn men care a lot more about how we feel if the feelings are not about them. Maybe it's a surprise to you, too.
Carolyn is often frustrated:
It's just like with any other job, one needs a break or to mix things up sometimes. He wants me home, but he doesn't understand how stressful my job is. I understand his. I really do, because I worked since I was 14 years old up until my first maternity leave (in which I stopped working altogether) when I was 30.
I don't believe any of us can know how stressful anyone else's job is, as the stress depends on how the demands and frustrations align with our strengths and fears. I have noticed, though, that most of us would prefer to deal with our stress alone rather than with a spouse who does not offer any reduction in that stress. Or at least we think we would. Having been granted that opportunity upon my husband's sudden death, I will assert that it's not an improvement, not at all.
If your spouse is no good at reducing your stress, it's quite likely because both of you are dealing with all the stress you can handle and you are both convinced there are no other resources, just the two of you. If one of you offloads any stress, the other will need to pick it up, and neither of you has the extra capacity to do so.
I definitely believed my job as a management consultant, branch manager, and mother was more stressful than my husband's job as a college professor and father. In fact, we had sacrificed a good bit to get him a PhD so he could get this lower stress job, as his health had suffered at his previous job, which was more like mine. I would get so annoyed when I could not offload even a small chore on him, especially one that looked to me like it would be easy for him to do. In retrospect, I might have been wrong. I did not drop dead from my stress.
But what I learned when he was suddenly taken from us is all the other ways to offload responsibilities and chores. Now, instead of arguing with my second husband if he says he can't help me with something, I ask for his advice and ideas on solving my problem. He's flattered instead of put-upon.
Carolyn and her husband have no living parents to leave their children with when they need time off. So she can often feel trapped in her 24/7 job. But single moms without helpful parents find other helpers. Which means Carolyn can, too. And she will, as soon as she lets go of her focus of feeling unsupported by her husband.
My aunt, who had 6 children and is 84 years old, told me how back in the 60's she kindly demanded a weekly payment from her husband. I think that's what I should do! But I don't know how that'd go over. Besides, I'd just hand it back to him to put gas in his car for work or something. lol
I love the confirmation that they are still a loving couple, in this together. But I don't much like this solution. Money might make Carolyn feel her husband acknowledges her work, but it won't give her the occasional break she needs. (And in most states, half of any money he's earning is hers anyway, because her work is essential to his ability to earn it. This wasn't true in the 60's.)
One last bit here from Carolyn's oh-so-familiar emails. See if her argument sounds familiar to you.
If you were, say, a college kid or a twenty-something with an apartment and a roommate, and your roommate was messy and never did any of the cleaning and left it all to you, how would you feel? You would begin to resent that other young woman and have a talk with her or stop cleaning to show her what she's not doing. You wouldn't have to go into counseling to dig out the why's and wherefore's of her mental/emotional state as to the reason you're getting the biggest burdens. You wouldn't have to sit and consider that maybe you've got different standards, if you're normal, because there just are normal average standards that everyone kind of abides by. I mean, some are sloppier or more tolerant than others, but there's always a standard level of decency in maintaining your residence. We don't baby, or psychoanalyze other women for things that normal people would expect.
Roommates with very different standards are quite common. I saw there's a remake of the wonderful old TV series on that subject, The Odd Couple, debuting shortly.
But married couples are not roommates. Roommates are temporary contracts between two individuals. If they don't agree on house upkeep or late-night partying or early morning radios, they change roommates. Your roommate is not likely to carry your child to term for you. Or support you while you raise children and care for that home. You must change roommates if you are offered a great job in another city. Your roommate has no reason to pay for your education or make any other investment in your future.
Your roommate probably wants nothing to do with your sex life. Your roommate will likely expect you to leave if you develop multiple sclerosis or break your neck or develop an addiction. Your roommate won't feel the least bit torn between you and the woman she falls in love with. If she needs to move her mother in with her, you're free to leave. If you're unemployed, your roommate won't take a second job to pay your share of the rent.
The exit door is wide open with a roommate. Roommates agree on standards like they agree on lease terms, knowing they can change the rules at any time just by leaving.
Most successful marriages lock the exit door, especially if they have read any of the recent research on well-being and health and longevity and wealth-building, all of which strongly favor those with a long-term, close relationship with another human being, and the research that says locking that door and feeling your way through the difficult moments together is what turns married people into much more than roommates.
I really must thank Carolyn for her emails. I could have written most of what she wrote 30 years ago, and I know the pain and frustration behind her words. I hope in some small way I have convinced her and you of these things:
1) What looks like childishness or self-centered behavior on her husband's part may well be a good partner tending to different aspects of this relationship, with both of them oblivious to what the other wishes they would do for the aspect they are focused on.
2) A lot of the stress in her marriage comes from seeing it as a closed system, from looking only to him for relief from her stress instead of looking to him for help generating solutions for the stressors.
3) Even the best roommate could be an awful spouse, and our lives would be more enhanced by having a compatible spouse in a separate home than by having a compatible roommate sharing our home.