Anger is natural. It’s a normal part of life. But we don’t want to experience it for longer than necessary. Fortunately, our emotions aren’t entirely out of our control; by questioning our negative beliefs, our accompanying negative feelings become less persistent and less convincing. There are many methods for doing so, but the one with the most evidence behind it is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
In The Feeling Good Handbook, one of the most-read books on the subject, David Burns details the process. I highly recommend this and other CBT books, or working with a therapist who uses the method regularly. (There are also CBT worksheets and instructions online.)
In spite of the prodigious amount of literature devoted to the subject, CBT is a simple, intuitive process. Working either with a therapist, or alone with a journal, you identify your most anxious, fearful or hateful thoughts. Then you examine it objectively, asking yourself if the thought is entirely true, or if it’s untrue or just partly true–an exaggeration. By the time you’re done, you’ve found at least a few more positive thoughts to counteract the negative ones, and as a result, your depression or anxiety is lessened. In a perfect world, every child would be taught the technique in school, and every adult would practice it regularly.
Notes and Quotes:
“If you want to break out of a bad mood, you must first understand that every type of negative feeling results from a specific kind of negative thought. Sadness and depression result from thoughts of loss…”
“If you say, ‘I just can’t help the way I feel,’ you will only make yourself a victim of your misery–and you’ll be fooling yourself, because you can change the way you feel.” . . . “If you want to feel better, you must realize that your thoughts and attitudes–not external events–create your feelings.”
“I don’t believe you should try to be happy all the time, or in *total* control of your feelings. That would just be a perfectionistic trap. You cannot always be completely rational and objective.”
CBT Steps: One: Describe the upsetting event or situation. Two: Write down your negative feelings about the event or situation. Three: For each feeling statement, write down the automatic thoughts, the distortions and the rational responses that match it.
Beware of the ten most common forms of twisted thinking, namely: all-or-nothing thinking; overgeneralization; using a mental filter; discounting the positive; jumping to conclusions; magnification; emotional reasoning; ‘should’ statements; labelling/name calling; personalization; and blame. When these show up in your thinking, notice the essential falsehood it gives rise to.
“Ten Ways to Untwist Your Thinking: Identify the distortion; examine the evidence; the double-standard method; the experimental technique; thinkng in shades of gray; the survey method; define terms; the semantic method; re-attribution; cost-benefit analysis.”
“From a practical point of view, how can you know when you should accept your feelings, when you should express your feelings, and when you should change them? The following questions can help you decide: How long have I been feeling this way? Am I doing something constructive about the problem, or am I simply brooding and avoiding it? Are my thoughts and feelings realistic? Will it be helpful or hurtful if I express my feelings? Am I making myself unhappy about a situation that’s beyond my control? Am I avoiding a problem and denying that I’m really upset about it? Are my expectations for the world realistic? Are my expectations for myself realistic? Am I feeling hopeless? Am I experiencing a loss of self-esteem?”
“Troubleshooting Guide: Have I correctly identified the upsetting event? Do I want to change my negative feelings about this situation? Have I identified by Automatic Thoughts properly? Are my Rational Responses convincing, valid statements that put the lie to my Automatic Thoughts?”
The book also gives many other specific strategies for dealing with depression, anxiety, phobias, communication issues and much more.
I love a good journalist. Tara Parker-Pope is one of those. She’s done her research on the research, and now presents us with a thorough examination of the science of marriage. Here are my notes on For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed.
Contrary to popular opinion, “. . . marital stability appears to be improving each decade.”
Modern marriage is sometimes called the “soul mate marriage,” and the expectations on it are high.
“. . . Strong marriages have at least a five-to-one daily ratio of positive to negative interactions.”
Scientists have found a genetic link for monogamous and non-monogamous behavior.
Hormonal contraceptives can cause women to choose the wrong partner, blunting her natural instincts.
Marriage is a protective factor for colds, cancer, heart attacks, dementia and more.
The longer a relationship continues, the less sex women crave. “Researchers from Hamburg-Eppendorf University in Germany interviewed 530 men and women about their relationships and interest in sex. They found that 60 percent of the thirty-year-old women studied wanted sex ‘often’ at the start of a relationship. But within four years this figure dropped to fewer than half, and by twenty years, only one in five women wanted regular sex. The sharp decline in sexual interest wasn’t seen among men in the study.”
Researchers found that the way a partner describes how they met their spouse–whether their story of the event is tinted with optimism or with negative or regretful overtones–predicts their future with that spouse. (Happy couples also say “we” or “us” more often than unhappy ones.)
Eye rolling is one of the most reliable body language indicators of troubled marriages.
“Marriage researchers say that 70 percent of the time, the conflicts that arise between couples are never resolved. In one study, couples who were tracked for a decade were still fighting about the same things they had been arguing about ten years earlier . . . The lesson, say a number of noted marriage researchers, is that compatibility is overrated.”
“Studies show that women tend to initiate about 80 percent of fights. This doesn’t mean women are to blame for causing all the trouble in marriages. It just means they are more willing to take the emotional risk of trying to resolve problems.”
Physiologically, women respond with greater calm to conflict than do men.
Successful arguments often start with a complaint. Unsuccessful ones often start with a criticism.
Successful arguers know how to de-escalate a fight using calm tones and non-hostile body language.
New parenthood lowers marital satisfaction greatly, though largely temporarily.
A fair division of household chores is one of the best ways to avoid marital tension.
Often, women chose to take on more responsibility at home because they don’t want to give up control. They also care more about and are better at deciphering details.
Arguments between same-sex couples seem to contain fewer verbal attacks and less controlling behavior.
Couples who stay married often marry after the age of twenty-five, are not college dropouts, wait ten years before deciding whether or not to divorce, marry someone with similar interests and background, and marry someone whose parents are still married.
It’s the marriage book I recommend more often than any other: Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance–The Key to Life, Love and Energy by John Gray. If you are uncomfortable with frank discussions of innate gender differences, this might not be the book for you; otherwise, have at it. It’s practical advice with a good bit of hard science to back it up.
Notes and Quotes:
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. When feeling stressed, women seek oxytocin-raising and oxytocin-releasing activities.
For men, testosterone is released during work-like, problem-solving activities and raised during rest/zone-out/no-talking time.
Women are different. “Testosterone feels good to her because it gives her a sense of power and capability and makes her feel sexy, but it doesn’t lower her stress level.” It may even raise it.
Instead, women seek oxytocin raising activities—primarily talking and bonding—and oxytocin-releasing activities—care giving.
Men are different. “Oxytocin feels good to him, increasing his tendencies toward trust, empathy, and generosity, but … [it] doesn’t lower his stress level.” it may even raise it by lowering his testosterone.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is only good for them in a true emergency. As a daily response to modern life, it prevents people—both men and women—from maintaining healthy levels of their other needed hormones because the body prioritizes the making of it. Thus, when we’re stressed out, they feel the need to engage in even more oxytocin-raising and -releasing activities (for women), and even more testosterone-raising and -releasing activities (for men). Soon, their schedules are fuller than ever, and they become even more stressed out.
Tomorrow morning, you are going to have to wake up. You’re going to have to take the baby to the park and to the playdate you have scheduled, and pretend that everything is fine. How are you going to get through it? How in the world are you going to get out of bed, knowing the foundation of your life—your marriage—is crumbling?
Though the hormonal needs of individuals vary widely (some women need more testosterone than other women and some men need more oxytocin than other men), these needs explain the presence of traditional gender roles. Women enjoy nurturing others, then being nurtured through conversation and relationship, while men enjoy working and problem-solving, then spending time alone to rest.
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 want to avoid sex—they need oxytocin-building, caring words and actions in order to get in the mood.
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.
No married couple gets everything right. Here, a few pieces of marital wisdom that didn’t make it into Matthew and Rachel’s story.
1. Figure out the money thing. Different plans work for different people. The key is to do just that: plan.
2. Figure out which kind of fight you’re having. Is the fight about what it seems to be about–money, in-laws, whatever–or is it about feelings and egos getting wounded? If it’s the latter, deal with the feelings first. Then circle back to the mother-in-law’s casserole catastrophe.
3. Make it into a joke. I hinted at this one several times, but seriously–no, not seriously–this is funny stuff. Marriage is funny. Kids are hilarious. If you can laugh even while fighting, resentment and tension lessen considerably. (The kids will appreciate it, too.)
4. Keep the chores separate. Yours are yours and theirs are theirs. This minimizes chore fights and nagging considerably.
5. Figure out what you can control and what you can’t. Marriage is the Serenity Prayer all over the place.
6. Use “I” statements. You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: No matter how unnatural or uncomfortable it feels, make it about you. After all, it is about you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be dealing with it. Right?
7. Don’t punish your partner. They won’t learn a darn thing through it except to escalate and solidify their bitterness and anger. No one wants to feel like the bad guy. Whenever possible, make them into the good guy and yourself into the good but struggling guy. They’ll become the person you show them in your mirror.
8. Don’t yell. Ever. What is the point?
9. Most important, notice the small resentments and don’t let them grow any bigger. Seeing a few of my married-couple friends repeatedly pass entire evenings together barely looking into each other’s eyes caused me to suspect the discomfort in their relationships. I realized that I never wanted my marriage to get to a place where we could no longer really look at each other.
What would you add to this list? Let me know and if it’s not already in the book, I’ll consider adding it here.
Some of the advice in Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby is pretty standard stuff. Some of it, however, is not. Here, a lesson-by-lesson Q and A to help clarify a few of the more nuanced suggestions.
Lesson: Change Your Story
What if my partner is regularly rude, selfish and impatient? Should I still change my story about him?
What do you mean by regularly? Does your partner treat you well most of the time? Do you usually feel good when you’re around him? Does he bring much more happiness than unhappiness to your life? Is he holding up his end of the bargain? These are the questions you need to answer. Only you.
But maybe he really is just a bad person.
He’s not a bad person. He’s a person. Sometimes people appreciate you, and love you, and understand you, and sympathize with you, and you feel so lucky to be their friend. And other times, they get annoyed, and they get annoying, and they lose their perspective, and they try to find someone to blame. That’s just the way of things. When you relax your character judgments, you see more clearly. You are more able to make decisions about your relationship based on your needs, your feelings and your mental health.
Lesson: Don’t Fight. Just Talk Instead.
My husband suffers from chronic depression and anxiety. He is on edge a lot. It isn’t unusual for him to be in a bad mood as soon as he gets home from work. What is the best way to handle a bad temper?
First, don’t be afraid of your husband. Anger is often about control. Sometimes people yell because they feel out of control of a situation and want to merely let out the frustration they feel. Other times they yell as a way to intimidate others into letting them have their way. This is not a judgment; we all do it, and most of us do it regularly. However, anger is a sign of weakness. Yelling is the weak person’s way to feel strong. Know this, and know this with compassion.
Second, don’t respond to anger. Say nothing—nothing at all. Don’t apologize for or justify your partner’s temper, either to others or to yourself. Don’t pretend you agree with his perspective or placate him. Just let him be. Fully accept, embrace and acknowledge that this is not a good or justifiable quality, but merely a common one.
Say nothing. Let the silence be not a resentful one, though, but one that comes from a deep sense of self-respect; a caring, dignified silence.
A lot of the time, that’s what I do. I just ignore it and let it go. Other times I engage with him—either to agree with him and make him feel better or to defend myself, if the anger is directed at me.
No sometimes. No engagement in that moment. No response, other than a blanket statement like, “I hear you,” and that only if he specifically asks for it. He will be astounded at your self-control.
But then how will anything get solved? How will we work through the problem?
If the problem is just his problem—his anger problem—there is nothing at all for you to do other than offer an example of another way of being, praying for him, and suggesting he get outside help if needed. If the problem is a family or relationship one, simply wait to discuss it when neither of you are upset. It’s a lot more fun that way, and much more productive, too.
What about expressing your anger? Isn’t doing so a hugely important thing to do for your own mental health?
Admitting your anger to yourself is, I believe, hugely important. But talking about it with other people is often unnecessary (except in a self-controlled, reasonable way). Imagine being the kind of person who is able to deal with all of her anger, resentment and negativity internally, who doesn’t blame others for it or play the victim. Do you like that image? Maintaining your self-respect is reason enough to observe your pain in your own quiet heart rather than exploding at your partner.
One night after dinner I asked my husband to help me with the dishes. He said he would, and started doing them, but after a little while he stopped. I finished sweeping the floor, then started getting the baby ready for her bath. Then I asked my husband if he was going to finish the dishes. He said, “You said you were going to help but never did.” I said, “Can’t you see that I’ve been cooking and cleaning for over an hour?” He never finished the dishes or apologized. Now I’m mad at him. What do I do?
Why did you ask him to help you with the dishes, if what you really wanted was for him to do the dishes? Maybe this was just a communication issue. Say exactly what you want, even if the request is less attractive that way. If you want, tell him what you will do, too. Something like, “Can you do the dishes, Hon, so I can finish sweeping up and get the baby in the bath?”
Your fight wasn’t about whether or not he did the dishes. Your fight was about your feeling unappreciated or unloved. Know the difference, and deal with the real issue first. Tell him that you don’t feel loved in this moment, and ask him to acknowledge all the work you were doing.
Remember: Always assume his motives are good. Don’t start the inner monologue about his lack of character. And don’t hear insults where insults aren’t spoken. Instead, hear need— tiredness, stress, sadness—or just his desire to feel loved, too.
Chapter Four: Don’t Make It Into a Big Deal
Can you give me another example of how to pretend something isn’t a big deal? Is it just about ignoring the little stuff, or what?
No. It’s partly that, but it’s also about having a bit of fun with the process.
When something is bugging my husband and I know that it’s a temporary thing–a bad mood, tiredness or whatever–I use the opportunity to practice what I preach in this book: being nice, not getting angry, keeping my perspective. Here is sort of what that looks like: First, I don’t take hold of the rudeness he’s offering me. If he continues to offer it, I say something like, “Hon, are you okay?” Usually, that diffuses the situation pretty quickly. On the rare occasion on which it doesn’t, though, and he’s actually mad at me, he might explain what’s bothering him. That’s my chance to either talk it through or tell him that I love him but I’m choosing not to do what he wants me to do.
I’m a pretty serious person. I tend to be a little more like Rachel the list-maker than Genevieve the intuitive. How can I learn to not sweat the small stuff?
Control freaks do well to find other outlets for their passion. Do you have at least a few other close friendships? Do you have at least one hobby you really love? Your partner shouldn’t be your only source of endorphins.
Also remember that the whole letting go thing feels weird at first; when you’re emotional, your instinct is to directly deal with the situation. After a while, though, as talking about your relationship issues becomes less the norm than the exception, you begin to settle into a habit of ignoring stuff that starts you both spinning.
You become more at peace with peace.
What if we never get there? What if we never figure out how to be “comfortably in love” again?
Relationships aren’t always fun and easy. But they should be a lot of the time. If yours isn’t, you’re either not a good match—water and oil—or you’re really seeking out problems. Stop the problem-making habit and start a fun-making habit. If you do lots of enjoyable stuff together, little problems tend not to grow.
And definitely don’t get too much into his emotional business unless he shares it with you. Remember that your partner’s happiness is his job—not yours. Be the best partner you can be, and let him figure out everything else. Give him advice, then let him make his own choices.
Lesson: Be Uncomfortably Nice
What is the best way to show my partner that I love him on a daily basis?
Use a pleasant tone of voice. Always, always, always, unless you truly, in that moment, cannot. If you follow only one piece of advice in this book, follow this one. Use a (sincerely) pleasant tone of voice at all times, particularly during the mundane activities of life. This is where your relationship really lives. If you’ve fallen into that common but horrible habit of speaking with slight condescension to your partner on a regular basis, know that in order to make things work, this will have to change.
So, what about when your partner says something that’s not just rude, but super mean? The other day I told my husband I was really stressed out and he said, point blank, “I don’t care.” I couldn’t believe it. It hurt so much.
That does hurt. Have you asked him why he said it?
He said it because he didn’t care. In that moment, he didn’t care about how I felt.
Not necessarily. People say this stuff. He probably cares but at the time was upset about something else. My best advice is to ask him if he meant what he said. Ask him sweetly, at a time when he’s not mad. He’ll be impressed by your mature way of handling the situation. He’ll remember it, and if you handle rude comments this way regularly, he’ll eventually learn to be more careful with his words.
Countering not-nice with nice is the best way to get an apology.
So, how do you do this? I mean, we all snap at our partners and kids sometimes, right? We can’t be nice all the time.
Make it your number one priority for a week. A nice tone of voice, all day long. It’s a habit.
Lesson: Shamelessly Bargain (And Always Have a Bottom Line)
One of the things my husband struggles a lot with is getting time to exercise. He likes it, and it’s important to him, but there’s only a certain window of opportunity–in the hour after work–when he can get to the gym or take a jog. Lately, though, he’s been skipping this window and coming home early to crash on the couch. Then when it’s his turn to take the baby, he says he really needs to get his exercise done. It’s not fair, and the other day it caused a huge fight. What should I do?
It sounds like you have a schedule in place that you’re generally both happy with. If that’s the case, it’s just a matter of sticking to it–even if he doesn’t like it. Tell him that it’s his baby time, offer to discuss it, then walk away. If you need to, leave the house to force him to do his duty.
Oh, that’ll go over well.
Risk the argument. See it as an investment you make for your future happiness; if he sees you’re going to enforce your agreement, he’ll take future agreements more seriously. See it as practice for when you have to do the same kind of enforcement with your kids.
If you don’t take this advice, don’t blame him for taking advantage of your fear of confrontation.
Oh, and as always, when you leave, leave with a smile, or at least without undue emotion. He may not be smiling back. But that’s okay.
Lesson: Apologize Every Chance You Get
The other day, I was a jerk. I said some things I regret, and don’t know how to forgive myself and move on. Any advice?
I know how you feel. There are a handful of slammed doors behind me, too. Some I’m now a bit embarrassed about, but one or two, not so much. It doesn’t solve problems to scream, and should be avoided whenever possible, but when it happens rarely, it often buys you a few days of the handle-with-care treatment you need.
Did you ask your partner to forgive you yet? If not, do. Some of the tenderest moments in relationships come after fights and sincere apologies.
After that, take apart the argument. Pull the meat from the bone. What is the important stuff here? What do you need to do differently next time to avoid the argument? Do you need to renegotiate something? Time to look forward.
Lesson: Change Your Partner the Right Way
What about when there’s a behavior in my partner that really does need to change? In the book you show how Matthew slowly learned how to take on more responsibility for his child. In my case, I’d like to change the way my husband disciplines our kids. I want him to be more firm. Is this something that I can change about him? Are some qualities changeable, and others not?
Yes. But we don’t know which is which until we give our partner the chance to show us.
The way I see it, there are three ways to change your partner for the better. The first, and most important, is just believing the best of them, and treating them well. This is the one we should always be doing.
When this isn’t enough, we have two other options. One is the major argument or discussion, which involves detailed negotiation. The other is what I call “the slow nag.” This is when you make little hints and suggestions–maybe even good-natured jokes–about the issue without ever forcing it. When done right, it’s surprisingly effective.
Are you sure this will work?
Okay, fair enough. But are you sure it’s okay to try to change your partner? Everyone tells us this is a terrible idea, that we need to accept them as they come or not at all.
Yes, I am absolutely sure that over the course of your marriage, you can and will change your partner in a wide variety of significant and not-so-significant ways. It’s not only possible but nearly unavoidable; we do it every single day. Whenever we look at someone, whenever we speak to them, whenever we have any kind of interaction, we affect the way they think and feel. Think about it: How would your partner affect your behavior towards him if he did what is recommended in this book, and treated you with utmost respect and love all the time? You’d change a heck of a lot. And the changes you didn’t make in spite of his caring suggestions would probably be the ones that meant too much to you to lose. Well, it’s the same for him. There are things about himself he won’t change for you or for anyone, ever. The question is: Can you live with those things? Are they deal breakers or not?
Lesson: Brush Up on Your Endocrinology
My husband is such a taker. He just takes and takes and takes, until I can’t give anymore, and I explode. Why are men like this? How can I get him to give more?
Don’t concern yourself with why. Men are simply better at getting their own needs and wants met than women are. When you can’t or don’t want to give anymore, simply don’t. Tell your husband that you need some “me” time, and take it–even if he doesn’t love the idea. The trick is to do this gently, without anger and with grace. For me, this has been one of the hardest marriage skills to learn, but now I get a nap every day. It was worth the work.
Here, it’s worth mentioning that personality differences, too–not just gender differences–affect the way your partner meets his needs. My favorite personality typing book is the (misleading titled) Dressing Your Truth: Discover Your Personal Beauty Profile by Carol Tuttle. The book only discusses female personality types, but in other books of hers, males fall into the same four categories. Understanding not just your unique behavior but the basic internal beliefs that give rise to that behavior is incredibly therapeutic and healing.
The bottom line: There are four main personality types: wind, water, fire and rock. Wind people are bright and animated. Their driving purpose in life is to enjoy it. Water people are subtle, caring and soft. Their driving purpose is to love and care about people. Fire people are dynamic and passionate. Their driving purpose is to accomplish their goals and change the world. Rock people are bold and striking. Their driving purpose is to seek and disseminate truth. If you want to better understand the motivations behind your partner’s quirks, read this book.
Lesson: Don’t Defend Yourself
Okay, so not defending myself. I get how doing so can be unhelpful and even counterproductive, escalating the fight even further. But self-defense is one of our primary human drives; we all want other people to acknowledge when we’re in the right, or to at least to basically understand our intentions. How can I avoid getting defensive?
Try this: Look forward with great anticipation to your next opportunity to be criticized by your partner in some way. Then, when it happens, in the moment in which it is happening, ask yourself, “What would it feel like to just not defend myself right now—to smile and say nothing committal, maybe even to agree with what my partner is saying? Would it make me proud?”
Then—just as an experiment, mind you—say something kind in response. Not necessarily an apology, if an apology feels insincere to you, but something sweet and understanding. Something like, “Okay. You might be right about this. I promise to give it some real thought.”
Now, observe how you feel about yourself in this moment and compare it to how you might have felt had you defended yourself. Do you feel more self-respect? And what about your partner’s response? Did their anger begin to dissolve?
It sounds like what you’re saying is that you should just accept whatever criticism comes your way, no matter how wrong it is. That’s not self-respectful, is it?
Yes, that’s what I’m saying, and yes, it is. You don’t have to accept the criticism as true, but you can listen to it in silence without agreeing with it in any way.
But doesn’t this just come across as a big “I don’t care what you think” attitude?
Preferably, no. At times, in an effort to be less defensive, I’ve used a superior tone of voice, responding with something like, “Okay, Honey. You have your opinion.” I’ve since come to the belief that this sort of attitude isn’t nondefensiveness—it’s ego, disguised as nondefensiveness. And it really, really didn’t work. It didn’t make me feel good, and it didn’t dissolve his anger; in fact, it fueled it big-time.
If you’re going to choose between shutting down your partner without explaining your side and expressing interest in your partner’s feelings, then asking him if you may explain your reason for what you did, choose the latter every time. At least you’ve shown that you are willing to truly listen, and by asking first to defend yourself, you’ve put them in a much more receptive mode.
Lesson: Appreciate the Gift
Logically, I know that marriage is a gift–even the hard parts, the arguments. But how do I go from knowing it to really knowing it, to feeling really grateful for my partner on a day-in-day-out basis?
I have two ideas. The first is to dote on your partner–to do loving acts regularly. The second is to relentlessly question your negative thoughts about him or her.
A lot of people try to describe why it is that parenting, which (if you believe the cliche) is the toughest job on the planet, is also one of the most well-regarded and most sought-after. Here is my attempt: The beauty of parenting is that here is this perfect new person, and you have the privilege of loving them the most.
Teaching children is great. Watching them grow and admiring them and laughing with them is wonderful and awesome. But just loving someone this much, giving this much of yourself for another person every day—that is the part that really gets you. Well, it’s the same with any other relationship. It’s the same with marriage: the practice of loving another person just feels good. Making dinner for your partner, speaking gently with them when they’re in a bad mood, holding them when they’re sad–these are the things that give our lives real meaning, and the things that truly bond us.
Compliment your partner. Every single day. Say nice things, particularly when it’s unexpected. Be specific, too: something like, “I am feeling very tender and affectionate towards you today.” Genuine compliments are far too rare and far more valuable than most of us realize; whenever we get one, we really treasure it, don’t we? We remember some of them for a very long time.
My second idea is to relentlessly question your negative thoughts about your partner. In “Change Your Story” I describe the process of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I cannot recommend it more highly. The theory among some psychologists and certainly many spiritual guru-types on its effectiveness is that when you remove the negative thoughts, love simply fills the gap, since love is who we really are underneath. Sometimes I’m skeptical that this is the case with me, but the more I journal my negative thoughts and replace them with the truth, the more cheerfulness and lightheartedness I feel, which naturally flows into my attitudes about other people. Particularly people I really, really like anyway, like my husband.
There was a time when I would have paid anything for a magic wand that could, with a wave, turn off all my husband’s worst traits. The other day, though, when I was talking to my sister on the phone about relationships, it hit me: At some point, I stopped wanting my partner to be perfect. What would it look like if he had no flaws? Would he do everything I ever wanted or asked him to do? And how long would it take before I started seeing him as a robot, an automaton: “Honey, will you wash the dishes?” “Sure, my dear.” “Then go wash the car and pack the car for our trip?” “Of course.” That’s not even a relationship, is it?
Marriage is one of the biggest challenges I’ll get in this life. I’m milking it for all the self-improvement it’s worth.
Why don’t you recommend therapy?
I do. I am a therapist in training and I think every single human should be so lucky as to have a skilled mental health professional to talk to once a week.
Some of your advice is strange. Are you sure it’ll work?
In my life there are very few certainties, and for the most part I like to keep it that way. One thing I do feel sure of, though, is that self-improvement efforts—no matter how small, no matter how flailing, and no matter how many times they seem to fail—are worth it almost every time. Because often, even when they seem to fail, they don’t fail all the way; somewhere inside you, something has changed. Maybe it takes a year or two for you to see the difference, but eventually you do.
Eventually, you’re glad that you tried.
May the greatest blessings follow you on your path to marital bliss.
We human-types repeat ourselves a lot. Throughout the day we rely on a handy set of go-to statements in order to preserve precious brain power.
“Go slow,” we tell our toddlers. “Use your words. Be patient. Take turns.”
“It’s for the best,” we say to our friends. “It’ll all work out.”
We say these things many, many times.
My husband hears a lot of the same stuff from me, too: “Can you wash the dishes?” “Don’t stay up too late” and “Take the baby” are at the top of my list.
A bad mantra can be a hard habit to break.
Fortunately, a good mantra can be a hard habit to break, too. My advice: Pay extra attention to your oft-repeated statements, evaluating how well they help you achieve your goals. Then consider replacing a few of them with a nicer, more effective version.
Here are a few feel-good statements that can replace a whole variety of feel-bad ones.
Instead of “I can’t believe you did/said that” or “You are such a jerk,” try:
“Are you feeling grumpy today, Honey?”
“Are you feeling unloved today?”
“Are you okay today? Is anything wrong?”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Do you want to talk about it or would you rather wait?”
“Hey! That wasn’t nice.”
“I love you. I know you mean well. But I don’t understand the reason you did this. Can you explain, please?”
Instead of a sarcastic “you’re welcome,” try:
“Will you say thank you, please?”
Instead of “It’s not my fault,” or “You’re the one who . . .,” try:
“That wasn’t nice of me.”
“I’m feeling grumpy today.”
“Do you want to know why I did that?”
“Do you want me to explain now or would you rather wait till later?”
Instead of “I am so mad at you,” try:
“I am feeling angry right now, but it will pass.”
“Watch out. I might have to squish you/tickle you/[insert other completely comical threat].”
Instead of “You aren’t listening to me,” try:
“Do you want me to explain more, or do you want me to just listen to your thoughts and we can talk about my side later?”
Instead of “No, I’m not going to do that for you,” try:
“I’m not going to do that right now. But I love you.”
Instead of “Stop ignoring me,” try:
“I am feeling lonely today.”
“I am feeling neglected today.”
“I am feeling unappreciated today. Will you do something nice for me?”
“Do you appreciate me?”
“Do you love me?”
“Do you want to cuddle?”
Instead of “Well, ‘night, Hon,” try:
“I love you. I really, really love you. Good night.”
“I want you to know I respect you. Good night.”
“I’m truly glad you’re my partner, Hon. Good night.”
One morning, you wake up to notes on the fridge reminding your partner to treat you better. What’s your reaction? Yeah, I thought so. Here, then, a cheat sheet with all of the main lessons in this book. My advice: use it flagrantly.
Lesson: Change Your Story
For the Fridge:
“I promise to believe your intentions are good.”
“I promise to double-check my story about you.”
Lesson: Don’t Fight. Just Talk Instead.
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.”
Lesson: Don’t Make It Into a Big Deal
For the Fridge:
“I promise to underreact.”
Lesson: Be Uncomfortably Nice
For the Fridge:
“I promise to use a kind, respectful tone of voice, even when upset.”
Lesson: Shamelessly Bargain (And Always Have a Bottom Line)
For the Fridge:
“I promise to negotiate, not nag.”
“I promise to focus mainly on solutions, not emotions.”
Lesson: Apologize Every Chance You Get
For the Fridge:
“I promise to take every opportunity to say I’m sorry.”
Lesson: Change Your Partner the Right Way
For the Fridge:
“I promise not to nag you to change, but to gently encourage it instead.”
“I promise to mirror back to you the change I want to see.”
Lesson: Brush Up on Your Endocrinology
For the Fridge:
“I promise to focus on solutions, not emotions.”
“I promise to understand that your needs are real.”
Lesson: Don’t Defend Yourself
For the Fridge:
“I promise to listen first.”
“I promise to ask permission before telling my side of the story.”
Lesson: Appreciate the Gift
For the Fridge:
“I promise to remind myself that one of the best parts of marriage is how it helps me grow.”
The following week, I saw Genevieve. She asked how things were going with Matt and I. I told her of my change in perspective, of how much I appreciated everything I’d learned over the past several years. And I told her I appreciate myself more than ever, too.
“I really do love everything that’s happened with Matthew since becoming a parent,” I said. “Not just the good stuff, but the bad stuff, too. It’s gotten me from being a wife who truly loves her husband to being a wife who truly loves her husband and also knows how to be good to herself.”
“You’re stronger,” Gen said.
“Yes. I am.”
“And motherhood just adds to that.”
“That is what it’s about. It’s about getting stronger. Not just in marriage–in life. In everything.”
“I don’t know if I told you this already, but for a while after Poppy was born, I’d get these terrible thoughts about Matt. They’d come to me at night, just overwhelm me. They weren’t logical but at the time they felt so frightening. Mostly they were about how hard it was to be married and have kids, but sometimes they were about Matthew specifically. About his character flaws, about how selfish he was. Sometimes, I would just sit and think about all the pain that my kids are going to have to go through in their lives, and how crazy it is to have them knowing this. Well, at some point, it was weird–all those thoughts stopped. Not that I never have a terrible judgment about Matt or bad thoughts about parenting, but I don’t get that fear anymore. I don’t know how, exactly, but something changed in my head. I have this confidence that basically, we’re . . . normal. Matt is a normal guy. Our relationship is normal. Our problems are actually pretty insignificant. And when the hard times come, well, like I said, the hard times are just a part of it. They’re all just part of the adventure.”
Gen nodded. “I haven’t gone through that. Not exactly the way you’re saying. But I do have a lot of fears for my kids. And I like that attitude you’re talking about. In parenting, too, part of what we’re teaching our kids is to look at hardship as a good thing. It’s real, and it’s good, and it’s part of what we’re doing here. It helps us to grow and get better. Then, hopefully, the bad feelings go away for a while, and when they do we don’t have to be afraid of them coming back. They will come back, always. That is their job. And it’s okay that they do. Like you said: It’s normal.”
“It’s more than normal. It is a gift.”
How did Matthew and I survive those critical first years after Poppy was born? How did we regain the joy in each other we once felt, without significant damage or simmering resentment to show for our experience? Partly it was because we finally stopped the control battles, the tug of war—and when the game did restart, it was usually pretty friendly, and pretty short.
First, I learned to short-circuit unspoken fears by changing my story about Matt and reminding myself that he loved me. After that, I learned how to talk instead of argue–how to let the little stuff go. I was nice, even when Matt didn’t seem to deserve it. I found a way to bargain for what I needed. I humbled myself and apologized frequently. And I finally figured out what Matt needed, biologically-speaking. I stopped the nagging and ditched the defensiveness and when all else failed, I simply embraced the challenge. I reminded myself that marriage is a gift, not in spite of the hard times but because of them, and I remembered how far I had come.
For five years—five wonderful years—after Matthew and I met, our love for each other was easy. We were best friends. We hardly ever fought. Our relationship was straightforward, unmarred. Then we had a baby, and during the three years that followed that event, things were . . . well, they were different. Not awful, most of the time. Just challenging. Stretching. The big fights were big, and the little ones were frequent. By the end of those years, though, Matt and I had several key advantages we didn’t have before that to us, made the experience well worth the trouble. First, we had a deep understanding of what it takes to be a happy family.
Second, we had a happy family.
And that’s what we still have: a family. A happy one. It’s been five years since Harper was born, and things have never been better between us. I still talk to Gen and Marianne about my issues with Matt, read the occasional marriage book—even get advice from my inner self once in a while. But most of my self-improvement energy is now focused on parenting my two children. While relationship challenges with Matthew still arise—and with some regularity—the themes of my solutions are often repeated, revisited. I circle back to much of what I learned during that time, and mostly that’s enough to get me through. Part of the reason for this is that these themes are fairly flexible. And the other part of the reason is Matthew.
These days, Matthew just gets it in a way he didn’t before. Truly, he is a better husband. He talks to me more. He’s vulnerable, honest. He is, once again, the best friend I found when we first started dating.
And in some ways, he’s even better. He’s a dad now, of course, and an excellent one: patient, and giving, and wise. He’s not as moody as he used to be—he’s learned how to communicate his needs and feelings with more self-awareness. And he’s a great deal more helpful. Every single night, his schedule is the family’s schedule. He does the laundry. He reads to the kids, brushes their teeth, takes them grocery shopping. And he’s in for the hard stuff, too: sleepless nights, discipline, potty training. More important than any single thing he does, though, is the way he makes me feel when he’s with me.
These days, every day, I feel loved.
After the Classic Food Fight, there was a break in the tension between Matthew and I. Then, for several weeks straight, for a reason unknown to me, Matthew was in a terrible mood. When we went to Home Depot, and I misunderstood what he was looking for, he embarrassed me by speaking rudely to me in the aisle. When to keep his drill away from Poppy I hid it, then couldn’t find it again right away, he made a sarcastic comment. Finally, when the car insurance expired before I paid the bill, he chastised me unfairly.
Each time one of these episodes occurred, my first instinct was to defend myself. But I chose to remember my resolution, and find a better way to handle the situation.
A week later, Matthew’s mood still hadn’t passed, so I decided to practice a few of my other newfound skills. At dinner one evening, I smiled across the table, then pointed out something Matthew did that I appreciated. “You did the dishes yet again, I noticed,” I said. “Thanks, Hon. That’s a really big help.”
Matthew smiled back, and seemed to feel calmer.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Thanks for noticing, Rachel.”
Then I went in for the kill.
“Hon, I know you’ve been frustrated with me lately. It seems like something is really bothering you. Do you want to talk about it? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I guess there is something,” he said. “I mean, I’m fine, mostly. But work has been totally sucking, and I hate it. Sometimes I wish I could just quit and move on. Do real estate, like I’ve always wanted. But this is a good job and I don’t know how I’d match the pay. So, here we are. You know.”
“Well, let’s talk about it. Let’s try to figure something out. But can I make a small request?”
“When you’re feeling this way—and I know this is hard—can you just not take it out on me? Don’t get mad at me for little things that don’t matter. Talk to me about the real problem instead.”
Matt frowned. “Yeah, I can do that,” he said. And with that, the matter was resolved.
When I woke up the day after the Bad Wife Blowout, I was still emotional, but not as much as before. I apologized to Matthew, even though I didn’t want to.
It was the right thing to do.
That morning after our errands, Poppy and I walked to the park. It was cold, but the sun was shining. As I followed her from slide to swing, watching her play, I remembered the advice I’d gotten two years back from Marianne. “Ask yourself what to do. Use your intuition,” she’d said. It had worked before. Maybe it would work again.
I started with a review: the fight, my interpretation. My assertion that Matt was blaming me for all of our struggles. My fear that he didn’t feel close to me because he didn’t love me anymore. Then I said, “What now?” and got quiet.
The answer came swiftly: “What if none of this matters?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Doesn’t matter? Of course it does. Matt practically told me he’s disappointed with me as a wife. If that doesn’t matter, none of it does.”
“But did he, Rachel? Is that the real story? And even if it is, what can you do about it?”
“Well, I could talk to him. I could explain to him–calmly, I hope–how hurt and sad the comment made me feel. I could remind him of all the things I’ve done for him and for our family, how much I do every day. I could ask him to apologize.”
“Yes, you could. And it might help. But the way you’re feeling, Rachel–this isn’t about him, I don’t think. Remember the therapist you met at that party who told you that in general, your feelings about a fight are twenty percent about the fight and eighty percent about you? Well, you’re in the eighty zone, trying to deal with that part. The twenty is there, but it’s just twenty.”
“Okay. Say I believe you. What do you want me to do? Nothing? Just let the comment go?”
“Not exactly, Rachel. But what do you think would happen if, just this time, you didn’t defend yourself? What if when he got home from work and was annoyed at you already, expecting an argument, you just didn’t give it to him?”
“That’s crazy. Not defend myself?”
“Think about it.”
Then I did. And . . . it made sense. It was brilliant. It was brave. Not defend myself? I wondered as Poppy and I made our way home. Is it giving up? Or is it letting go?
That evening, when Matthew arrived home, I greeted him cheerfully. I gave him the baby, then started dinner. Over bacon and pancakes, I looked him in the eye, a smile crinkling a corner of mine. “I love you, Honey. I really do. And I’m trying really hard to be a good wife.”
“I know that, Rachel. And you are. Of course you are.”
I laughed. Of course I am. Of course I am? Okay. “Well, that’s not how I pictured the end of this fight. No asking for an explanation for my behavior? No hashing it out, figuring it out, dealing with it?”
“Dealing with it? I thought that’s what we just did.”
“You don’t want to know why I got so mad at you?”
“I know why. It was a rough night. You were tired.”
I nodded, my smile fading. I was tired. So it’s not that you were insensitive or said mean things. I was tired. That was the problem. I took a bite of pancake.
So, he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know why I was upset. But wait–what’s this? Is it . . . peace? Am I actually enjoying the feeling of not giving in to my ego, of not proving my point? Maybe. Yes, definitely. I am.
In August, I gave birth to our second child, a boy. He had fair hair and a placid demeanor. We called him Harper. Same hospital as Poppy. Same midwife, too. I even recognized one of the nurses. But if we were looking for similarities in the experiences, we wouldn’t’ve found many. Harper’s birth was, well . . . it was better.
Part of the improvement might’ve been due to my lessened fear; I’d done this once, and I knew I could do it again. I made better decisions, too: I got the epidural sooner. I walked more, which sped things up. But the biggest change was in Matthew’s involvement. He waited on me, bringing me ice and towels. He timed my contractions and pressed “play” on my audiobook. He took care of Poppy, explaining everything to her, and, significantly, he was just around more.
I wondered about the change. Was it because this time, Matt was already a dad and the parenting thing just felt more natural? Was it because I talked to him beforehand, describing my expectations in a loving way? Or was it simply because he couldn’t relax at home like last time since this time, he had to take care of Poppy?
Whatever the cause of the difference, I appreciated our time together. With Harper in my arms and Matt and Poppy at my side, my memory of the experience became one of unmixed joy. And there was another reason to be grateful, too. A week after arriving home, I noticed I felt differently than I had the first time. I wasn’t crying at night–or during the day, for that matter. I was elated by the sight and physical closeness of the baby. When three weeks later my postpartum depression still hadn’t returned, I mentioned the improvement to Matthew. He said, “Maybe it wasn’t postpartum depression. Maybe it was just me.”
“Probably.” I smiled.”I’m kidding.”
I was kidding. However, it was also true that ever since making our decision to work together every evening, balancing tasks between us, my stress levels were significantly lower. Rare, now, were the times Matthew crept away to the TV room after dinner, leaving Poppy to focus her requests on me; instead, he waited till we went to bed to be alone. Our time together became more frequent, more lengthy and more satisfying, largely because every afternoon, either Matthew or I said the magic words. “What would you like to do tonight, Hon?” It was a question that was more like an answer. With it, we acknowledged that I was no longer the default parent–that now, Matt was on the hook, too. Many evenings, I only requested that Matt play with the kids while I cooked dinner and did the dishes. He took to the role easily, even eagerly, and often found time to help with chores as well.
“Wow,” I said one night after watching Matthew start a load of laundry without being asked. “Suddenly, I have a modern husband.”
“I suppose that is what I am now,” Matthew replied. “Not that it was really my choice.”
“Would you rather have our schedule back? ‘Cause, you know, we could do that.”
“Nah,” Matthew said. “We’re beyond that. We have transcended the schedule, mostly.”
“True. I still need a few guarantees in life.”
Then, in our second month with Harper, something came along that helped me appreciate my husband even more. That something was a wonderful book. Recommended by Genevieve and devoured by me in a single day, Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance—The Key to Life, Love and Energy by John Gray was exactly what I needed, when I needed it. It outlined some of the main differences between men and women and (significantly) the hormonal reasons for them. And by the time I’d turned the last page, something inside me had shifted.
Though prior to Harper’s birth, my resentment had dwindled considerably, the feeling never disappeared completely. Then Harper was born, and in snatches, it made a comeback. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but still. Partly, I felt angry that Matthew couldn’t do some of the things that most needed doing. I had to breastfeed again–often, and sometimes painfully. I had to wake up with the baby at night. And, lest we forget, I had to push the kid out of my body. While reading Mars on Fire, though, there was a change that went deeper than information transfer. There was the start of a healing. My expectations had shifted. My chronic resentment had lifted.
For the first time, I felt like I not only understood my husband, but actually appreciated our differences.
Men really are men, I realized as I read. They really are their own thing. They need all that alone time that sometimes feels so selfish. They don’t need to talk as much as women do. They don’t get an oxytocin surge every time they help someone; on the contrary, testosterone makes them a bit cranky.
Model the changes you want to see in your partner. This works because: “it’s positive, not negative” and because “it’s rooted in our physiology. We all have mirror neurons in our brains that make us naturally inclined to mimic the people we like. If your partner is fond of you, she’ll feel naturally inclined to adopt the behaviors she sees in you.”
“There’s nothing that makes another person more willing to change than seeing you embrace change yourself. If you know you have a habit that your partner truly dislikes, make an effort to work on it. The effort she sees you putting into improving yourself will be an inspiration and will soften her heart towards changing herself.” (—PsychologyToday.com)
“You sand off the imperfections you can sand off so you fit together more comfortably, but then you have to identify those things that, no matter how much you bitch and complain about, will never change. And you have to ask yourself, Is this person worth paying the price of admission to put up with that? And not put up with it and complain about it and guilt them about it all the time, put up with it and shut up about it.” (—StarTalkRadio.net)
My Relationship Resolutions:
I will figure out exactly what I want to change about my partner and our relationship. This can be harder than it seems.
I will determine whether or not I can help my partner make the change. Sweeping character alterations aren’t my territory. Changes of habit, schedules and circumstances might be.
I will only seek one big change at a time. This helps me clarify my needs, limit nagging and manage my expectations.
I will learn the art of the “slow nag.” Once I have a clear, main objective, rather than using the classic nagging technique—whine and repeat—I will use compliments, detached observations and jokes to good-naturedly encourage the change I want to see. Occasionally, a polite direct request will also do. An example of a detached observation: “That guy just bashed his wife to his friends. What a loser.” A joke: “You little stinker! Get your stinky butt out of bed!” And a direct request: “I really prefer it when you use a polite tone of voice when asking me to do something.”
Occasionally, after the slow approach hasn’t worked, I’ll use the confrontation method. During the confrontation I’ll use “I feel” and “lately it seems” statements, rather than “you are” and “you always” statements. I will focus on problems and solutions rather than perceived character flaws.
I will change, too. And talk about it with my partner.
I will be patient. People do change. People do grow. If I continue to expect the best of my husband, he will continue to move in that general direction (albeit rather slowly sometimes).
I’ll accept the things I cannot change about Matthew, even after four thousand super polite hints and conversations.
For the Fridge:
“I promise not to nag you to change, but to gently encourage it instead.”
“I promise to mirror back to you the change I want to see.”
The day after the Dish Debacle I got up earlier than usual. I cleaned, cooked and played with Poppy, pretending everything was fine.
But that did not make it fine.
In the afternoon, I took Poppy to the park to meet Gen and Max. Knowing that between snacks, diaper changes and “Mom, come push me on the swing!” we wouldn’t have long to chat, as soon as we found a bench and the kids scampered off, I jumped right in.
“Matt and I had a fight. Another bad one. I’m not even sure what it was about. Housework?”
“Oh, one of those. Housework. Such a catalyst.”
“Yeah. I apologized, but it’s like, ‘I’m sorry I nagged you. Can you do the dishes?'”
“And then it was about our schedule, and me feeling like he doesn’t care enough about the family, and all the rest of it, yada yada.”
“Awww, I’m sorry, Rachel. That sucks.”
“I know. It does.”
“So do you really think he doesn’t care enough about you? Or . . . what’s the real problem here?”
“I don’t, but I do. I don’t know. Gen, you almost never complain about your marriage. Why is that? Have I ever asked you? If I haven’t, let me correct that error now.”
“I don’t think you have, Rachel. And I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s all about having clear expectations. Who does what and when, and all that.”
“Yeah, that’s good, and that’s what Matthew and I have been doing, too. Ever since making our schedule. Still, I’m starting to wonder if its really the right thing for us. I can’t quite explain it, but it feels like something’s missing.”
“Well, has he been doing his part every day? And how does he do it? Is he dragging his feet?”
“Yes, he’s sticking to it, and so am I, pretty carefully—and it’s been several months now, so I feel good about that. But to your other question, yes, he does drag his feet. And then I end up nagging.
“And I really, really hate nagging. Not only because it’s thin-ice territory for him, and tends to make him grumpy, but because it makes me feel unloved. I start wondering why he won’t just do his part without my asking first as a way to show me he cares. Then we’re both in a bad mood.
“Sometimes I think we’re just planning everything too much. Why can’t he just look out for me, and me for him? Why does it have to be so complicated?”
“Well, it’s complicated because everything is complicated. He wants to look out for you, but he has to look out for himself, too. I mean theoretically, if you both put the other person first all the time, both of you would get your needs met. But relationships just don’t work that way. So get that idea out of your mind right now. Lose that expectation. His main job in life is to take care of himself. And so is yours.”
“Yikes,” I said. “That’s hard to hear.”
“Is it? Would you really want the job of making him happy? If he left you in charge of taking care of him, how would you make that happen? Would you just do everything he asked you to do? What about when what you wanted didn’t line up with what he wanted? Who wins? Do you each fight for what the other wants? Anyway, how would you even know what he wanted in the first place?”
“Okay. I see that. Okay.”
“Your husband is not going to put you first all of the time. Some of the time, but not all. Won’t happen,” Gen said.
“I get it.”
“But yeah, it’s complicated. And it’s going to stay that way. It’s hard enough when there are just two people’s needs to consider, but now there are three of you. That said, you could probably simplify things a bit.”
“When I was pregnant with Max, Richard and I made an agreement. Since he was our third I knew that my alone time was basically over, at least until the kids were in school. So instead of trying to figure out an exact schedule to make it work, I told him that all I really wanted was for him to be present with us after he got home from work, pitching in and doing what he could until all the kids were in bed.”
“Wow. And what was that like?”
“Honestly?” Genevieve said. “It was the best thing ever. Before that, we were doing what you guys are doing—planning our evenings and weekends in advance as much as possible. But, well, it never quite felt fair. I was always the default parent, the one on duty when nothing else was negotiated. After that one discussion, our marriage really changed. It became more of a partnership.
“We still go by that guideline most days of the week, and a lot of the weekend, too. When Richard comes home, he plays with the kids while I get dinner, and we take turns with chores and bedtime stuff. It’s good for all of us, really. Even Richard can’t imagine it any other way. He’s gotten used to being together as a family every evening.”
“That sounds awesome,” I said. “But do you think Matt would go for something like that? It would be such a big change.”
“But he’s already doing a lot. Maybe he’d rather not be on quite as strict of a schedule. Maybe he misses your laid-back, unscheduled time, too.”
“Maybe. Or maybe our expectations would get fuzzy again, and I’d be nagging even more than before.”
“You never know. You might be surprised.”
“If it worked, I would be. It would feel like a coup. Like something fundamental changed in Matthew’s personality. And you know what people say about trying to change your partner.”
“What? That it’s not possible? They’re wrong.”
“Oh, Rachel. We all change our partners, all of the time.”
“How? What do you mean?”
“People change, in small ways, to reflect your expectations of them. And even more so in marriage. A lot of the time, what you think you’ll get is what you get. They can sense it and they find themselves acting how you think they’ll act.”
“So have I changed Matthew?”
“What do you think?”
“Hmmm . . . yeah, I think I have. One of the first things I learned after having Poppy was to change my stories about him–to see the best in him. After that, I noticed a big change: he was less moody. Then we both learned how to talk instead of getting emotional about everything right away. I think he followed my lead on that one, too. He still doesn’t always apologize, and he still does hurtful things, but whenever I’m in a good mood, he’s much more likely to be pleasant, too. The other day I was feeling really positive and he picked up on that. He sent me a text that said, ‘I love you.'”
“I know. And he doesn’t do that stuff just to make me feel good. He only does it when he’s really feeling that way.”
“Richard, too. So it sounds like what you’re saying is that Matt has changed for the better, but not from nagging. Mostly from just improving your attitude.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe nagging helps a bit, too. There are times when I think it has.”
“But nagging nicely. Nagging gently, and not all the time.”
“Yeah. It’s a different kind of nag. More lighthearted.”
With that, an interruption. First one, then a cascade. Max needed to use the bathroom, then both kids needed food and water. When the dominoes stopped falling, I picked up where we left off.
“So basically, Gen, what you’re telling me is that at times I can change Matt by expecting the best of him, and other times I can either learn how to nag in a nice way or have a well-planned, respectful conversation?”
“I might have said all that, yeah. Worth a try anyway. Can’t hurt to try. Won’t work with everything, but you might be surprised. Package it well. Show him the benefits. Most of the time, what you want is what will make him happy, too.”
That night, after Matthew came home, I popped some popcorn–his favorite snack–and we sat in the family room and discussed our relationship yet again.
“I know things have been rough for the past couple of months,” I told him. “And I’m sorry for not holding it together a bit better. I’ve been picking fights and hurting you, and I really don’t want to do that anymore.”
Matthew looked at me gratefully. He’s easy to soften, I realized. It takes such a small gesture. An apology. A loving touch. Even a smile will often do the trick. Why don’t I do this more?
“I talked to Gen today and told her a little about this, and she made a really good suggestion. She said that she thinks our schedule has been great, but that we might need a bit more flexibility. How would you feel about both of us working together in the evenings, instead of taking turns like we have been? I don’t want to be co-workers, watching the clock all the time, taking things in shifts. I want us to be more like partners.”
“Interesting,” Matthew replied. “That actually makes sense. We discuss each night what we need to get done, or just spend the evening hanging out together.”
“Hmmm . . . Yeah. We could try it.”
In the years to follow, I would know the true significance of this conversation. That evening, though, I only suspected it. I took another bite of popcorn and when Poppy held out her hand, put a few kernels in it. As I looked at her face, then at Matthew’s, a deep love for them came over me—as well as a great feeling of relief.
It’s true, I thought, I don’t need Matthew to always take care of me or put me first. I can do that. But I do need him to be there.
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle:
Due to our ego, we’re constantly seeking approval from others. This seeking leads to resentment when any kind of disagreement—often even a minor one—occurs. So, get rid of ego. It’s just not helping. All that anger, defensiveness, arguing, making wrong, being right . . . all of that can safely go away. The death of your ego is not the death of you. Instead, it’s the start of your real life.
Don’t just get rid of your own ego, though: stop reacting to the ego in others. This is the most effective way to not only avoid arguments, but to actually dissolve the other person’s anger and bring back their sanity. Then real communication can begin.
My Relationship Resolutions:
I will take every opportunity to apologize. I will humbly ask for forgiveness, and generously forgive myself.
I will remember that my ego isn’t my friend. It causes me to interpret every confrontation as a potential threat, and makes me defensive.
For the Fridge:
“I promise to take every opportunity to say I’m sorry.”
The first time Matthew and I had a real fight—not a disagreement, but a fight—was a full six months into our relationship. We were cleaning his house to make room for my things for my planned move-in, date TBD.
It had been a long day, and both of us were tired. Not tired–exhausted. Spent. Then, it happened. Matthew handed me a heavy box from a high shelf, and as I set it down, an unmistakable sound: breaking glass.
“What was it?” I asked, already using the past tense.
Matthew didn’t answer. He grabbed the box. When he opened it, we assessed the damage. A rook from his chess set was chipped and a bishop was missing a knob.
That could’ve been worse, I thought.
Matthew saw it differently.
“Where was the bubble wrap?” he asked. “You were the one who packed this, right?”
“I guess . . . I guess I ran out.”
“You ran out? Well, when we run out, we get more. We don’t just pack stuff like this without bubble wrap.”
I didn’t respond.
Matthew closed the box and set it on his desk. Then he returned to the shelf. When I took my spot next to him, though, he shook his head at me.
“You are not allowed touch my stuff anymore,” he said.
“Hey, Matt,” I said, my defensiveness turning to anger. “Wait a second. Think about this. I’ve spent the last two days cleaning this place–packing stuff, donating stuff, cleaning your kitchens and your bathrooms. I did way more than you did, so don’t you dare get an attitude with me about this. It was an accident, okay?”
It was the first time I ever raised my voice to Matthew. And it was certainly the first time I walked away in anger. I left the room, slamming the door, then left the house, slamming that door, too. Then I went for a walk.
Five minutes passed—a very long five minutes. It was the first fight of newly-in-loves, after all. We were still convinced everything was perfect between us . . . and at the same time, afraid it wasn’t.
Soon, I heard footsteps. Someone was running up behind me. I turned around, and there he was.
It was Matthew.
And in the time that it took me to recognize him, and the look of apology on his face, my anger disappeared completely.
I stopped walking, and Matthew caught up to me, then gave me a long, loving hug.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re right. I should’ve helped you more.”
“I’m sorry, too. I should’ve been more careful with your stuff.” The apology wasn’t sincere–not completely, anyway. But it felt like the right thing to say.
We hugged some more, then kissed, then walked back to the house together. And that was it.
It was over.
Apologies are awesome, I realized after talking to Matthew about our biggest-yet fight. They’re, like, the fastest relationship cure ever. They get you out of a bad spiral, help you reset. And sometimes, that’s all you need–just a reset button.
Chapter Six: Shamelessly Bargain (And Always Have a Bottom Line)
Over the following few months as I continued to moderate my tone of voice and underreact, Matthew instinctively followed my lead. Slowly, a beautiful shift in our relationship began: the big fights still happened, but the little ones largely subsided. This gave us an important relationship advantage: in between our fights, things were mostly back to normal. We had time to step back, to remind ourselves and each other that we’d be okay. It wasn’t until the end of our first year we let that ability slip away—and when it did, it was hard to get it back.
As our ninth month of parenthood approached, not only were our relationship issues easier to handle—Poppy was a bit easier, too. No longer was the baby tethered to me every waking moment; now, she played on her own for minutes at a time, and as the year progressed the difference became even more pronounced. In addition, in September Matthew agreed to take her out at least twice a week, for at least two hours a session, giving my schedule some much-needed padding. He and Poppy came up with their own private mommy-free idea of fun, and for the first time since having the baby, Matthew experienced what I had appreciated about parenting all along: the addition of a brand new best friend. They went to the forest, to the zoo, to the play area at the mall—and Matthew enjoyed every minute. Then something happened that threw us off-balance once again, just as we had started to regain our footing.
That something was that I got a job.
The job was an excellent one—one that I enjoyed and that paid well. The timing was good, too; Poppy seemed ready for the occasional daycare adventure. Most important, the hours were perfect—about ten a week, and all from home. Matthew and I were confident we could transition smoothly.
We were wrong.
We were almost there, I thought as my work hours edged out much-needed rest and alone time. We were almost back to normal. Or were we? Maybe the improvement I’ve been feeling lately was imagined—an illusion brought on by desperation and positive thinking.
It was not a pleasant hypothesis to consider.
Soon after I started my job, the battles over our baby care schedule reasserted themselves. At first, they were mild ones, with most of the tension just beneath the surface. But as they became more frequent, their intensity increased as well, so that by fall they were bad.
If my first nine months of marriage with a child was about learning how to adjust my attitude toward Matthew—learning how to see him through eyes of love, not get angry at him and just be nice—the following year and a quarter was primarily a complement to that. It was about learning how to communicate better, to ask for what I wanted and to get it.
It was about actually solving our problems.
If you had asked Matthew which of us was the source of the Great Birth Control Debate, he would almost certainly have said me. For weeks, even months on end, I chose to put off self-care, working long hours and multi-tasking instead. Looking back, I don’t know why I allowed my workaholic side free rein for so long. Then again, most workaholics probably don’t. At the time, however, Matthew was in a rare lull in his schedule. Why can’t he just pick up the slack? I wondered.
Which is why, if you would have asked me which of us was the source of the Debate, I would almost certainly have said Matthew.
That October, Matthew’s love of basketball had him either playing or watching television at least three evenings per week. He still took Poppy out on Sundays and Wednesdays, but Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays were booked up. On those days my long mornings and afternoons were followed by long, lonely evenings as well, which, of course, made me cranky. And not just because I wanted Matthew to take on more responsibilities, but because I wanted to just be with him. I wanted to take walks together, have dinner with friends, go to the zoo.
I wanted to feel like a family.
And so, one day in the midst of this predicament, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I made an announcement—an ultimatum, really, and one I intended to keep: “If you don’t stop prioritizing your fun stuff over the family, I am going back on birth control.”
The news did not go over well.
It was around midnight, after Poppy had gone to bed, and though I was tired I told Matthew I’d hang out. We were sitting on the living room couch, evaluating lackluster movie options, my head resting comfortably on his shoulder. The month prior, after a year and a half of menstruation-free breastfeeding, my period had finally returned, necessitating a reproduction-related decision. First, I made an appointment with my doctor. Then I told Matthew the plan.
“Hon, there’s something I’ve been thinking about that I need to tell you, and you’re probably not going to like it very much,” I said.
And then I delivered the blow.
Matthew’s first response was to freeze, TV remote in midair. Then he just shook his head. “No, you’re not,” he told me.
“I already made the appointment.” I moved my body away from him, backing into the couch’s arm rest. Then I curled my legs against my chest with my arms.
“Without even telling me?” Matthew threw down the remote. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“Matthew, you know why. I’m so stressed. I’m so exhausted. I just can’t do this the way I have been lately.”
“Rachel, we had a plan. The same plan we’ve had all along.”
“I know, Hon, I know. I’m sorry. But what’s happening right now with your sleep schedule—it’s not fair. It’s not right. I’m just feeling so cheated.”
“So that’s why you’re doing this. To get back at me. I see.”
“No, that’s not the reason—really. It’s not just what’s going on right now. It’s how things have been all along. It’s been hard. Harder than you know.”
I continued. “We have Poppy, and I’m so glad we do. Having her has only made me want our second even more. But it doesn’t have to happen right now. We have time. It’s only been a year, after all. Our kids can be spaced a bit more.”
“So you’re just making a threat rather than discussing it? Typical. That’s always what you do.”
“No. I’ve been trying to discuss it. I’ve been trying for a long time. There are little changes, but it’s not enough. One kid is already so difficult for us; I’m not going to do this with two. That’s just not the choice I’m going to make.”
“You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?”
“That I’m making things harder than they have to be? That I work to much? Well, why don’t you work more so I don’t have to?”
“I do work. I work a lot. It’s like you don’t even see it. But when I need time, I take it.”
“We’re going in circles now, like we always do. Maybe we’ll figure this out. But until we do, I don’t want to get pregnant.”
With that, the arguing ended; Matthew and I went our separate ways. But the fight definitely wasn’t over. For the next few days, a sort of suburban cease-fire was silently declared: we avoided each other most of the time, and avoided serious discussion entirely. This gave us time to think about what to do next, to weigh our advantages and to strategize. In international relations and in married life, however, eventually someone has to make a move.
This time, that someone was Matthew.
A few days after the argument, he offered to take Poppy out for the evening. He said they were going to dinner, but by the time they got back three hours had passed.
When they returned home, Matthew greeted me with a smile. “When is your doctor appointment?” he asked.
“Not till next week,” I replied. “Why do you ask?”
The following day, Matthew took Poppy to the park, and soon after that, he started taping his games to watch after I went to bed. For my part, I hired a babysitter to cover one evening per week. I called my doctor and cancelled my birth control appointment, and three months later, I was pregnant.
The pregnancy was, of course, the most significant result of the Great Birth Control Debate. However, there was another worth mentioning, too. One evening a week or so after the fight, we sent Poppy to a friend’s house and sat down at the dining room table, pen and paper at hand.
Then we began negotiations.
We went through each day of the week, section by section, and decided who’d be responsible for what. Who would make dinner, who would clean the car? When would we both exercise? Who’d get to sleep in, and on which days, and what about weekends when I was working? For the first time since becoming parents, we decided to be deliberate about our schedule, taking all of our needs—not just work and sleep—seriously.
Finally, we decided to stop winging it.
Here is a list of all of the chunks of time we thought through together, plus a list of all of the important activities we included in our new family schedule.
Baby Care Scheduling Considerations:
Weekday work times
Weekday evenings after dinner
Saturday early mornings
Saturday late mornings
Saturday evenings after dinner
Sunday early mornings
Sunday late mornings
Sunday evenings after dinner
Activities to Include in the Family Schedule:
Paid work time for Dad
Paid work time for Mom
Transportation time for parents
Transportation time for children
Recreational time for children
Educational time for children
Exercise time for Mom
Exercise time for Dad
Alone time for Dad
Alone time for Mom
Date nights for parents
Mom’s time with friends
Dad’s time with friends
Family time at home
Mom’s one-on-one time with each child
Dad’s one-on-one time with each child
Mom’s household management time
Dad’s household management time
Time for home maintenance and repairs
Time for special activities and projects
Adequate sleep time for each family member
It was quite a conversation we had that evening—and the schedule we agreed upon, no small feat. In creating it, I wanted a guarantee of some kind—a way to ensure Matthew would give me the breaks I needed. For his part, Matthew hoped for more predictability, a way to ensure he wouldn’t be endlessly nagged to do more.
Our hopes were ridiculously high. However, more important than the schedule itself was the fact that we created it at all. In doing so I expanded my relationship skill set considerably.
I learned how to negotiate–and shamelessly.
Marriage is transactional, I realized as we made our plan. It’s not always romantic, and that’s okay. If he doesn’t want to do something I want him to do, it’s not because he’s a jerk or doesn’t love me. It’s because he has needs, too.
For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed, Tara Parker-Pope:
“Scientists have even applied mathematical models to marriage, calculating, for instance, that strong marriages have at least a five-to-one daily ratio of positive to negative interactions. Simply translated, that means it’s not enough to apologize for mistreating your spouse. For every mistake you make, you need to offer five more good moments, kind words, and loving gestures to keep your marriage in balance.”
My Relationship Resolutions:
I will remember that my partner’s best motivation to help me with the kids and treat me well is my being kind, grateful and pleasant. Love begets love.
I will compliment Matthew more often.
I will say thank you more often, particularly when I want Matthew to change a habit. (“Thanks for taking your shoes off at the door, Hon!”)
I will say “I love you” more often, and in a greater variety of ways.
I will be consistently cheerful and respectful—even when Matthew is not.
I will choose my words very, very carefully.
I will use a kind tone of voice. Always.
For the Fridge:
“I promise to use a kind, respectful tone of voice, even when upset.”
August came. Poppy was now seven months old, and though she was crying less often, she was still a handful. Fortunately, by this time, I’d mastered the routine that best served both our needs, and it started and ended with the car.
Poppy loved the car. In the morning, as soon as the crying started, I’d put Poppy in her carseat and immediately, she’d quiet down. We’d drive to the store, a playdate, a coffee shop—anywhere that would have us, really. While Poppy watched and learned, I shopped, chatted or read. Then came my favorite time of day: naptime. We’d head to the quiet road with no speed bumps and no stoplights, and twenty minutes later, she’d be down. I’d find a semi-secluded parking spot somewhere and read in the car. When Poppy woke up, there’d be another playdate or a long walk. Then, a second nap, usually at home with me lying next to her and by the time we woke up, Matthew would be home.
The days were long, but they were also indulgent; though I was often exhausted, I still felt lucky. And not only because I was spending the summer with my new baby, but because of a subtle shift happening with Matthew.
When Matthew and I first met, what he saw was a quiet woman with a strong will—someone who challenged him to be better, do more. What I saw in Matthew was something I needed just as much: a partner to truly have fun with. Matthew’s philosophy of life was, enjoy and play. Mine was, work and work some more. In spite of this difference, though, our personalities blended well—so much so that until becoming parents, we hardly noticed the ways we didn’t match up. Or maybe we did, but we knew that our differences were also strengths: I kept the train running down the track, and Matthew made sure we enjoyed the ride. 6’2″ with a large build, Matt loved to play basketball, eat with abandon, throw dinner parties for his many friends. I, on the other hand, preferred working overtime at my paralegal job, then coming home to read or watch a movie.
Starting with my pregnancy, I brought my usual intensity to this parenting thing: I read all the books, tried the advice. After Poppy was born I kept a strict bedtime routine, carefully shielded her from computer screens, and narrated my day out loud to jump start her verbal skills.
Right from the start, though, Matthew was different. He sung to Poppy more, played silly games. He was goofy. He was lighthearted. When Poppy started solid food and threw it on the floor, he said, “If you keep doing that, I’m going to get you.”
And this levity didn’t just benefit Poppy—it was a huge asset to me, too. When Matthew finally arrived home from work after a long day, I felt a great sense of relief. It’s true that he usually asked for dinner right away. But mostly he asked with a smile.
And that smile? It helped a lot.
Now, though, a change: as Poppy matured, Matthew’s interactions with her did, too; this fun-loving dad was becoming a father. He spoke to Poppy about serious things long before she understood a word. He showed more interest in making decisions concerning her care—which shoes to buy, which foods to start her on, even which schools to consider for later. For the first time, he welcomed long nighttime discussions with me about all the pressing and not-so-pressing parenting matters.
Mostly, I enjoyed this. But not entirely.
The discussions brought us closer, I felt, and I loved knowing how much he cared. Every once in a while, though, we hit on a topic we couldn’t agree on. And though I expected it would happen eventually, that didn’t make it any less difficult. This was new territory for us, after all.
Our first big child-rearing disagreement, which I later called the Unfight, occurred as the summer was coming to an end. As the name suggests, the Unfight wasn’t so much an argument as a tense discussion that could’ve turned personal, but didn’t.
Which is why this time, it wasn’t my failure that taught me my next great marriage lesson; instead, it was my success.
“As a relationship advisor what I’m constantly noticing is people who are obsessed with the things in their relationship that annoy them and they can be very articulate and long-winded about their partner’s faults or the things that they’re dissatisfied with in their relationship. And nowhere near as long-winded or articulate about their partner’s strengths or what’s good about their relationship.” (—StarTalkRadio.net)
The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, Shaunte Feldhahn:
“Highly happy couples always assume good intentions.”
“By expecting the best, you bring out the best.”
“Much of the way your partner behaves is a direct result of how you treat them. If you go in to a potentially uncomfortable conversation expecting tension or resistance, that is probably what you’ll get. Likewise, if you go in to that same conversation with a relaxed demeanor, believing your partner will keep their cool, it is likely that they will.”
Telling Yourself the Truth: Find Your Way Out of Depression, Anxiety, Fear, Anger, and Other Common Problems by Applying the Principles of Misbelief Therapy, William Backus and Marie Chapian:
Always remember that there are at least two versions of the truth. Then consistently choose to believe the more agreeable one. People who struggle a great deal with anger or depression often choose the version with fewer truth elements than people who are more optimistic.
Often, but not always, relationships change dramatically when one person drops the misbeliefs that generate and perpetuate bitterness and anger. Always the person who works to change misbeliefs will benefit even if the other person does not change.
Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstanding, Aaron T. Beck M.D.
“Some of the misunderstandings that beset a marriage have their roots in the rigid thinking that underlies prejudice of all kinds. The biased expectations, observations, and conclusions that form a prejudice reflect the frame of mind known technically as a ‘negative cognitive set.’ When a husband has framed his wife within this set, for example, he will interpret virtually everything she says or does in a negative way.”
“On the other hand, during the infatuation of courtship and early married life, couples show a positive bias. Almost everything the partner says or does is interpreted in a positive light.”
You can use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the most popular and most proven therapy for overcoming negative thinking, to change your story about your spouse. Three ways to do this are: “. . . Recognizing and correcting your automatic thoughts, testing your predictions, and reframing your perspective of your mate.”
“Examine [your thoughts] and look for supporting evidence, contradictory evidence, alternative explanations, and more logical inferences.”
The Feeling Good Handbook:
There are many ways to practice CBT. The main one is this: Whenever you’re experiencing an especially negative emotion, journal about it. Write down the reasons your stressful thought is either exaggerated or entirely untrue, and reframe the situation in a more positive, objective light.
“If you want to feel better, you must realize that your thoughts and attitudes—not external events—create your feelings.”
The Holy Bible, Proverbs 10:12:
“Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins.”
My Relationship Resolutions:
I will remind myself that Matthew’s motives are good. I won’t automatically infer uncaring feelings, as is often my knee-jerk response when upset. Instead, I’ll either assume the intentions behind his words and actions are good, or I’ll simply ask him to explain them.
I will remind myself that Matthew’s character is good. I won’t start a monologue in my mind listing all of his past similar actions, and drawing conclusions about how he will act in the future. Instead, I’ll make giving him the benefit of the doubt a habit.
I won’t hear insults where insults aren’t spoken. Instead, I will hear need. I’ll hear tiredness, stress, sadness, hunger—or maybe just a desire to feel loved.
I won’t play judge or jury. No matter what my partner does, whether “good” or “bad,” desirable or not, there’s no reason for me to judge his character. If a behavior doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work for me; I can recognize that, communicate it to him without anger. The thoughts that drive me crazy are the ones that aren’t needed, thoughts like: “Is he a good husband?” “Is he a good person?” “How’s his character?” In the end, all these questions are nonsensical. In some moments, my partner is awesome—kind and surprisingly self-aware. In other moments, he has his blinders on. Any belief I have in my mind about your partner’s character is ultimately just that: a belief. Nothing more substantial than that.
I will practice CBT regularly.
I will question any painful beliefs that come up about my partner and our relationship.
Before Poppy was born, the answer would’ve been an easy yes. Back then, it was just so . . . straightforward. Maybe that’s why the challenges Matthew and I experienced during our first several years of parenthood were so difficult for us to face.
They were just so unexpected.
Part of the reason for this was our relative maturity: We met at twenty-six, had kids at thirty. Plus, we weren’t angry by nature; in the old “lovers versus fighters” split, neither of us could claim any affiliation with the latter.
If anything, in the first four years of our relationship, we didn’t disagree enough. Before Poppy was born, chore distribution wasn’t a problem. Matthew worked full-time and I worked part-time and cleaned and cooked. Meals were always on time and sleep was logistically uncomplicated, and our spending habits and social habits were compatible. Which is why, as we entered parenthood, our conflict resolution skills were notably underdeveloped.
Before Poppy, our relationship hadn’t been tested.
Not to say, of course, that our pairing was seamless; we did have a few key personality differences. Matthew was lighthearted while I was serious and driven. He preferred to just get things done, while I was more of a dot-and-crosser. Matthew procrastinated, too, which drove me crazy, and he was easily annoyed by little stuff like traffic. I usually kept my head over the small stuff, but let the big stuff get to me, which I admit was no healthier.
But Matthew was nice. He held me when I cried, and respected my decisions, and listened. Almost half a decade into our relationship, we still chatted late into the night. We still truly liked each other. We were still best friends.
We were among the lucky ones—and we knew it.
Which is why one night during my pregnancy we had a conversation that went something like this:
“You know, they say having kids changes your relationship—that you start fighting more, getting angry,” I said. “What do you think? Will that happen to us?”
We were lying in bed, Matthew on his back and me on my side facing him. The light was off, and in order to see Matthew’s face better, I readjusted her pillow.
“I don’t think it will,” Matthew said, staring at the ceiling.
“Really, Hon? That’s a nice thing to say.”
Matthew turned to face me. “Well, what would we fight about?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “What is something that bothers you about me? They say that whatever it is, it’ll get worse.”
“Nothing comes to mind.”
“Really? You can’t think of even one thing?”
“Not really. Nothing important. Why? Can you?”
I pulled her arm off of Matthew’s stomach and rolled onto her back. “No,” she said. “I can’t, either. But I do kinda wonder if we’ll remember this conversation later and laugh about how optimistic we were.”
“Maybe,” he said. And then he laughed.
Then our conversation shifted to more immediate concerns.
The feeling of invincibility we shared was, of course, overconfident—maybe even just plain dumb. However, in the years to come, whenever I recalled that moment I realized it was also pretty sweet.
We believed in themselves, and in each other, that much.
Even belief, though, arguably the most powerful force in the Universe next to love and gravity, has its limitations.