For four years, I studied relationships. I read all of the current research about how to make a relationship work and how to fix it if it is broken. I read books, attended lectures, watched videos, and literally studied more than my brain had the capacity to retain about healthy relationships, systems and families. I can sit down and watch your family interact for five minutes and know what kind of background each of the parents came from and what kind of parenting style the kids have become accustomed to. I know relationships. I know families. I know marriages. What I don’t know is why it’s so unbelievably hard to apply all of these wonderful things that I know to my own family.
I was thinking this morning about the wonderful, kid-less graduaversary trip (graduation/anniversary, and yes we went as far as to name it and then call it by its cute little name while we were there) that my husband and I took in January. It was amazing, blissful, exhilarating, relaxing—pretty much the best vacation I have ever been on. But I wasn’t thinking about the volcano that we climbed, the four waterfalls that we rappelled, the surfing or the 60-mph zip line we did 600 feet up from the ground in the middle of the rainforest. I was thinking about the walk that I took alone on the beach. The walk that, in 45 minutes, had me convinced that I should just leave my family, move to Costa Rica and start over.
The day didn’t start with the walk. The day started about six hours prior to the walk, with a cold “good morning” and a quiet breakfast. My husband is not a morning person but had been surprisingly pleasant to wake up to all trip. I knew something was off when he woke up tense, snapped at me a few times and hardly spoke to me at breakfast. Instead of following my intuition and asking what was wrong, I ignored his smug attitude and went about my business as usual. Below are the three mistakes I made that day that hurt both of us:
Mistake No. 1: Instead of turning into him, I turned away from him. I had a chance to lovingly open up communication that would have inevitably brought us closer together, but I chose to walk away.
We proceeded to make our way to our favorite poolside cabana where we set up shop and continued the silence. I was so absorbed in reading my book and basking in the sun that, for a split second, I forgot all about my husband’s attitude. I forgot that I was playing the part of the emotionally detached, better-than-you-because-I-don’t-let-other-people-affect-me wife. I was reminded quickly, though, when I tried to make small talk and was ignored.
By this time, I was done playing cool. I now felt very sorry for myself. How dare he try to ruin my day!? The final straw came when I put aside my feelings toward his smugness and nicely asked him to get me a drink from the bar. He was fully clothed; I was not. It was in no way unreasonable for me to ask him to do that one small favor, I thought. But I was attacked. I was called names. I was left feeling worthless. When I feel worthless, I get mad.
He stormed off to the room, and I stayed perched by the pool, fuming. I was so angry that I couldn’t even focus on reading my book. Then the thought occurred to me: He’s only mean to me when he has a need that is not being met.
Mistake No. 2: I became aware that he was in some sort of emotional pain, and instead of approaching him and asking how I could help, I used that awareness and insight to fuel my resentment.
Within a matter of minutes, I had recalled all of the times in the recent past that he had made me feel worthless. Sure, he had needs that he had failed to communicate to me, but his needs were not of importance right now. My feelings were. In that moment, the feelings that he made me feel were much more important than any of his needs.
I thought about all the hurtful things he had said and done and found myself calling him selfish, inconsiderate and childish in my head. I let over an hour pass before I headed back to the room, ready for my apology. Surely, that was enough time for him to realize what he had done and make amends for it.
Mistake No. 3: I looked to reconnect through receiving, rather than giving.
Upon returning to the room, I found him lying in bed watching golf. I putzed around the room for a few minutes, waiting patiently for him to say those magic words. They never came. And I certainly was not going to apologize because I had done nothing wrong. So instead of saying something like, “I’m sorry you are having a bad day. Do you want to talk about what’s going on?” I said this:
“Are you seriously going to pout in the room all day? What a waste of a very expensive vacation!”
Then I got dressed, told him if he wanted to stop feeling sorry for himself he could join me and left. He did not come. My generous offer to put up with him as long as he stopped pouting must not have sounded very enticing.
Thus began “the walk.” I strolled the beach dreaming about how much better my life would be if I were single—not married, no kids, free to do whatever I wanted to whenever I wanted to. I wouldn’t have to care about anyone’s feelings but my own, with no responsibilities, no worries, no fighting. It all sounded very appealing.
Then something strange happened. In the midst of this fabulous dream with a vibrant picture of my single self dancing in my head, I thought, He is hurting. He has needs that aren’t being met. He needs compassion. He needs understanding. He needs me.
I tried hard to fight it. I tried to get the image of my single, carefree self back in my head, but I couldn’t. All I could think about was the fact that he needed me, and I had left. He needed me to be kind and loving, and I was cold and spiteful. My husband, the person I care most about in the whole world, was suffering all alone.
I would love to be able to tell you that since that day we have not fought; that I have been loving and caring ever since; that in every situation I seek to understand and comfort him instead of feeling sorry for myself. But that’s not real life. That’s not our story.
After eight years together, our fights are less frequent, our yelling is more controlled, and we apologize much more quickly. But we are still a work in progress. We can be very selfish and self-centered. We get angry easily and harbor resentments. We yell and scream and slam doors and sometimes even throw things. We sleep in separate beds and can go an entire day without talking. But we continue to work. We continue to show up for our relationship. We continue to practice grace, mercy, forgiveness and patience. Most importantly, we continue to grow in our understanding of ourselves, each other and our marriage.
So regardless of how much I know or don’t know about relationships, I continue to learn daily from my marriage. I continue to practice turning toward my husband instead of away from him. I continue to practice becoming more aware of his needs and tending to them. I continue to practice giving rather than expecting to receive.
Most important of all, I continue to fight for our marriage, even when it gets tough, because we are worth fighting for.