After a particularly rough day, my wife said to me that she feels like a single parent. When I heard that, are you thinking I felt warm and squishy like I was given an emotional hug? You guessed it… wrong. As someone who preaches the importance of self control… it was borderline for me. You know that kind of anger you get that wants to come out in words you’ll regret later? Oh, I was feeling that. Fortunately, after a couple not so great sentences back and forth, my wife and I agreed we shouldn’t talk and actually stopped talking. Quite often when we say, “I’m done talking about this!” this is just a pause as someone continues, “And you know what? (Massive fight ensues)!” If a person verbally unloads, how they are afterwards gives an idea of what anger style they are. Aggressive people will be like “That’s what I do; I need to blow my top and then I’m calm after.” Passive Aggressive people are more, “I don’t feel bad because you deserved that. That’s the punishment for what you’ve done.” This person will also likely remain angry for a long time as they seethe in resentment – they’re fun. Passive people, on the other hand, will explode and then feel terrible after. “I’m so sorry. I was meant to keep that bottled up.” My wife’s family background is more aggressive while mine is passive. It’s caused some fun moments, but we’ve gotten better, especially as we learn to bite our tongues and then get our anger out when we’re alone – the assertive way.
In these moments where we know we should stop, sometimes our tongue has other thoughts – our tongues can be hard to control. Fortunately, our 16 years together and working at biting our tongues have left the two of us better at dropping a topic and returning later (most times). That being said, I almost ruined it because as I was walking away I muttered, “I work so freak’n hard.” From the other room I heard her reply, “I’m not saying that!” Overall, we did pretty well to take a moment and put this thought on pause as I had a chance to process what I was told. I should point out that my wife was very good to follow three of my communication rules:
- Say your point in one sentence in order to make it easier to grasp.
- Choose your timing carefully.
- Take a time out if either of you gets too heated to share properly.
My wife did well to choose her timing to share her comment because she waited until after the kids were in bed and I had the brain space to hear her – yea, her. That night she would’ve also argued that she waited to say it when she was in a better mindset, but here’s the thing, she wasn’t. She was definitely in a better spot than earlier in the day, but she was not herself. She realized this a few days later when she was actually feeling more herself and she apologized for it. This could’ve been her greatest triumph as apologizing wasn’t something she was taught or role modelled growing up – her family was aggressive, so yelling was just what they did. Not apologizing is also one of the most common complaints about wives from husbands in general, which makes my wife’s all the more impressive. (Women typically complain men aren’t sincere in their apologies). My wife’s been working on that one and it’s pretty great as the receiver. It can be hard being married to a therapist, but my wife’s humble enough to listen and try to follow my lead… sometimes… and sometimes that’s because I’m being a wiener. For the record, I also apologized as my comment walking away wasn’t the right time, which connects to two other lessons I teach:
- Apologize when there’s something you could’ve done better to help the other person feel cared about and affirmed.
- After a conflict, both people should apologize because as it’s said, “It takes two to tango.” In a conflict, both people have done something that’s left the other hurt and defensive, which means both people should be apologizing and keeping it equal.
What was interesting is until she said that comment I had no idea how triggering it is to work ridiculously hard at work and home (it had been a crazy two months) and then have someone say, “It feels like I’m a single parent.” Earlier that week, while doing chores I had According to Jim in the background. (I appreciate this show a lot more now as a parent). The main character, Jim is a very relaxed parent who plays in a band for fun with his buddies and goes to football games on the weekend while his stay-at-home wife watches the kids. Based on his activities, she could say this line because it was true, but that’s not me. I haven’t been having fun; I’ve been edging toward burn out to make up for taking a week off to be with my family, which was its own exhausting experience.
After taking a few minutes by myself to process what she said and sooth enough of my hurt ego, I returned to her and asked, “When you said you feel like an only parent, did you really mean you feel like a single parent or did you mean you feel lonely?” Without hesitation she replied, “Lonely.” Thank goodness! I don’t know what I would’ve done if she had said she meant what she said. It’s a good thing I followed my own rule:
- Don’t take what people say at face value; double check. (People say all kinds of things they don’t mean and we can hear things wrong, which makes talking risky)
So now we have the proper starting point, which makes a major difference for finding a proper solution. The solution in this situation was actually really easy because I couldn’t refute her point. She was feeling lonely because she should’ve been feeling lonely. I was feeling the same thing. It’d been a tough couple months and that day was really bad. This connects to another rule I teach:
- Couples are meant to keep each other accountable for our actions to make sure the relationship is safe.
Not to be too graphic, but I think it’s important to note that even though we were very busy we maintained our scheduled couple-y time (when you’re married with kids, it needs to be scheduled). If couples aren’t boingy-boingying preferably once a week (before hormones go whacky in our 40s) the relationship will take a serious hit. If you reach a month without the touchy-touchy, get cracking or you’ll soon find you forget how to initiate and make the time. This is a major problem I find working with couples, “You want me to touch them? That’s weird.”
As far as handling this difficult conversation, I’d give my wife and I an eight out of ten because we both made mistakes. I shouldn’t have been so quick to get upset at my wife’s initial comment because I broke my rule:
- A good listener doesn’t get defensive – it’s not about you.
And my wife should have been careful to have the proper statement and to say it when she was in the headspace to discuss it. Unfortunately, the worst times to talk are when we’re already angry, tired, or drunk, which are the three times we’re most likely to talk.
My wife bringing up this idea of loneliness got me thinking (a typical guy thing: “I could talk, but I’m going to just think about it”). It was like an epiphany… which I’ll discuss in next week’s lesson.
To be cont’d.
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