Just like parenting, marriage is hard work. Especially a healthy, happy marriage built on mutual respect.
How we feel about and interact with our spouse or other adults in the home has a big impact on our children.
Children are incredibly aware. If we are angry or have unresolved issues, even if (or especially if) we don’t talk about it, the children will know, and it will leave them unsettled and uncomfortable. They won’t know what is going on, but they will know something is not right and they will likely act out.
Modeling how to resolve conflict, set boundaries, ask for help, and talk openly about our wants and desires with our significant other will help our children to one day have their own healthy adult relationships more than anything we tell them.
Having a meaningful, deep relationship with anyone else (especially someone you live with) takes a lot of conscious effort, respect, and a lot of communication and talking through each other's perspective.
It was a typical night in our household about a year ago. I had just finished my nightly dessert and glass of milk before bed (that’s right, I said nightly), and I had placed my glass into the dishwasher. I was moving around the kitchen when all of a sudden I noticed my husband had taken my empty milk cup out of the dishwasher, rinsed it, and placed it BACK into the dishwasher.
“Uh, excuse me?” I said, “Why are you rinsing my cup?” He responded that he had already told me, that my cup smelled if I didn’t rinse it thoroughly before placing it in the dishwasher. WHAT?! Well sir, I read a NY Times article once that said it is wasteful to rinse dishes before placing them in the dishwasher (where they get cleaned with water, again!) I’m just caring about the environment here! Also, it is the dishwasher...it isn’t as if we are hanging out in there, and we always keep the door closed, so doesn’t seem like smells will be seeping out. Furthermore, we are 12 years into our relationship at this point, and I’ve been having milk EVERY NIGHT. Has he been secretly rinsing my cup every night for 12 years?! Why hadn’t he told me this before or just asked me to do it? And the most infuriating issue - why is he saying he HAD told me when clearly he had not?
Naturally, I responded with a very defensive “Um, no you didn’t tell me. And also, why are you doing that, and how long have you been doing that?” My husband replied that he HAD told me related to my chocolate milkshake cups, but really it isn’t a big deal so he just does it. OK reader, if this is seeming a bit in the weeds...sorry, but the details matter. He had indeed told me in the past that he didn’t like that I put my dirty chocolate milkshake cup in the dishwasher unrinsed, but the reason was the dishwasher couldn’t get all the sticky chocolate off. When I had a milkshake ever since he told me this, I HAD in fact been cleaning the cup. But clearly milk alone doesn’t stick, so I wasn’t rinsing those cups. You follow??
“No, you did not tell me you wanted me to clean out my milk cup”, I replied defensively, “you told me to clean my chocolate milkshake cups out”. He quickly retorted, “It is the same thing. I assumed you would do the normal thing that everyone does - rinse out your dirty dishes, so they don’t stink up the dishwasher for several days.”
CODE RED. Let’s just say this devolved quickly. And isn’t it absurd that rinsing a milk cup caused a fight that resulted in annoyed feelings for a couple days before we talked it through? But anyone who is married (and honest) knows this is just normal life. Eventually a couple days later, this led to a long conversation. So exhausting being in a healthy, excellent marriage!
Just like every other argument we’ve ever had, this clearly isn’t about the cup of milk. What is really going on here is this: almost every fight we have at this point in our marriage is about the same thing, which is that I don’t listen / pay attention (and “acts of service” are how he receives love), and I think he is too harsh / unkind, (no “words of encouragement” for me!) He has high standards, which he lives up to and that make him an amazing partner and dad. However, it feels to me often that I am supposed to intuit what he wants, and if I do not then I am not paying good enough attention. Thank god we both value “quality time”, or we’d basically be doomed. (If you don’t understand any of the statements in quotes and you are married...WHAT? How have you survived without knowing your love languages? Please click here now, and you are welcome!)
Through our debrief talk, it was revealed that my husband did not always feel comfortable stating his smaller preferences to me. In the past for years, when he tried to tell me he’d prefer I do something different, I made jokes about how difficult and particular he was. I’d be defensive and dismissive. To me, I felt he was criticizing me or telling me how I was doing things wrong, when in fact, he was often just stating a preference. But sadly because of my state of lack and unconscious responses, we were in a cycle where he didn’t feel he could tell me what he wanted, and if he did, I’d get defensive and / or shame him. He admitted that he “felt like a bitch” bringing up this kind of stuff...which to me is totally gendered and bogus cultural programming. BUT ALSO once I got honest with myself (we’d been together 10+ years at this point!) I realized when he tried to state preferences I’d respond with things like “oh my god, another RULE” or “it really isn’t THAT big a deal, is it?” when he asked me to do something differently. He had learned not to share, and that holding in of his feelings would sometimes lead to resentment.
When I look back on that, I can so clearly see this is not acceptable. I want my lovely husband to tell me all of his preferences. Just like I want him to respect my wishes, I want to respect his. And I certainly don’t want to shame him for having them. I want us to spend our whole lives trying hard to understand and not annoy each other! A huge part of what marriage is all about. And most of all, I want to know and see him just like I want to do this for my kids. It doesn’t make sense for me to tell my kids all their feelings are OK, but then to shame their dad when he has a feeling or a preference. I am so glad we had this argument over the milk cup, and then did the hard work to really talk through our cycle AGAIN. We both feel it is totally exhausting at times, but we do seem to have new insights almost every time even though we’ve been together more than a decade. I know doing this work will last a lifetime, and there is no one I'd rather do it with than my husband.
Although the focus of this blog is parenting children, the relationship that I have with my husband has a HUGE impact on our whole family dynamic. I can tell when we are arguing, the energy is off for everyone. The kids test more. They are more needy and cry more. We might think we are hiding the fact that we aren’t getting along, but our kids sure aren’t fooled. It is so critical for us to address all the dynamics in our household and realize the big impact they have on our kids.
Also, as Janet always says, our children learn much more from how we act than what we say. They are always watching and learning. And when they watch me and my husband, I want to be sure I am modeling the marriage I want them to have. The respect, caring and love I wish for them to find one day. Who we decide to marry is certainly one of the most consequential decisions we make in life, and I tell my kids that. No fairy tail endings over here, just a lot of hard work, annoyance, love, anger, respect, sadness and joy.
Here are two books that helped me a lot re: marriage over the last few years:
This book was recommended to me by a friend who is a therapist: Hold Me Tight. It helped me to recognize and identify our "cycle" that we were unconsciously in for years and to start to work on it together.