You Can't Hear What He's Saying
I have a friend who told me that after seven years of rolling her eyes and getting grouchy whenever her husband says, "Calm down," she recently realized what he actually means by telling her to calm down. It's not, as she suspected, a passive-aggressive attack designed to make her feel rotten about her fiery temper. After a particularly huge blowup (conveniently, in front of their couples therapist), she learned something life-altering: what her husband thought he was saying when he said, "Calm down," was—wait for it―"Calm down." She'd been responding to the way she would have said the phrase, as a barb. All of us need to arrive at this moment: when we learn not just to listen to our partners, but also to stop listening to ourselves talking over our partners.
You Get Embarrassed (By His Ice Crunching)
So you take him to a party to meet your co-workers, or out to celebrate a holiday with your cousins or to the members-only thing at the aquarium, and while you're eager to show him off, suddenly you see him in the crowd and he's crunching his ice. You've never seen him crunch his ice. Yet, there he is, gesturing with the plastic cup and pulverizing cubes between his teeth and making horrifying squishing, squelching noises. And it hits you. He's nervous.
You could focus on how unbecoming this is, or you could see what this really means: that you know him. You're the only one there who knows he's not really an ice cruncher, because you know him better than anyone else. Which is a beautiful thing.
You Find Yourself Saying, "You Want to Quit Your Job to Do What?"
Of course you want him to be as happy as he can be, and you think of yourself as a supportive spouse, and you love cinema as much as he does and you know he could make a great independent film. And, yet. When he announces that he would like to shake the dust off his feet (as well as the regular paychecks, matched 401(k) contributions and health insurance) and devote himself to making the movie he's always wanted to make, you're suddenly feeling not so supportive anymore. You don't think of yourself as obsessed with money, but you're now somebody that has a mortgage and car payments and people who depend on you.
Which is when you figure out that you're scared—but so is he. And the only way for you two to end the fear is to figure what you both want, and what you're willing to do to achieve it.
You Do the One Thing You Always Swore You Would Never, Ever Do
Once upon a time, many years ago in a time BW (Before Wedding), you listened to a male colleague complain about his wife calling him approximately 75 times an hour whenever he went out with his friends. Naturally, you were horrified. You knew you would never be THAT kind of wife (whatever that meant to you). Well, look at you now. Your husband's out until 3 a.m. with his old college buddy and you haven't called once—such restraint!—but you did text 83 times. Only on text message #84 do you get what this is about. It's not that you're checking in on him, or wanting to ruin his fun or being possessive. It's that you heard there was an accident on his route home. It's that you want to make sure he remembers about the 9:00 a.m. appointment with the accountant (that he scheduled). It's that you heard his favorite song. It's that he keeps popping up in your mind because you miss him—and now that you understand this, it's time for you to go directly to bed.
You Bring Out Your Mental Tally Sheet
The argument between you two seems like its about the cheese grater, which has been languishing in the sink, clotted with soggy cheddar, for 20 hours straight. Before he knows what's hit him—BAM!—you've announced that he didn't clean the goldfish tank last week, or the week before that or the week before that AND he was the one who actually didn't empty the vacuum bag six months ago AND look at his closet AND...rather than proving your point, you realize what you're doing. This isn't debate club. Why have you come to the podium with stacks of the invisible evidence that you've apparently been hoarding? Because—ouch—you don't know how to fight. Which is fine. You can start by learning a new, more helpful way right here.
You Threaten to Leave...and Then Have to Deal with That Threat
Stay in a relationship long enough and you will likely say that one very, very bad thing. You know the one. The one when you say (or think): "That's it. I'm not doing this anymore." You pull out your trump card—the drop-the-mic finale that used to silence all those teenage and 20-something arguments—and you threaten to leave. How does it really feel when you slam the door and stalk to the car and drive to the 24-hour Target because you can't think of anywhere else to go? This is your Road Not Taken moment. This is when you get it: Storming out doesn't resolve anything. Because you don't want to say goodbye, not for good. You have to work that sucker out, starting with going back home.
Amy Shearn is the author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn: A Novel
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