Quote of the day

There's a part of me in the chaos that's quiet
And there's a part of you that wants me to riot.

~ "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" by U2

Seeing the other side

A woman sent me an e-mail in response to my last post. It was supportive, but she wanted to give me a different perspective on the lack of open conflict in my marriage. She is also married to a man that does not fight or seem to get angry, and she finds it frustrating at times. I almost put the line "maybe the fact that I don't get angry pisses off my wife" in my last post, but it seemed a little flip. But I don't doubt that it is true.

Though we never really fought, J did come to me occasionally (maybe every year or so) in tears because she was upset about something in our relationship.While she cried, I shouldered the perceived blame and turned inward, letting the shame wash over me. I was torn up inside both by her tears and my failings, but on the outside there were no tears. This is something the e-mailer mentioned frustrates her. When her husband does not show emotion, she interprets it as lack of caring about the subject.

Of course in my case at least, nothing could be farther from the truth. Just because I seemed calm on the surface does not mean I wasn't emotionally connected to the conversation. Part of it is also a male, or maybe human, reflex to be strong while someone else is breaking down. It is a pattern of behavior to be strong in the moment to support the ones you love, only to break down later when the pressure subsides. And in truth, I doubt I was all that good at hiding the shame I was feeling in the moment.

It is no secret shame has distanced me from not only my wife but from my friends as well. I would beat myself up over failures great and small, eventually walling parts of myself off from the view of others. Overcoming this was one of the first things that had to happen to have any hope for personal growth, or the possibility of saving our relationship. I am still my own worst critic, and occasionally slip into the bad habit of berating myself, but I think I have done a better job at keeping the walls down and showing my emotions.

Actually, that is an understatement. I cry like I never had before. In the past, the only thing that would set the tears to falling was emotional triumphs in movies and finish lines. I wouldn't break down and cry for things in my own life, at least until I experienced the death of a friend. My emotions were kept safely behind a wall, but once I started removing the bricks, the stored up torrent was hard to control. I still have moments where the tears well up when I think back on everything, but there is less water pressure of stored emotion.

An interesting observation from my personal therapist early on in our time together - often couples in marriage counseling will switch places. Usually one spouse is more concerned and emotional about the marital problems, and is the one to push for counseling. Once the couple begins counseling, it is not uncommon to have the one who resisted counseling to embrace it, while the one who pushed for it retreats. This is what happened to us. J was the one who suggested/demanded that we go into counseling, but once on the couch, she began distancing herself from both the process and me.

And we also traded places on the amount of emotion we would show. I was now the person to wear his heart on his sleeve, and she seemed to take on the stoic role. I got a taste of what she was going through when she came to me in tears before. And it was not pleasant. On the outside, she now seemed to be completely distant from me and the moment. I know from my own experience that this may not have been true, but it is hard to fight that perception.

I have some indication that she went through her pain long before I did, but I have no honest idea of what she was feeling in the moments we were talking things through in and out of counseling.  I did ask her, but I never got a straight/satisfactory answer. But it was important to keep asking. I now know that silence can easily be misinterpreted, and lack of emotion can be construed as not caring. And when you fill in the gaps for other people's thoughts, instead of asking them straight out, your guess can be far from the truth. And moving forward with bad information can lead to some pretty disastrous results.

We never fought

"That's why God created marriage - so that people don't have to fight with strangers."
~Garrison Keillor from Prairie Home Companion

We never fought - never even argued really. The only time I remember raising my voice to J was when we were dating. It was very brief, and I was just venting my frustration for the fact that she had made us late for the fourth day in a row. Pet peeve of mine.

As I've mentioned previously, neither of us have a combative personality. I have been around several couples that argue regularly. It is not just difference of opinion being expressed, but fighting with some venom. And fighting unfairly - bringing up unrelated grievances, exaggerating wildly, and attacking personally. I can't imagine having a relationship like that. I'm glad that J and I did not act that way.

When J called one of our friends to tell her that we were getting a divorce, the friend didn't pick up the phone the first time because she was in the middle of an argument with her husband. When they connected a day later and the friend explained why she didn't pick up, I guess J said "at least you were arguing!" I guess she felt like she/we weren't able to do that.

It's not like we didn't talk about things and have differences of opinion, it just never got heated. But of course I am finding out that she wasn't being entirely open about her feelings. I kind of knew that she held on to resentments, like when she'd bring up a slight from a friend or co-worker that had happened (to me) a long time ago. I just didn't know she was holding them against me. I guess I assumed that if something was really bothering her, that she felt close enough to me to tell me about it. Or at the very least it would be blurted out in a moment of frustration.

An incident that came up in counseling - J and I were discussing getting a flat-screen tv for our anniversary. It was her suggestion and she asked what I thought. My opinion was that we already had two working tv's, so it wasn't something I wanted to spend money on. I also mentioned something about the only place to mount it was over the fireplace, and that it didn't really help the already awkward layout of the room. It turns out she was, in her words, so spitting mad that she thought she might say something she'd regret, so she said nothing. So I guess we were having arguments, but I just wasn't invited to them. Or too clueless to notice.

Later on, I asked J why she said "at least you were arguing" to our friend. I haven't argued with women I've dated in the past either, so I asked J if it was something that I was putting out that made her feel like she couldn't voice her opinions/frustrations/resentments. The only thing she said was that I was almost always right and that she found that very frustrating.

What do I do with that? No one likes to be wrong, and I am no different/better. Stupid mistakes bother me much more than getting facts or answers wrong. And I don't feel a compulsion to tell the world when I get something right, and I never try to make anyone feel bad when they're wrong. And anyway, in matters of opinion no one is really wrong - its just an opinion.

I think I am a rather rational person and my thought processes tend to run along that line. I don't really have arguments with anyone, least of all my significant other.  I am interested in how other people think and what their opinions are. When I talk about things, I'm more interested in learning than proving a point. I prefer to discuss rather than debate, and I don't feel that it is important that people think that I am 'right'. I don't think I hang on to resentments either. If something bothers me enough, I will say something, but I generally just let the little things slide. I wrote something about this last year. I'm no Zen master, and things still get to me, but the failings I carry around with me are mostly my own. 

I asked J what she thought I would say if after listening to my opinion on the flat screen tv she said, "this is important to me and I really think we should get it." I can say with lots of confidence that I would have agreed. She was bringing in a majority of the money to our household at the time anyway, and really, who wouldn't want to be talked into a fancy tv?

But clearly there was something between us that prevented open communication. So I need to look at myself and how I behave when I discuss things. It is of course possible that I am deluding myself in thinking I am so fair and balanced. Another friend said that in discussions and matters of opinion with his wife, he defers to the person who has the stronger feelings about the subject. That sounds like a pretty good place to start.

One more story. A man goes to a pastor about difficulties in his marriage. The pastor asks the man, "how long have you been lying to your wife?" The man gets indignant, proclaiming that he has always been honest and would not lie to his wife. The pastor just sits back, letting the man play out the rope. When the man finishes his rant, the pastor says, "when your wife asks what is bothering you and you say 'nothing', you are lying to her". Oh.

Arguing and fighting are certainly not the goal, but of course communication is so critical to any relationship. So be honest and open, learn from each other, stand up for what is important to you, trust in their understanding, don't let resentments grow, and if you must fight, fight fair. Give yourselves, each other and your marriage a chance.