Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, I make a to-do list. It helps me organize my thoughts, clear my head, and reminds me what my next step is. So after my first son was born, and my wife was tearfully telling me how overwhelmed she felt, I immediately jumped to a list! The exchange, as I recall it, went something like this:
“I just feel like I can’t get anything done, I’m tired, stressed out, and I feel like I don’t know where to start,” my wife explained.
“What if we started in the bathroom?” I said over my shoulder as I started writing it down.
Kara looked at me a bit confused, but continued, “I know the bathroom needs to be cleaned, but it’s more than that.”
“Bathroom and the kitchen. Got it!” I enthusiastically responded.
“No, Adam, are you listening? I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
“Got it, bathroom, kitchen, and then the bedrooms!”
It was probably about here where I looked up, and realized this wasn’t helping. It seemed like every item I wrote down just added to the problem, instead of lifting the burden. At that point I had exhausted my list of possible solutions, and so I just sat there, wondering what could possibly be the next step. My list was clearly not the solution.
Luckily, my wife was wise enough to recognize my confusion. She gently shared with me that she wasn’t looking for a solution; she was only looking for a sympathetic ear.
This situation has played out over and over again in my marriage, and as I’ve talked to friends and family, I’ve come to think it’s almost a universal experience in marriage. For whatever reason, many guys tend to hear problems as puzzles to be solved, while many women tend to share problems seeking sympathy more than solutions. I’ve been married seven years, and it’s a distinction that I can still miss.
When I hear my beloved struggling, I naturally want to help; I want to jump in and fix whatever is broken. I forget that often just listening can be the best solution. When I try to solve Kara’s problems it can come across as dismissive, or as if I think I have all the answers. My wife is very capable of solving her own problems, but what she often needs the most in these moments is emotional connection, someone to listen and empathize.
Kara and I now have three kids instead of one, and there are certainly still days when we both feel exhausted or overwhelmed. The best thing I can offer my wife when she is feeling tired is not a to-do list, it’s giving her the space to share her heart and taking the time to share my own with her.
Also, a glass of wine often doesn’t hurt.