Whatever Arises, Love That: A Love Revolution That Begins with You, Matt Kahn:
When so-called bad stuff happens, don’t fight, don’t negotiate—just sit with the pain for a while. When the time is right, you’ll know how to handle the problem, but until then, allow yourself to feel what you feel.
When a feeling is “honored and given permission to be,” it eventually dissolves of its own accord—no striving, no fighting, no negotiation needed.
Your negative experiences can actually become your greatest gifts, “the source of your own fulfillment.”
No matter how many problems you successfully fix, life will always bring you more. So if you want peace in your life, learn to love what arises.
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Pema Chodron:
“To stay with that shakiness–to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge–that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic–this is the spiritual path.”
“Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?’ Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?'”
“Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news. We don’t have to go hunting for anything. We don’t need to try to create situations in which we reach our limit. They occur all by themselves, with clockwork regularity.”
My Relationship Resolutions:
I will be grateful for the challenges marriage brings. If Matthew was perfect, how would I grow? Marriage is one of the most complex, intense relationships in life—and the best opportunity I have to learn to love unconditionally.
When painful stuff happens, like an argument with Matthew, I won’t try to fix it right away. Instead, I’ll find a quiet place, and just sit with the feeling. Only when I’m ready to move on will I do so, even if it takes several hours or days.
I will remember that Matthew doesn’t have to be perfect for me to be happy. I’m tough; I can handle a few flaws.
For the Fridge:
“I promise to remember that one of the best parts of marriage is how it helps me grow.”
One day not long after the Bad Wife Blowout, Matthew did not eat lunch—and it showed. Arriving home after work, he greeted me plaintively. Then he promptly asked for some food.
“I’m hungry,” he said, dropping his backpack on the floor and circling around me to the kitchen. “I worked through lunch. What’s for dinner?”
“Hi, Hon,” I said. I followed him to the kitchen. “I’m not sure. I guess there’s not much. I haven’t made it to the store.”
This time, I wasn’t just apologizing to apologize, either; I really did feel bad. Matthew loved food, but cooking wasn’t my specialty. I’ve said many times that I could never cook again and be better off for it.
Mind you, it wasn’t always this way. When Matthew and I first got together, I enjoyed making him a well-planned meal. Doing so wasn’t a hardship, but one of the little pleasures of my day—a way to express love and be nurturing. After the baby was born, though, food preparation was no longer a productive break from my computer and a chance to do something nice for my partner.
Suddenly, it was just a damned chore.
And so, I slacked off. I cooked less often and less well, and asked Matthew to order out or cook for himself once in a while. Soon, he was preparing many of his own evening meals, and I was grabbing something quick for the kids and myself before he got home.
“No food?” he asked. “Nothing? Again? Hon, I am really, really hungry.”
“I know, Matt. I’m sorry. It was that kind of day.”
“It was that kind of day three other times this week.”
“Matt, come on. Don’t start with me. You can handle making dinner.”
“It’s not just that. You’ve been ignoring me. I’m sick of feeling like I’m last place.”
“Watch out. You’re reading into this. Not cooking doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
“It feels that way to me.”
“I don’t know what to do about that, though, Matt. I can’t do everything, you know. Something has to fall off my plate. So to speak.”
Matthew didn’t respond. Instead, he grabbed his car keys and made his way to the front door in the kind of huff that has you defending yourself in your head for the next hour. He left without explanation, then returned with a pile of tacos.
By that time, I was mad, too.
“Was that really so hard?” I asked as I joined him at the dining room table.
“Well, it took forty-five minutes.”
I sighed. “Honey, look at me, will you? I’m exhausted. I’m done. I’ve been going nonstop all day. Every day feels like a marathon. What more do you want me to do?”
“I want food.”
I stopped eating my tacos. A hard wind filled my lungs, but I slowly let it out. Then, in that small moment, I made a big decision.
I decided not to be angry.
I took a deep breath, then another one. Then I drank a glass of water. A few tacos in, I managed a smile–a fake smile, but a smile nonetheless.
“Do you feel like I don’t pay enough attention to you, Matt?”
“Yes,” he said, exhaling a bit. “Or maybe, like you don’t respect me as much as you used to. Something like that. I don’t know.”
“I respect you, Hon. I do. I’m doing the best I can.”
He didn’t respond, and I didn’t go on.
That evening, we were quiet–both of us were quiet. Matt genuinely didn’t want to talk, and I was practicing my new non-defensiveness strategy. As we sat on the couch together, watching a movie, not touching, I realized something: I was okay.
So, Matt is mad at me, I thought, pretending to pay attention to the screen. What’s the big deal, anyway? I did what I could. I told him I cared about him. I stayed calm and didn’t make things worse. He didn’t want to hear my side, so here we are, on the couch. Kind of ignoring each other, but we’re still together. He’ll be mad for a while, but it’s okay. It’s okay.
For me, this was a revelation.
That week as Matt slowly regained a more positive perspective on our relationship and I continued to reassure him, I contemplated the lesson a bit further. I asked myself what the point of relationships are, anyway. Are they for making us feel good all the time? No, I realized. That’s not what they’re for. Relationships–marriages especially–are about growth. They’re about learning compromise and communication and hell, just being a nicer person. Would I really want Matt to do everything I wanted him to do as soon as I wanted him to do it? What good would a robot husband be to anyone?
Looking back on that week, I wonder if that was the time that I first knew–truly knew–things were going to be okay with Matt and I. Since having our first child together we’d learned a lot of lessons, but did any of the others affect my attitude toward Matt as completely? In any case, the change that happened inside me that week was real, and it really did take hold. From that time forward, whenever Matt and I disagreed about something significant, I remembered to feel at least a bit grateful for the struggle.
This is how I’m becoming a better person, I told myself. This is how. Only this. No other way.
Marriage is a gift, and challenges are part of the package. I see how being married is changing me, and I like it.
“Defense is the first act of war.” It’s not the first mean comment or hurtful behavior. That’s just something that happened. War involves a response. (—Your Inner Awakening)
“Who started the war? I did. She just told the truth. And I start to punish her for being more enlightened than I am. If there is a war in my life, I started it. There’s no exception. If the war ends in my life, I end it. I end it, or it doesn’t end. No exception.” (—Who Would You Be Without Your Story? Dialogues with Byron Katie)
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle:
“Nonresistance, nonjudgment, and nonattachment are the three aspects of true freedom and enlightened living.”
The Wisdom of the Desert, Father Thomas Merton:
“And if anyone speak to you about any matter do not argue with him. But if he speaks rightly, say: Yes. If he speaks wrongly say to him: You know what you are saying. But do not argue with him about the things he has said. Thus your mind will be at peace.”
My Relationship Resolutions:
When confronted, I won’t immediately jump to my own defense. Instead, I will say either “interesting thought” or “okay.” After listening fully, I might say “I don’t agree,” or “I agree.” Usually, no elaboration will be required.
When I do find it necessary to explain my actions and behaviors, I will wait till a time when the other person is willing to listen. Before doing so, I will ask and receive their permission. No exceptions.
When someone uses an annoyed or angry tone of voice when speaking to me, rather than defend myself, I will ask him if he is feeling okay.
If someone is hurtful, I will politely ask him to apologize. Doing so doesn’t count as defensiveness, just self-respect.
I will give people–even my partner–the freedom to dislike me at times, and to disagree with me often.
For the Fridge:
“I promise to listen first.”
“I promise to ask permission before telling my side of the story.”
I was learning. Matthew was learning. And yet, we had a long way to go; that much was clear to both of us. As we rounded the Year Three corner, another obstacle greeted us, though looking back, I’m not sure why it did, exactly. Was it because after two years of on-and-off tension we’d forgotten how to be comfortably in love? Was it because having solved several seemingly insurmountable problems, we were now expecting—even looking for—another?
Had we made annoyance a habit?
Whatever the origin of our latest issue, its nature was readily apparent: little mistakes or missteps were blown out of proportion, like tiny relationship land mines. When I repeatedly left the front door open while carting stuff to and from the car, Matthew furiously pointed out all the insects. When Matthew slipped his shoes off near the door, leaving them directly in my path, I picked them up and threw them across the room. When I scratched the car, Matthew was sarcastic and rude, and when Matt didn’t answer his cell phone, I sent him an angry text. In short: One of us would be annoying, and the other would get annoyed. Nothing too dramatic, but we needed a different coping mechanism.
Of course, there were the bigger fights, too, fights that were rarer than before but still awful. By that time, we’d learned not to yell most of the time, but it wasn’t a total solution.
Even when we were just talking, it felt terrible.
Fortunately, we had more to celebrate than fear. In a mere twenty-four months since becoming parents, we’d learned a lot about relationships. We’d learned how to laugh at ourselves. How to expect the best of each other. How to be nice. How to apologize. We’d learned how to bargain, how to nag the right way. How to talk without yelling. How to talk at all. The question now on my mind: How good was good enough?
How much patience, kindness, maturity, equanimity, selflessness and, well, logic could one reasonably expect from their partner?
Before parenthood took me by the collar and shook me up, I never thought to ask the question. “We treat each other well all the time,” I would’ve told anyone who did. “We don’t agree on everything, but we’re always nice about it.” But, to quote Genevieve, if you graduate parenthood with only one A, you probably got it in Humility. No longer did I assume my marriage was bullet-proof; weaknesses were now frequently recalled. And so, while Year One taught me how to love better, and Year Two, how to communicate my needs, Year Three taught me how to allow better—to accept Matthew as he was, and be at peace.
The argument that best represented our Year Three struggle began, as so many do, with a comment—one that at first seemed innocent enough. After three full months had passed without a mom-and-dad date, we had accepted a party invitation. We dressed up, then got the kids ready, too hurried to admire each other’s improved appearance. When we finally arrived at the daycare, we were late and stressed out, and not at all enjoying the experience thus far.
The woman at the front desk didn’t seem to notice. She smiled, welcomed Poppy and Harper and introduced them to the other kids. There was a cheerful goodbye, and when we got back in the car, relief came over us.
“It’s quiet,” I said.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Matthew replied. “They don’t cry all that much. But they’re really . . . loud.”
“They’re loud in our heads, even when they’re not talking or crying.”
Matthew laughed. “So true. Hon, I’m glad we’re doing this. Thanks for planning it.”
“You’re welcome. Why don’t we do it more often?”
And that’s when it happened: Matthew said something I wasn’t expecting, something that hurt me more than he could’ve predicted.
“I don’t know. Maybe because we haven’t been all that happy lately. We haven’t wanted to spend as much time together as we used to.”
My first thought: He doesn’t want to spend time with me? Has it really been that bad? Just when I thought things were getting so much better. I really wish he hadn’t said that.
Though I was hurt, I chose not to show it. I changed the subject, not wanting to ruin the night. And once we got to the party, I was glad I’d done so. In the presence of others, we came back to ourselves. We joked and talked, and were on each other’s side.
That night, before we went to sleep, I mentioned the comment again, but not in anger, exactly—more like in self-defense. I wanted to tell Matthew why I didn’t agree with what he’d said. I wanted to explain to him that after all the ups and downs he may have lost his perspective.
“Honey, what did you mean earlier today when you said we haven’t been happy lately?” I asked. “You said you haven’t been wanting to spend time with me. Did you mean it?”
“You mean what I said in the car?” Matthew said. “Hon, don’t be so sensitive. I didn’t mean I don’t ever want to hang out. I just meant that things have been rough.”
“But it’s not all bad, Matthew. We have mostly good days, you know. Don’t you appreciate all we’ve been through and how far we’ve come?”
“Yes,” Matthew said. “But for me, something’s still missing. I want to actually feel close to you.”
Here, I pulled away from him and sat up in the bed.
“Are you saying that you don’t? I feel like you’re looking only at what’s wrong between us, and ignoring everything else, all the good.”
“I know we’re not fighting all the time anymore, and I am glad about that. But we’re still struggling, you know.”
And that was when I started to cry. It was a quiet cry, the kind not easily detected in the dark. To hide it, I merely had to turn my face.
“We had fun tonight,” I said after a long, slow breath.
“Yes, we did.”
“So that’s at least a good sign.”
“Yeah. But we need to do better.”
“Wow. I had no idea, Hon. I really didn’t know you felt this way. You make it sound like I’m a bad wife.”
“You’re a really good mother, Rachel. And you’re a good wife, most of the time. But sometimes, you sort of forget about me.”
Matthew put his hand on my back, but I moved away, then let out a loud sob. I left the bedroom, and when Matthew followed, I went to the guest bedroom and shut and locked the door behind me. Then I stayed there the rest of the night with my thoughts.
So he thinks it’s all my fault that things aren’t perfect between us. Wow. How utterly predictable. I’m the one who planned our date tonight. What has he done lately to reach out? All he does is criticize and assign blame.
Can’t he at least see how hard I’m trying? Every day, I’m trying so damn hard. All I want for him is to be happy, and for us to be a happy family. I’m doing the work, and he’s just commenting on it.
Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance–The Key to Life, Love and Energy, John Gray:
Many of the differences between men and women are due to differences in hormones—both in their levels and in the ways they behave in their bodies.
When feeling stressed, men seek testosterone-raising and testosterone-releasing activities, such as problem-solving and quiet, talk-free rest. When feeling stressed, women seek oxytocin-raising and oxytocin-releasing activities, such as talking, bonding and care-giving.
Testosterone increases cortisol (the stress hormone) in women and oxytocin increases it in men.
Women aren’t cranky—their serotonin is depleted due to stress and fluctuating blood sugar levels.
Men aren’t lazy—they are chemically built to need more time off.
Women don’t prioritize chores over self-care—they choose to release oxytocin by taking care of the home environment.
Men aren’t insensitive—they don’t crave the bonding women do.
Women don’t overreact—they experience a larger response in the brain when under stress than men do.
Women don’t complain endlessly—they talk about their feelings at length in order to rebuild their relaxing oxytocin.
Men don’t procrastinate—they choose to rebuild their testosterone levels through rest. They put off doing chores until an emergency, at which point their testosterone kicks in and tells them to act.
Women don’t worry an unreasonable amount—they simply enjoy nurturing others and thinking about their needs.
Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstanding, Aaron T. Beck M.D.
Male and female communication styles are instinctively different.
Men don’t ask as many personal questions, feeling that doing so is intrusive. Women ask lots of questions to show they care.
Men are less responsive and “. . . more likely to challenge or dispute statements made by their partners, which explains why a husband may seem to be eternally argumentative.”
My Relationship Resolutions:
I will make Matthew’s alone time a priority.
I will give myself time-outs when I need them, too.
I will communicate clearly. I won’t wait for Matthew to offer breaks, compliments, words of appreciation or anything else; instead, I will ask him for them.
I will focus on solutions, not emotions. This is an easier kind of conversation for men to have.
I will talk about my feelings with my female friends more often than I do with my husband.
I will avoid the temptation to compare lives. Sure, the number of hours I work is higher than the number Matthew works. But I get to play with Poppy and spend time with friends. He has to go to an office. With a boss.
For the Fridge:
“I promise to focus on solutions, not emotions.”
“I promise to understand that your needs are real.”
After the First Trimester Tussle, I promised I’d forgive myself. And I did—but that didn’t solve everything. Though in my second three months of pregnancy my nausea and discomfort decreased significantly, the unease I felt about my marriage lingered.
Matthew and I were still treading water.
In the months following the argument, we stuck to our child care schedule. Yet no matter how fair things seemed on the surface, I couldn’t shake the feeling something was missing. Matthew was doing his part. He was taking Poppy out, helping with the cleaning. I could do my work without interruption. But he was withdrawn. He was distant. He watched the clock, checked the boxes.
He was just doing his duty.
Which is part of the reason that in late March, just two months after our worst fight ever, we had another that was nearly as bad.
It happened because of the dishes. Well—not just the dishes, maybe, but the dishes as well as my repeated requests for Matthew to take care of them. One evening, before doing what I thought of as a favor to him–taking Poppy to an art class for two hours during his scheduled Poppy time–I repeated my request yet again.
“The dishes, Hon, the dishes. They’re really getting bad. Can you do at least some of them while we’re gone?”
Matthew gave me a grim look and did not respond, so I sighed, packed a diaper bag and left with Poppy. I enjoyed our outing, but when I returned later that night, the dishes were still in the sink . . . and Matthew was on the couch watching TV.
Seeing this, anger. Waves, like before. I’m getting tired of this. I need a boat already. Where is it?
I didn’t find a boat that night. But I did find a log to grab onto–one just big enough to give me a short rest. Rather than mentioning my disappointment to Matthew, starting an argument I couldn’t win, I asked him to take Poppy out the following evening.
He agreed. I was relieved. But the following night, just before he walked out the door, he called something over his shoulder.
“Can you do the dishes while we’re gone?”
I didn’t reply, but he didn’t wait for me to, anyway. I heard footsteps, then a purposeful bang. Matthew had closed the door and left without saying goodbye, something that he knew I hated.
My first response: Gut check. Wow. That was rude. Why would he shut the door on me like that? Is he mad at me for asking him to do the dishes last night? How petty. Now we’re in a fight, and for what?
That evening at the restaurant, Matthew and Poppy dined on thick fries and a thicker steak, but home alone, I didn’t eat much. The meal I’d planned and the book I’d selected were postponed for another day and I lay in bed and wallowed instead. When Matthew returned, I decided once again to break my own rule.
I started an argument at night.
And it was bad. It was bad for all the reasons sudden nighttime fights are usually bad—uncontrollable emotion due to exhaustion and the freshness of the wound. Added to that, though, was the built-up resentment that I’d been unable to let go of for so long.
Simply put: I was out of control.
The scene went something like this: Matthew and Poppy got home. When they found me in bed, Matthew gave me the baby. With glazed-over eyes, I took Poppy and started to nurse. Then I started in on Matthew.
“It was my first night off in a week, and you left in a huff. How could you be so rude to me, Matt?”
“All I did was what you did, just the night before. You asked me to do the dishes on my night off.”
“Your night off? That was my night. I gave that one to you. And the dishes would’nt’ve taken the whole time.”
“But the dishes are your chore. They’ve always been your chore. It’s like now that I’m doing more with Poppy, your standards have just gotten even higher. You want me to start taking on more of the housework and you’re nagging me about it every day. I’m sticking to the schedule. How much more will you want from me?”
“The dishes are my chore? I don’t think so.” I got out of bed and set the baby on the floor. I was shaking.
Here, we rehashed our chore breakdown in detail, as well as our evening schedule. Twenty minutes of shouting later, we still differed in our perspectives. While Matthew felt I should take on the responsibility alone, I thought we should each wash what we used.
“Anyway,” I concluded, “This isn’t just about the dishes. It’s about how rude you were to me. You walked out on me, angry. You ruined my night. You really need to apologize for that.”
“Apologize? Not a chance. You should apologize. You’re the one who’s nagging me all the time.”
“And why wouldn’t I? If I don’t, you conveniently ‘forget’ what we’re doing that night. I have to practically beg you to keep your agreements.”
“Hey, that’s not fair. I would do it without being reminded. You just never give me a chance to.”
“Fine, Matthew, I’m sorry. I know I’ve been nagging. I just don’t know what else to do.”
“How about not being such a control freak? You barely talk to me except to ask me to help you with something. I get less grief from my boss.”
“When do I even see you? When do we have time for a conversation? You’re working all the time. You won’t even take all your vacation.”
“And you continue to make things harder on yourself, Rachel. You still don’t take naps. You still won’t get a babysitter so we can go out together.”
“You know how much work it is to find a babysitter? Oh, no, you don’t–you’ve never done it.”
“Well, it’s not as if I’m not doing other things. Ever since making our schedule, we’ve stuck to it. What more do you want from me?”
“I don’t know.”
I sat. I took a deep breath. “I don’t know, Matt. I don’t know. I want you to be nice, even when you’re in a bad mood. I want you to want to clean the house and be with Poppy, even when you don’t absolutely have to.”
“You want to change me.”
“Yes, I guess I do.”
“Thanks, Rachel. Thanks a whole lot.”
“No, Matt, that’s not what I meant. I meant . . . I don’t know what I meant. I really just want to be a loving, happy family.”
“Well, then, we have to spend family time together. But when? With you working and me taking Poppy out all the time? Is there even time?”
I picked up Poppy and held her to my breast again. She nuzzled into my chest.
Taken separately, most of the first-year fights Matthew and I had weren’t terribly significant; it was their accumulation that was the problem. As year two of parenthood began, though, the intensity increased and our recovery times did, too.
The First Trimester Tussle was one of our worst arguments of all time, and it was largely my fault. In addition to the apparent cause was the underlying one, namely: I was pregnant.
And I was miserable. I was miserable in a way I hadn’t been in years, before the baby, before ever meeting Matthew. Exhaustion, nausea, lower back spasms: my pregnancy pain cocktail tasted terrible. I even felt pregnant in my sleep.
My sixth week in, I gave up exercise. My seventh, I gave up healthy eating. By my ninth week, depression had fully set in, and everything was difficult, even conversation. Other than the requisite life management stuff and bare civilities, most of the words that exited my mouth were complaints.
Towards the end of that three-month period, myself, Matthew and Poppy went to my hometown to visit my family. Under normal circumstances, it would’ve been a happy occasion full of old favorites: favorite hotel, favorite restaurants, favorite scenic drives. This time, though, I dragged through the routines, and for some reason Matthew was nearly as sullen. And so, on the second night, as he and I lay in the hotel bed, I attempted some perfunctory compassion.
I asked Matthew what was wrong.
“Do you really want to know?” Matthew asked, placing his hand on my foot.
“Yes,” I said. “I really do.”
“Okay. Well, Hon, I’m sick of your complaining.”
Deep breath. In, then slowly out. In, then out again. Anger, sadness. Anger, guilt. Anger. Sadness. Deep breath.
“Okay,” I said. “So you don’t want me to talk about anything I’m feeling, what I’m going through? Is that it?”
“It’s just too much,” Matthew said, rubbing my foot. “I feel like I can’t take it anymore.” The only thing that saved us from the inevitable full-scale fight that night was that he said it nicely.
“But I’m trying,” I said. “I really, really am. You have no idea what this is like.”
“I know. But the complaining—does it help? Does it actually make you feel better? I don’t think it does. I think it makes it worse.”
I didn’t answer; instead, I turned my body away, loosening my foot from his hand. After several minutes, Matthew turned on the TV and found an old movie to watch. When it ended, he turned off the TV, then adjusted his pillow.
In the dark, I turned back towards him, then put his hand on my stomach. I held it there and rubbed it a bit.
“I’ll try harder,” I said in just-above-whisper volume. “I won’t complain so much anymore.”
It was a promise I didn’t keep for long.
The following day, Matthew returned home and went back to work, while Poppy and I stayed on. I hoped that the last two days would be better than the first, but it was not to be: they were worse. By the time the trip was over and I met Matthew at the airport, I wasn’t at my breaking point; I’d already slightly cracked.
“How did it go?” Matthew asked, greeting me with a kiss. Anger filled me. As if he cares. He doesn’t want to hear about it, and I told him I wouldn’t complain. There’s nothing I can do but lie or say nothing.
I shook my head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
He gave me a grim look and took one of my bags, then led me down the long hallway to the door. One moment down, a million more to go, I thought. And it wasn’t long before there was another.
“You’re quiet,” Matthew said as we left the terminal. “Did something happen after I left?”
Hmmm . . . ., I thought. He knows I’m mad, but he asked anyway. Points for that. I’ll try to calm down.
“Well, I’m not allowed to talk about it, am I?” I replied. Okay, that didn’t sound as nice as I’d hoped it would.
“I don’t know, Hon,” Matthew said. “Maybe not. I don’t know.”
It was not the right answer.
As soon as we got in the car I turned my face to the window, trying to hold myself together. By the time we exited the parking garage, though, I couldn’t stand it any longer; I spoke.
“After you left, my dad yelled at me, which pretty much ruined the rest of the trip. On the way to the airport, I got a speeding ticket. And the rental car company was closed when I got there so I couldn’t figure out how to return the car and we almost missed our plane. It was horrible.”
Matthew could’ve let it go. He could’ve given me some leeway. Instead, he sighed. “Hon. You didn’t even make it one hour.”
Second crack. Tears. Third crack. Shaking and sobs. Several minutes of this, and I felt shattered. The screaming that followed came not from my throat, but from somewhere much deeper inside.
The First Trimester Tussle wasn’t a single-day affair—not by a very long shot. The yelling lasted hours. The sarcasm, days. And the anger lasted nearly a month.
During this time, my terrible night thoughts visited regularly. And their themes were familiar. I can’t believe he actually said that, the narrative began. Can’t he even pretend to feel compassion? I’m pregnant, sick and hormonal, but I still have to be the strong one; he’s not picking up the slack.
Well, I’m stuck, now. Especially after having kids.That’s great. My life is ruined.
One night, feeling helpless against my inner rage, I made a healthy decision.
I called Gen.
“I’ve been mad at Matthew for a solid month,” I said.
“Yeah?” she said. “Tell me about it.”
“He’s been doing his stuff–his stuff with Poppy–the schedule stuff I told you about. But there’s this . . . undercurrent. I can’t forget the fight. At least, not for very long. I don’t know what to do. Do we go to counseling? Or do I just assume this is pregnancy hormones and it’ll pass?”
“Well, the fight was bad,” Gen said. “It might take a while to get over and you can’t expect to feel great mentally right now. I don’t know, Rachel. Marriage is so hard. It’s just hard to deal with another person all the time, even when you’re trying your absolute best. The good news is, most of this stuff you’ll forget soon enough. Probably much sooner, and much more thoroughly, than you think.”
As I considered this, she went on. “Do you even remember what your last few fights were about? The small ones, not the big ones.”
“What about a big fight that happened several years ago?”
“I guess not. Not right now, no.”
“I know you already apologized, Rachel. And I know you want Matthew to do the same. But he might not. And that’s okay. Sometimes, you just have to be the apologizer. Play that role. You’d be surprised how much it will help and how much will be forgotten. As for the emotions, they’re going to be there sometimes. My advice? Just put your head down and get through it.”
And so, that is what I did. I apologized to Matthew again for my moodiness and anger, even though I felt doing so was unnecessary, even unfair. I reminded myself how much my hormones were affecting me lately.
Lesson: Shamelessly Bargain (And Always Have a Bottom Line)
Book Notes and Quotes:
His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, Willard F. Harley, Jr.:
Marriage is transactional. “The more you give to your partner, the more they give to you.”
Couples have an “inner scoring device you probably never realized you had” that the author calls a Love Bank. Somewhere deep inside our (mathematically skilled) subconscious, we’re keeping track of each others’ balances, and we understand when we’re due payment, and when we owe. When the giving is roughly equal and both partners get their needs met, the relationship is satisfactory to both. When there’s unequal giving, though, the marriage runs into trouble—if not right away, then eventually. The goal, then, is to ensure your transactions even out as much as possible so that neither partner ever feels cheated.
Neale Donald Walsch on Relationships, Neale Donald Walsch:
Relationships don’t have to be a friendly (or not-so-friendly) game of tug of war. When disagreements arise and neither partner is willing to compromise, offering clear consequences takes care of the problem. An example: If one day your partner suddenly decides to take up smoking, and you aren’t okay with that, you don’t have to yell or nag. The solution is simple: You tell your partner that you love and respect them, but if they keep smoking in your home you’ll have to move out.
Parenting With Love and Logic, Foster Cline and Jim Fay:
Many parenting skills apply to other relationships, too, including friendship and marriage.
Effective parents don’t use anger, nagging and threats; instead, they offer choices. When kids try to argue, they don’t engage; instead, they say “I understand,” then repeat the choice.
Some examples of choices effective parents give: “Are you planning to be unkind for a while? If so, I’m going to spend some time away from you.” “If you hit, you lose.” “If you spend your allowance on something else, I won’t be able to pay your phone bill for you.”
My Relationship Resolutions:
I won’t over-romanticize marriage. My husband isn’t going to do whatever I want him to do just because he loves me; there has to be something in it for him, too. By the same token, I won’t be embarrassed to admit when I’m doing something for him in order to get something in return. Doing so is just part of my self-care.
When something isn’t working for me, I won’t nag. I’ll negotiate. I’ll communicate my needs clearly and allow him to do the same.
During negotiations, I’ll focus on solutions, not emotions. No anger. No accusations. No spinning off into fear. Instead, I will simply describe what I want, then discuss the matter till it’s resolved.
I will have clear and reasonable expectations. I will know what I really need from Matthew and what I’m willing to compromise on or give up.
I will have clear consequences. If Matthew doesn’t follow through on an agreement, I will look for a way he can make it up to me.
I will always have a bottom line. If Matthew doesn’t agree to giving me a certain amount of money or a certain amount of alone time, I will take it anyway and let him choose to either remain angry or accept it.
I will keep my end of the bargain.
I will demand a fair transaction. I won’t stay in an unhealthy relationship. I am not a martyr.
Most of all, I will remember to keep it simple. Relationships are hard—some of the time. But with clear communication, clear expectations and clear consequences, most of the time, they should feel pretty easy the rest of the time.
For the Fridge:
“I promise to negotiate, not nag.”
“I promise to focus mainly on solutions, not emotions.”
The fight was our most embarrassing one, occurring in a restaurant during a busy wedding celebration dinner. Almost as soon as we sat down, there was something between us, something we couldn’t seem to shake. At first, little things got to us: Poppy’s fussing in the high chair, throwing food, grabbing at our silverware. While I scolded gently, Matthew attempted bribe after bribe, pointing out that his technique was more successful. Poppy spilled her water, and interrupted every conversation, and by the time dinner came, I was ready to leave.
But of course, we could not leave.
Finally, dessert: peach pie and coffee and a port tasting at the bar. As the mood lightened, it happened: Matthew took a large forkful of the pie, and put it on Poppy’s plate.
“Matthew!” I said, a little too loudly.
“Rachel. It’s pie. It’s a treat.”
“I’m training her taste buds. You know how hard it is. It takes a lot of work to avoid unhealthy stuff.”
“Well, maybe it’s not worth it. Maybe it’s okay to give in every once in a while. Maybe you’re making your job too hard.”
“Oh, you’re blaming me now? For what? For trying to be a good parent? You’re blaming me that raising a kid is so hard?”
I glared at Matthew. He glared back. Then I looked around, noticing the people that were noticing us. After picking Poppy’s food scraps off of the floor and throwing them on the table, I escaped to the bathroom.
He breaks our rule, then embarrasses me about it? Wow. I can’t believe that just happened. These were some of the thoughts that rushed to mind as I looked in the mirror and washed my hands. How dare he say I make my job too hard, when he’s the one who’s making it so much harder? He acts like it’s my choice that I’m stressed out about Poppy. If he helped me more, it’d be a lot easier.
I took some deep breaths, then washed my face, and by the time I returned the check had been paid. My friends gave me sympathetic looks, then retreated to their cars. Matthew, though, was a little less well-mannered. We gathered up the baby and the baby supplies, and quietly walked out. On the way home, we got stuck in traffic.
I’m not going to stay mad, I’m not going to stay mad, I repeated to myself as the car slowed. How can I act in this situation that will make me proud of myself afterward? How can I talk to him about it honestly, while still being nice?
Immediately, I had my answer. It was all in the tone of voice. That’s what really mattered—not what I said.
Fucking eureka. I could say whatever I wanted, pretty much, as long as I used a respectful tone of voice.
Gathering scraps sympathy, much as I’d gathered Poppy’s leftovers, I took a deep breath and began.
“Matthew, I’m sorry I nagged you about the pie. I know you were just doing what you thought was best. I’m sorry if you thought I was accusing you of something.”
Matthew turned his eyes from the traffic and looked directly at me. He relaxed a bit, giving me a forced smile. “It’s not that you nagged me that I didn’t like. It’s that you always question my judgment. You try to make every decision about Poppy, and even when I have good ideas, you don’t listen. You think you know everything and I know nothing.”
“Really?” I asked. “But you don’t tell me many ideas. I’m always the one who has to take charge.”
“I don’t need to give you input on every little thing. But when I do, you should know it’s because it’s something I care about.”
I paused, taking this in. It made sense, actually. It wasn’t about the nagging. It was about respect.
Matthew went on. “How many times have I given you good advice, and you just kept ignoring it till it was obvious I was right? Remember sleep training? You put it off for so long, and now you’re so much more well-rested.”
“That’s true,” I said. “You are often right. And it sounds like you don’t think I know that. But Matthew, I do respect you. I know I’m a control freak and we don’t always agree on everything but please don’t ever question that. Okay?”
Matthew gave me a strange look, one I didn’t quite recognize. Then, I did. It was emotion. He knew I was angry and was restraining that feeling in order to . . . well, to be nice. And he appreciated it.
For the rest of the ride home, we were quiet—quietly grateful. The argument had turned into a good thing. The pie, the no pie—that’s not what this was about, we realized. It was about wanting to feel heard and loved.
Matt and I slept well that night. Then the following evening, after I’d thought it over a while, I decided to broach the subject—an uncomfortable one for Matthew—once again. I called him into the bedroom where I had been reading and told him I wanted to tell him something.
Matt stood in the doorway. “What is it?”
“You know, for everybody you love, the feeling is a little bit different,” I said. “Some people, you have to work at it a bit. But with you, I’ve never had to. I’ve never had to convince myself of anything. Ever since we met, I just loved you. I love you as close to unconditionally as I am capable of—and nothing that has happened between us has ever changed that. Not the arguments and disagreements—nothing. Not even a little. You are just someone I truly like and love.”
“Thank you, Rachel,” Matthew said. “Thank you. Really. That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“And I’m trying really hard to treat you this way, in a way that shows you this. I’m trying really hard every day.”
He sat on the bed next to me. “I love you, too. I really do. I’m sorry for the restaurant thing.”
“So our friends think we hate each other now, probably.”
“It’s fine. Just wait till they have kids. All judgment will be gone.”
And that’s how I learned my next important relationship lesson: it’s not the words you say that matter most. What matters is that the other person feels cared about and respected—even in the middle of an argument.
For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed, Tara Parker-Pope:
Seventy percent of the time, couple’s fights are never resolved–even among happy couples. No two people agree on everything all the time.
“To expect your husband or wife to agree with you on all things is an unrealistic burden to place on a marriage.”
The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, Shaunte Feldhahn:
Remember that your partner probably loves you a great deal. In one survey, the overwhelming majority of people said that they “care deeply” about their partners, but only four in ten believed that their partners felt the same.
“Once you believe your spouse absolutely cares about you . . . hurt, anger and resentment arise a lot less often.”
Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstanding, Aaron T. Beck M.D.:
“When it comes to talking out conflicts, again there is a sex difference. Many women, for example, take the attitude ‘The marriage is working as long as we can talk about it.’ Many husbands, on the other hand, have the view ‘The relationship is not working as long we keep talking about it.'”
My Relationship Resolutions:
I won’t overtalk. I won’t discuss every nuance of our relationship with Matthew. Men love their dogs for a reason.
I won’t expect too much. Matthew has the right to a bad day, and so do I. We can apologize and move on.
When something is bothering me a little too much, I’ll point it out nicely, once only, then drop the subject for a while. No big deal.
I will continue to maintain close same-gender friendships, as well as hobbies that may or may not include Matthew. If Matt is my whole life, every disagreement threatens my happiness. I will not let this happen.
Most important, I won’t overreact, ever. In fact, I will underreact. Even if at the time the problem seems like a big deal, I’ll trust we’ll figure it out eventually.
After that night, and until Poppy was about nine months old, things were decidedly better between Matthew and I. Though we still argued regularly, and the ends to those arguments were more truces than resolutions, they were very welcome truces indeed. Sometimes, I even dared to hope our relationship was back to normal—or at least on its way to getting there.
I should’ve known this was just the beginning of the adventure.
And there was another, even greater consolation to be had, and that, of course, was the baby.
From the very first night—the very first moment, really—I just loved being a mother. I loved nursing. I loved cuddling. I loved long car rides and walks to nowhere. I loved staring at Poppy’s face as she slept.
I loved that my job was loving.
Contrary to popular opinion, I told Genevieve, being a mom wasn’t the hardest job on earth. If it weren’t for the long hours and the sleep deprivation, it might’ve even been easy.
And so, even though I still remembered the hard times with Matthew that first year—the stress, the arguing, the frustration—it’s not those feelings that come to mind first when recalling that time in my life.
Mostly, I remember my baby.
The baby’s smile. Her dark curls. Her new discoveries, favorite songs. The way she drew admiring looks from total strangers wherever she went. The first time she sang, played with a ball, and didn’t cry when Mom left.
And that’s what Matthew remembers, too. He remembers falling in love.
Of course, the intensity of the experience of first motherhood wasn’t all the good-feeling kind; particularly between the sixth and twelfth months, negative emotions ran high, too. Poppy hated babysitters, and being left alone, even for a moment. And getting her to sleep was still difficult. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t love the work.
It was just a whole lot of work.
One evening, the exhaustion caught up to me. Matthew was working late, so to kill time I took Poppy to the mall. In a seating area there I let Poppy “off the leash,” so to speak, to explore the area as I rested. As the baby ran her hands over some scuffs on the floor, a woman stopped and stared at me in surprise.
“Aren’t you afraid she’ll get some horrible disease?” she asked.
And I very nearly lost my composure. To prevent a scene, I glared at her, saying nothing, until she took her disapproval elsewhere. Then I spent the next thirty minutes just trying to breathe.
Finally, it was almost time to meet Matthew for dinner. As expected, Poppy cried all the way home. When we arrived, I tried unsuccessfully to put her to sleep early, and when Matthew got home—even later than expected—I had no tension left, only sadness.
“Hi, Hon. How was your evening?” Matthew asked as he poked his head into the bedroom.
I didn’t even look at him.
“That rough, huh? What happened?”
I just shook my head. I could speak, but nothing in me wanted to.
Matthew took Poppy and started pacing the room, singing a song, while I curled up on the bed. Twenty minutes passed, and after Poppy finally drifted off, I was ready to tell him how I felt.
My voice was hushed to the point of unfamiliarity. “Why does she cry so much?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Matthew said. “I’m sorry, Rachel. I love you.”
It was the right response.
He put a hand on my shoulder, then put Poppy next to me and curled up on my other side. That night whenever Poppy woke up, he picked her up and rocked her, allowing me to sleep without interruption.
With that first big fight after having our baby an invisible barrier was breached. Gradually, over the course of our first half-year of parenthood, our arguments became not exactly frequent, but much less unexpected than before. Granted, they were quiet fights, usually–no yelling, no slamming doors.
But they were definitely still fights.
On the surface, the topics were few—sort of a greatest hits situation: Matthew’s long hours at work, my long days at home, undone chores. But now we had an even bigger problem: even when we weren’t actually arguing, there was an atmosphere of impatience.
In other words: we were moody.
Day by day, small annoyances were piling up, much like the dishes in our increasingly neglected kitchen sink. Misplaced belongings. Forgotten diaper bags. Car trouble. All the things that get under our skin even when we aren’t already on edge were accumulating, taking on greater significance for their number. Matthew’s bad attitudes caused my bad attitudes and vice versa, until we both felt we were the one being wronged the most. As a new, often overwhelmed mom I desperately wanted Matthew to be the strong one, to put a smile on his face and “take one for the team.” But that isn’t how relationships work, is it? I had to be the better one, the more enlightened one, the more mature one. Me. If I wanted anyone to. Only me.
And so, as month five approached, the tension that had once been rare and easily forgotten was now our default mode; grumpiness had become our new normal. This scared me, and rightly so; I’d always said I’d never be one of those wives, the kind that seeths quietly and avoids looking into her husband’s eyes. When I started actively seeking the hidden significance of every questionable remark, looking for reasons to be mad, I knew it was time to make an adjustment.
That adjustment came on a warm summer morning, when Matthew was mowing the lawn and Poppy was sleeping. I was using the quiet time to clean the kitchen and to reflect a bit. Okay, not reflect. Worry.
I’m avoiding the big fights most of the time, I thought. I’m keeping a positive outlook on Matthew’s character, giving him the benefit of the doubt. And yet, the annoyance is still there; underneath it all, I’m still angry. How can I learn how to just let the little stuff go?
I turned to the dishes, rinsing them hastily and placing them in the machine while watching Matthew out the front window. He was wrestling with the push mower, the one I opted to buy over the gas-powered kind, which meant that whatever went wrong with it would be my fault.
Here we go, I thought. He seems frustrated. He’s probably going to take it out on me.
Unfortunately, the hasty assumption wasn’t wrong.
Matthew let the mower fall from his outstretched hands. Then he kicked it and stormed toward the house.
Unbenownst to him, however, I was ready; in the seconds it took for him to get to the front door, I ‘d come up with a plan. Recalling my desire to reduce the annoyance that was clawing at us both, I decided that no matter what, I wouldn’t overreact.
I wouldn’t get defensive. I wouldn’t make it a thing.
I would just let him be mad, and say nothing.
“Whatever possessed you to buy a manual mower?” Matthew said, predictably, entering the kitchen. “With our huge lawn, and all our pine trees? What a ridiculous waste of money that thing was. I’m getting rid of it. Today.”
My internal reaction: bristling, hot-headed self-justification. My external reaction: do I flatter myself to say I was bemused? I didn’t frown, didn’t smile. I just looked at him and tilted my head. Maybe I raised my eyebrows, too.
Matthew paused a moment, waiting for the response that didn’t come. Then he stormed down the hall to the TV room. I took a deep breath—one, then another. I was behaving well, but I was still upset.
Why is he blaming me for the lawn mower not working? I fumed. He’s being seriously irrational. He’s taking something small then blowing it out of proportion at my expense. It makes me feel so disrespected.
I placed the last dish in the machine. Then I went outside to retrieve the mower.
It looked as abandoned as I felt.
For the next half hour, I struggled through the tall grass, picking out the pine cones when they got stuck. As the lawn slowly improved in appearance, my sour mood shifted, too, and by the time I returned the mower to the garage, I had some perspective.
After washing up, I joined Matthew in the TV room and smiled at him over the screen.
“Don’t let the lawn mower get the best of you, Hon,” I said. Hearing this, Matthew’s mood changed perceptibly.
“Thanks for finishing up,” he said. And then he smiled. It was his way of apologizing, and I knew it.
What was I so worried about, anyway? I wondered. My husband is wonderful, and he loves me. Yes, he was disrespectful. And emotional, and unfair.
The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, Shaunte Feldhahn:
“Don’t follow the traditional advice to never go to bed angry. By all means, crawl in and sleep! Be angry, feel your feelings fully, think it over a while. Then talk about the problem when you’re a bit more level-headed.”
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Daniel J. Siegel:
Our brains are hard-wired for conflict and danger. Due to our heritage of difficult survival conditions, we’re often on the lookout for anything that threatens our sense of well-being—even in our relationships.
When people get mad, the anger part of the brain (the amygdala) becomes highly active. This activity then partially overrides or obscures the activity in the places of the brain that are responsible for logic and reason. “I wasn’t acting like myself,” then, isn’t just a lame excuse for bad behavior. There is a lot of truth to it. Therefore, it’s best to wait out the anger before discussing a problem with your spouse.
For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed, Tara Parker-Pope:
“The study showed that the nuanced first few minutes of an argument can set the tone for the entire fight, determining whether the discussion will be productive or harmful to your relationship. In fact . . . just watching the first three minutes of the conversation helped [researchers] predict which couples would stay married and who was headed for divorce during the next six years.”
“Marriage studies show that one of the main differences between a good fight and a bad fight is whether it begins with a complaint or a criticism . . . Couples who engage in a harsh or brusque start-up–leveling harsh words and spiteful criticisms–are headed for trouble. Couples who launch conflict discussions carefully and gently are more likely to have a productive argument that strengthens, rather than weakens, their relationship.”
“Speak in a slow, quiet voice. (No gritted teeth or seething tone.) Look your partner in the eyes. . . . If needed, take a time-out to collect your thoughts.”
Use key phrases that help de-escalate an argument, such as: “It sounds like you’re saying,” “It seems like,” “What if,” “I know this is hard for you,” “What are your thoughts?” and “What are the next steps for us?”
Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d, Candace Pert
Emotions are real. They’re a molecular entity. Once a feeling is established, it won’t die–give up its place in your body–without a fight.
Cell receptors and the signals that direct them are, together, the “molecules of emotion.” There is also a ligand–a protein precursor–for each. The receptors wiggle and send vibrations to attract the proper ligand, like a lock and key mating. These vibrations and constant responses form a continuous electrical current throughout your body.
When cell receptors don’t get the right ligands–the proteins that fit them to create the emotion you’re used to creating–the hypothalamus signals thoughts that trigger that emotion.
To rewire your brain to get angry less often, regularly visualize a different outcome, idea or emotion, and “. . . train yourself to come from the highest possible ‘observer’–the subpersonality that’s most closely associated with the divine, or the higher self.” Do this through meditation or prayer.
My Relationship Resolutions:
I will perform a pre-fight cost benefit analysis. Is the best possible outcome worth having the argument?
I will start no unnecessary fights. Simple as that. When I get mad at Matthew about something minor, I’ll just let it go. The resentment won’t kill me; to the contrary, it’ll die out more quickly.
If I decide the fight is worth it, I will wait a while before bringing it up.
Rather than fighting, I will learn how to just talk. No snapping. No sarcasm. No condescension. No crankiness, even. I might even find space for a joke.
I will focus on solutions.
I will use “I” statements.
I will not expect a verbal apology. I will understand that sometimes, apologies are disguised as actions rather than words.
Above all, I will use a kind, respectful tone of voice.
For the Fridge:
“I promise not to discuss an issue unless it’s worth the tension it will cause and unless I’ve given it some time.”
In the weeks following our first big fight after having a baby—the Post-Baby Brawl we’d been waiting for—my fearful nighttime thoughts were more frequent and disastrous than ever. First, I returned to the previous theme of questioning Matthew’s character: Matthew is a selfish person, a taker, inconsiderate in the extreme. But I found even those thoughts could be topped.
My whole life is a sham. I go around pretending that everything is okay, but it’s not; a lot of days, I’m barely hanging on. I’m never going to solve my relationship problems. It’s impossible. He will never change.
One afternoon about a month after the argument, I put Poppy in the carrier and took her to the nearest running track for an easy, undistracted walk. I didn’t want to think about the scenery or where to turn next; I just wanted to focus on my thoughts. When we arrived, the park was empty, and I decided to take the opportunity to speak my feelings out loud, try to untangle them.
“How does everyone do it?” I asked myself. “There’s got to be something I’m missing. My friends, people I know—they have kids and recommend it. They seem happy with their partners despite the challenges. What do they know that I haven’t figured out yet? Is there something here I need to learn?
“I just feel so lost. I don’t know what to do, how to get through to him. It’s obvious to me that he needs to do more. But there are only so many different ways I can ask him. I’m angry so often, and I hate it.”
Then a thought came. A feeling, really, much like the one that came a month prior. Like its predecessor, it came with a rightness, with a force of knowing—and even with a bit of peace.
“What if you tried not showing Matthew your anger?” it said. “What if you just had a lighthearted conversation? There is no rule that says you have to be honest all the time about your feelings. You can fake it a little–smile, make a joke. Even when you’re mad, you don’t have to fight. You can say nothing, or just talk.”
I rounded the next curve in silence, letting the thought sink in. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Hadn’t I always heard that it’s good for couples to fight, to vent their feelings before they grew into resentment? If I never yelled at Matthew, how would he know that he hurt me? What would motivate him to do better?
Soon, good sense set in. Of course, I thought. A smile. A joke. Learning how to just talk. I can show Matthew how I feel without yelling.
I can be mad, but not fight
For the rest of the walk, I contemplated the advice further, and by the time I reached home, I had a plan. In addition to always assuming the best of Matthew, I would attempt to never show him my anger—to only either speak nicely or be silent.
Though the months that followed proved the plan difficult, even impossible, to carry out flawlessly, I never stopped believing in its effectiveness–and the more I practiced it, the easier it became. Far from adding to my resentment, it helped me keep my perspective.
Just talking, it turned out, was pretty awesome.
Why didn’t anyone teach me this sooner? I wondered. I guess there’s a point to marriage after all.
Two months into motherhood, I still hadn’t gotten the hang of co-parenting. Though my hormones had largely normalized and the night crying had stopped, the tension between Matthew and I was still there. It came in waves—small ones, mostly, with the occasional whitecap. Though I did my best to withstand them one by one, it wasn’t enough; I wanted to swim.
And then, the argument I’d been waiting for—that Matthew and I both, probably, knew was coming—finally happened.
It started, predictably, in the evening, when we were most tired and vulnerable. Despite the recent improvement in our feelings toward each other and in our overall communication, our core post-baby issues hadn’t been addressed yet.
We still had some stuff to figure out.
Little by little, the frustration returned. Then the mouse took his place at the end of the rope, and pulled, and pulled again, and I came down with the flu.
It wasn’t the worst flu I’d ever had. But it was one of the most unpleasant, if only because I couldn’t lie in bed. I had to hold. I had to walk. I had to hit the damn button on the damn musical toy, staving off moment by moment a crisis of boredom from a child that couldn’t yet work her own hands.
I had to mother a newborn while sick.
When I stopped any of these things, the crying started up again. And of course, it wasn’t just crying. It was that wailing, tragedy-has-already-struck-and-I-don’t-want-anyone-to-forget-to-save-me cry that serves our little humans so well.
Since it was a Saturday, Matthew was home all day, but unfortunately he wasn’t much help. “Every time I pick her up, she just cries louder,” he’d complain after what seemed like mere minutes of carrying. “She’s probably hungry. She needs to nurse.”
Then he’d hand Poppy back, and sit back on the couch.
Uncomfortable minutes became painful hours, and hours became a morning and an afternoon. Finally, sometime after the sun went down, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore.
I decided I’d have to start a fight.
I couldn’t just go to the bedroom without Poppy, leaving her with Matthew for a while. I couldn’t calmly draw a bath and lock the door behind me. I couldn’t gently ask Matthew to take Poppy out or, God forbid, simply talk to him about my feelings. All those choices were the choices of emotionally stable people, people with full reserves of self-control.
And right then, I wasn’t one of them.
So, I did the only thing left for me to do. I stormed into the TV room, threw a toy on the floor, and, for the first time, screamed at him.
“Get off the couch! Help me with the baby! Get in here and play with Poppy!”
Matthew looked at me with surprised eyes, then with cold ones. Then he looked away without responding.
“Get up! Get up!” I said again, walking in front of him. “Get over here and take the baby right now!”
Matthew set his jaw tighter, still saying nothing. Seeing this, I crossed another line I hadn’t crossed with him before: I swore.
“You are an asshole!” I yelled. “You are an asshole! There, I said it! Finally! I am sick, and overworked, and you’re just watching TV, acting like it’s not your problem!
“I am mad at you! I am mad at you! I am mad at you!”
The screaming was new. The cursing was new. But the most significant part of the outburst was the end. It was the first time I’d ever told Matthew, outright, that I was mad at him.
It was the first time I admitted there was a problem in our relationship.
Matthew stood up. He went to the playroom in silence and sat with the baby on the floor. I stormed off to the bedroom, slamming the door as loudly as possible. Then I lay in bed, feeling even more miserable than before.
Clearly, this fight isn’t over, I knew. But how best to talk it out? Should I wait till tomorrow when I’m feeling less emotional? Or should I go talk to him right now?
I tried to read but couldn’t focus on the book. Then I made a cup of tea I didn’t drink. Finally, I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night avoiding the problem, distracting myself; what I really wanted to do was to talk.
I really, really needed to talk.
I went to the playroom and sat on the floor against the wall a comfortable distance from Matthew and Poppy. When after a long moment Matthew finally looked at me accusingly I looked back sadly and started to cry.
“Honey, what’s going on?” Matthew asked, hurt. I was relieved to hear his voice.
“I know, Hon, I know. I snapped. I shouldn’t’ve said what I said. But really, I am so beyond my limit.”
“I know I’ve told you this before. But I don’t think you really understand: I am so far, far beyond my limit. I’m exhausted. I’m working and sleeping and nothing else. And sometimes you don’t even try to help.”
“What are you talking about?” Matthew asked, bouncing Poppy in his lap. “I help almost every time you ask. Don’t you notice?”
I paused. He does? “You do?”
“Wow. Wait a second while I rearrange my entire mental recording of our past few months.”
“Yeah, do that.”
“You think you help me a lot? And how often is a lot to you?”
“Often. A few times a day.”
I took a deep breath. Not only doesn’t he help me enough—he doesn’t even realize it, I thought. He really doesn’t have a clue.
“And what do you consider helping?” Another breath. Then another.
“The diapers and the cooking and the grocery shopping and playing with the baby when you need me to? You don’t think I help? Wow. I feel so unappreciated.”
“You feel . . . unappreciated?” I said. “You feel . . . unappreciated.” And from that moment on in the conversation, nothing new was said. The conversation that followed was very long, and very circular, and the resolution we came to far from adequate.
I pointed out what I felt was patently obvious: the number of hours I spent every day with the baby, the lack of significant breaks. Matthew defended his position–didn’t give an inch–which, to me, was more than wrongheaded. It was betrayal.
“And here this whole time I’ve been so proud of myself, sacrificing so much for our daughter. I’ve missed so much sleep. I’ve done almost everything for her. And you think changing a few diapers actually compares? I have never felt more unloved in my life.”
Matthew pointed out that though I was with Poppy during the day, he couldn’t be; he was at work. “Anyway, we talked about this. We decided I’d take the baby every night while you make dinner. And that is exactly what I’ve been doing.”
“Don’t you get it, Matthew? Don’t you see what I’m going through? When you take the baby in the evening, I’m still working; I’m getting dinner. Then you go off and have your time alone, but when do I ever get a break?”
“You never ask for a break.”
“I never ask for a break? Isn’t it obvious that when your wife is sick, she could use a little help? Isn’t that just human decency and compassion? Besides, when I do ask, you get moody about it, and I feel like even though you say you’ll help, you don’t want to. Sometimes it’s just easier not to ask.”
“Well, you’ve been pretty moody lately, too, you know. It’s not fun for me, either.”
I shook my head. “Wow. So an hour a day of help is enough in your mind. You really have no idea.”
“If you need more help, Hon, you need to ask for it.”
“Fine. I will. Remember this conversation when I do, though, and you say no or get annoyed.”
“Fine with me.” A long pause. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
That night as we lay next to each other, not touching, I surprised myself; I decided to move my legs over and rub them against Matthew’s. Because, in spite of everything, in spite of my anger and my disappointment, I was glad that he was there.
“I’m going to try to communicate better with you,” I told him in the dark.
“And I will help you more with Poppy,” he replied.
Then we both said “I love you,” and went to sleep.