I distinctly remember lying in bed, fuming, not falling asleep, and wondering if my marriage was going to be like this for the rest of my life. We’d been married happily for about 3 years, but then there had been a slow decline neither of us stopped. At this point, it had probably been 4-6 months of really not enjoying the presence of my husband. Was I always going to feel this frustrated and misunderstood? Would I always be this unhappy? What happened? Is it fixable? Is it even worth the work I’d have to put in to fix it? Maybe. Maybe not. What if it doesn’t get fixed? I don’t have time for this!
It was in that moment that I realized I wasn’t strong enough to endure an unhappy marriage for 50 years. Divorce seems like such an attractive option in our culture, but it’s messy and would hurt the kids. Parents who stay unhappily married probably hurts kids too, so we’d better work something out.
The next day after a barely tolerable, curt conversation about something, I said, “So, how are we going to fix this?” He shook his head, knowingly, and responded, “I don’t know.” At this point, we were headed in the right direction. Fixing it was on the table as a topic of conversation, and we both acknowledged a need for it and were willing to put in at least some effort.
Some friends had just offered to do a monthly babysitting swap with us, so we took them up on it and used that time as best we could. First, we sat down at Panera and hashed out how we were feeling. We took turns, listened, and (mostly) calmly explained our perspectives. Overall, we figured out that I was feeling unsupported and he was feeling like a failure because I wasn’t happy with him.
The reason this conversation was so productive, though, was because we had both spent time thinking about it beforehand. Here are some of the things we had discovered.
- Often we can blame each other for little stuff and get wrapped up in that, but going to the deeper why is this really upsetting me question is so much more important. I identified that all these little things that were annoying me were wrapped around the bigger issue of feeling unsupported. Once I identified that, I could explain ways I would feel supported and that’s the kind of information he could work with. And once I knew that ultimately he wasn’t frustrated and disappointed with me, but with himself, I was able to calm down a bit and want to help him out. I’m a people pleaser, so knowing that he wasn’t upset with me was really important for making progress in my vulnerability. I no longer had to defend myself and make him see it my way, but could listen better and empathize with his frustrations. I didn’t want him to feel like a failure, but at the same time, knowing he did, was a big part of our healing process.
- We also realized that we needed to start having fun together again. With two small children, household responsibilities, and a stressful job, we had drifted into a lifestyle of all work and no play. We were busy, busy, busy. So we intentionally moved having fun back up to the top of the priority list. Family fun, but more importantly, fun memories for just the two of us. We took every chance we could get to go on a date, and we were really intentional about the activities we chose. I remember in the beginning it almost felt like I was faking having fun, because I was still so hurt, but gradually we were able to genuinely enjoy fun moments together again.
- But the real work came in the day in, day out giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Deep down, we knew we married a good person with good intentions, but now it had become so hard to see each other’s actions in a positive light. We had spent so much time in a pattern of getting irritated with every little thing each other did, and misinterpreting intentions. It wasn’t an easy habit to break. Every time I started going down the dark spiral of, What is he thinking? Why would he do that? He’s so inconsiderate to leave his dirty laundry right there. Does he really think fairies put all his stuff away? I’d have to intentionally stop it. At first, I had to just stop it. At first, I was still too hurt to consistently replace it with positive thoughts, but I tried to at least stop the negative spiral. If he was around I forced myself to ask, “What were you thinking when you did/said ____.” Again, he’s a man of good intentions. Either he doesn’t realize it’s a problem for me or he has some good reason I’m not considering. Asking really helped. Sometimes it felt awkward, but it was worth it.
After getting to know some of his reasoning better, I was able to start filling in my own positive thoughts about his intentions. Oh, I bet he did that because he didn’t want to wake me up. Maybe he thought leaving this out would help him remember something important. Again, giving him the benefit of the doubt and reminding myself of his good intentions was a habit I needed to practice. It was easier to villainize him, maybe because it made me feel better about myself and the small ways I sacrificed daily for our family. He didn’t always see that, so if I minimized his contribution I felt more important. Maybe I felt more justified when I painted myself as the good guy. Whatever it was, it’s an ugly part of myself I don’t ever want to see again. It did get easier, and I’m grateful because being better than my husband isn’t what I want my marriage to be about.
But sometimes it was tempting to fall back into the bad habits. It was easier to villainize him, maybe because it made me feel better about myself and the small ways I sacrificed daily for our family. He didn’t always see that, so if I minimized his contribution I felt more important. Maybe I felt more justified when I painted myself as the good guy. Whatever it was, it’s an ugly part of myself I don’t ever want to see again. I think it still rears it’s ugly head now and then, but I try to quickly kick it to the curb, because being better than my husband isn’t what I want my marriage to be about.
After all this, my husband and I are really good communicators. We address potential problems as soon as we notice them, still prioritize having fun together, and ask questions if we don’t understand where the other person is coming from. We’re 6 years in, and our marriage is stronger than ever! We bask in the good times together and cling to each other in the bad.