The other day I asked my husband what topic he’d like me to cover in a Friday story.
“Why do you stay married to me?”
“That’s what you want me to write about?” I asked.
“You’ve got a lot of gripes, Elizabeth.”
He was not wrong. I am a fixer. Of everyone and everything. He’s been the one closest to me for twenty-five years, so you can imagine how much I’ve tinkered around in his head.
The night before, we had rushed through dinner with the family to get on Zoom for our relationship class.* It started off well. Mark shared a breakthrough he’d had in communication. As he spoke, the other couples inside their Zoom squares finished last spoonfuls at their kitchen table or settled into the pillows in an unfamiliar bedroom.
“Elizabeth told me how stressed she was about an upcoming trip to Philadelphia. I thought to myself, she’s traveled the world, why is she acting so incompetent? Instead of expressing that, I said nothing, which hurt her feelings. I thought about it during my run afterwards. When I came back, I asked her to tell me more. What she shared helped me understand her better.”
“That’s wonderful,” said the therapist. “You listened with true presence. Tell me more is a powerful phrase.”
I was glad for his effort to understand me, but what he said stuck in my craw. If it had been a private therapy session, I would have pushed back, but the topic had changed to rituals.
The therapist explained that a daily practice to foster connection keeps us continually learning about each other.
“Couples tend to undervalue them,” she said.
I could understand why people bailed on these exercises. When I feel disconnected and ornery, the last thing I want to do is “share” and “connect” with my “husband.” Especially if he’s stewing in his own negativity. We retreat to our corners and a gulf widens between us.
“We don’t stop doing other important things just because we don’t feel like it,” she said. “Changing the oil, brushing our teeth. We do those things no matter what. Often, we treat rituals to keep our marriage strong like they are optional. If someone gets their feelings hurt or has a long day, we drop them.”
Our ritual was for me to share something with Mark that had upset me and for him to say nothing. I now understood that in his head, he’d been judging me all along.
The therapist suggested a daily practice that included five separate categories. Before life got complicated and we became marriage bots, we did these things naturally.
Share five things you are grateful for about your partner.
Meeting a minimum threshold hadn’t been a problem before now. After we had our first child, Mark sent extravagant flower arrangements every time he left town for business.
Often one person is better at sharing information than the other—this is a reminder for both partners to let the other know what is happening in their life.
I couldn’t wait to show Mark how I found out our then six-month-old daughter was a genius. “You have to see this,” I said when he walked in from work. “Jane, go get your monkey.” She scooted to her play area and dragged back the stuffed toy. He slapped his knees and hooted.
Clear up mysteries before they become suspicions or resentments. Most “puzzles” have simple explanations.
Years ago, Mark had gone to a football game out of town with his best friend. As he was dressing in their hotel room, Harry noticed a gaping hole in the butt of Mark’s underwear. As Mark told me the story, he could hardly speak over his own laughter, “I’d cut the hole for Norm’s tail so he could wear them after he got neutered. I forgot to throw them out.”
Complaints & Requests for Change
This helps us say what we want, along with what we don’t want, and teaches us how to make a complaint rather than criticize.
The therapist asked us all to go off camera for ten minutes and practice “giving a complaint and request for change.” Mark went first.
“I feel like there’s a disconnect between your Instagram posts and how you are at home,” Mark said.
How dare he.
I did not do the steps to pause and rebalance that we had learned.
“Do you think I can’t be inspired in the morning and post about it, then raise hell after a day of interruptions? Try working from home with house guests, virtual school, and Cocoa barking and let me know how sunshiney you are. I am a full human being with all the complexity. You’d accept my imperfections if you ever allowed yourself to have any.”
Mark turned back to the laptop, now a grid of screen savers.
“You want to hear my complaint?” I asked. “I don’t like that you judged me for being nervous about getting lost in a new city. That doesn’t make me incompetent. Some people are good with directions and some aren’t. So what? Even though you weren’t saying anything, I could feel you being critical.”
I knew he wouldn’t respond. I clicked our video back on to join the class. We spent the rest of the session parked under separate black clouds.
I thought about Mark’s question for a couple days. I took a long walk and reflected on what each of us had witnessed as kids. In our homes growing up, resentments and anger went unexpressed, polluting the air like toxic waste. When my parents announced their divorce, my mom said, “your dad and I haven’t spoken in four years.” At his house, there was lots of muttering under their breath. I didn’t want that for us.
When I got home, Mark stood at the bathroom sink, brushing his teeth.
“How come you never said what you were thinking until now?” I asked.
“I was afraid you’d bite my head off. Or use what I said against me in a future argument. I figured it wouldn’t change anything. There was no point.”
He had been trapped in his own head with an inner dialogue he never felt safe enough to express. For years. While I felt free to say all the crazy things I felt. I don’t know how he did it. My own head would have popped off ages ago.
As I felt the unfamiliar sensation of empathy for my husband, it dawned on me that I had judged him for judging me. Both of us considered ourselves the authority on how the other should act. Until now, neither of us had been curious enough to ask what was really going on.
“If we learn nothing else from this class, those three words were worth it. When either of us says something that triggers a judgment, we replace it with curiosity. Tell me more. That’s gold,” he said.
“So why do you want to stay married to me?” I asked, knowing I still hadn’t answered the question myself.
“Out for my run this morning, I had the thought, I’d like to feel more connected to Elizabeth. I never would have learned how to relate better if you hadn’t forced me to take that class. Believe it or not, I actually want to do this.”
I guess that’s my answer. I stay married to this guy because he is still willing to grow with me.
When you show up to your life as your true self without reservation, the people who stick around give you the sense that it’s all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: What uncomfortable conversations have lead to breakthroughs in your relationship?
*I suggested a six week course with Therapist, Author and Life Coach, Linda Carroll based on her book Love Skills, The Keys to Unlocking Lasting, Wholehearted Love. For more information on her awesome programs, check her out on lindaacarroll.com.
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