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.
Taken separately, most of the first-year fights Matthew and I had weren’t terribly significant; it was their accumulation that was the problem. As year two of parenthood began, though, the intensity increased and our recovery times did, too.
The First Trimester Tussle was one of our worst arguments of all time, and it was largely my fault. In addition to the apparent cause was the underlying one, namely: I was pregnant.
And I was miserable. I was miserable in a way I hadn’t been in years, before the baby, before ever meeting Matthew. Exhaustion, nausea, lower back spasms: my pregnancy pain cocktail tasted terrible. I even felt pregnant in my sleep.
My sixth week in, I gave up exercise. My seventh, I gave up healthy eating. By my ninth week, depression had fully set in, and everything was difficult, even conversation. Other than the requisite life management stuff and bare civilities, most of the words that exited my mouth were complaints.
Towards the end of that three-month period, myself, Matthew and Poppy went to my hometown to visit my family. Under normal circumstances, it would’ve been a happy occasion full of old favorites: favorite hotel, favorite restaurants, favorite scenic drives. This time, though, I dragged through the routines, and for some reason Matthew was nearly as sullen. And so, on the second night, as he and I lay in the hotel bed, I attempted some perfunctory compassion.
I asked Matthew what was wrong.
“Do you really want to know?” Matthew asked, placing his hand on my foot.
“Yes,” I said. “I really do.”
“Okay. Well, Hon, I’m sick of your complaining.”
Deep breath. In, then slowly out. In, then out again. Anger, sadness. Anger, guilt. Anger. Sadness. Deep breath.
“Okay,” I said. “So you don’t want me to talk about anything I’m feeling, what I’m going through? Is that it?”
“It’s just too much,” Matthew said, rubbing my foot. “I feel like I can’t take it anymore.” The only thing that saved us from the inevitable full-scale fight that night was that he said it nicely.
“But I’m trying,” I said. “I really, really am. You have no idea what this is like.”
“I know. But the complaining—does it help? Does it actually make you feel better? I don’t think it does. I think it makes it worse.”
I didn’t answer; instead, I turned my body away, loosening my foot from his hand. After several minutes, Matthew turned on the TV and found an old movie to watch. When it ended, he turned off the TV, then adjusted his pillow.
In the dark, I turned back towards him, then put his hand on my stomach. I held it there and rubbed it a bit.
“I’ll try harder,” I said in just-above-whisper volume. “I won’t complain so much anymore.”
It was a promise I didn’t keep for long.
The following day, Matthew returned home and went back to work, while Poppy and I stayed on. I hoped that the last two days would be better than the first, but it was not to be: they were worse. By the time the trip was over and I met Matthew at the airport, I wasn’t at my breaking point; I’d already slightly cracked.
“How did it go?” Matthew asked, greeting me with a kiss. Anger filled me. As if he cares. He doesn’t want to hear about it, and I told him I wouldn’t complain. There’s nothing I can do but lie or say nothing.
I shook my head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
He gave me a grim look and took one of my bags, then led me down the long hallway to the door. One moment down, a million more to go, I thought. And it wasn’t long before there was another.
“You’re quiet,” Matthew said as we left the terminal. “Did something happen after I left?”
Hmmm . . . ., I thought. He knows I’m mad, but he asked anyway. Points for that. I’ll try to calm down.
“Well, I’m not allowed to talk about it, am I?” I replied. Okay, that didn’t sound as nice as I’d hoped it would.
“I don’t know, Hon,” Matthew said. “Maybe not. I don’t know.”
It was not the right answer.
As soon as we got in the car I turned my face to the window, trying to hold myself together. By the time we exited the parking garage, though, I couldn’t stand it any longer; I spoke.
“After you left, my dad yelled at me, which pretty much ruined the rest of the trip. On the way to the airport, I got a speeding ticket. And the rental car company was closed when I got there so I couldn’t figure out how to return the car and we almost missed our plane. It was horrible.”
Matthew could’ve let it go. He could’ve given me some leeway. Instead, he sighed. “Hon. You didn’t even make it one hour.”
Second crack. Tears. Third crack. Shaking and sobs. Several minutes of this, and I felt shattered. The screaming that followed came not from my throat, but from somewhere much deeper inside.
The First Trimester Tussle wasn’t a single-day affair—not by a very long shot. The yelling lasted hours. The sarcasm, days. And the anger lasted nearly a month.
During this time, my terrible night thoughts visited regularly. And their themes were familiar. I can’t believe he actually said that, the narrative began. Can’t he even pretend to feel compassion? I’m pregnant, sick and hormonal, but I still have to be the strong one; he’s not picking up the slack.
Well, I’m stuck, now. Especially after having kids.That’s great. My life is ruined.
One night, feeling helpless against my inner rage, I made a healthy decision.
I called Gen.
“I’ve been mad at Matthew for a solid month,” I said.
“Yeah?” she said. “Tell me about it.”
“He’s been doing his stuff–his stuff with Poppy–the schedule stuff I told you about. But there’s this . . . undercurrent. I can’t forget the fight. At least, not for very long. I don’t know what to do. Do we go to counseling? Or do I just assume this is pregnancy hormones and it’ll pass?”
“Well, the fight was bad,” Gen said. “It might take a while to get over and you can’t expect to feel great mentally right now. I don’t know, Rachel. Marriage is so hard. It’s just hard to deal with another person all the time, even when you’re trying your absolute best. The good news is, most of this stuff you’ll forget soon enough. Probably much sooner, and much more thoroughly, than you think.”
As I considered this, she went on. “Do you even remember what your last few fights were about? The small ones, not the big ones.”
“What about a big fight that happened several years ago?”
“I guess not. Not right now, no.”
“I know you already apologized, Rachel. And I know you want Matthew to do the same. But he might not. And that’s okay. Sometimes, you just have to be the apologizer. Play that role. You’d be surprised how much it will help and how much will be forgotten. As for the emotions, they’re going to be there sometimes. My advice? Just put your head down and get through it.”
And so, that is what I did. I apologized to Matthew again for my moodiness and anger, even though I felt doing so was unnecessary, even unfair. I reminded myself how much my hormones were affecting me lately.
Lesson: Shamelessly Bargain (And Always Have a Bottom Line)
Book Notes and Quotes:
His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, Willard F. Harley, Jr.:
Marriage is transactional. “The more you give to your partner, the more they give to you.”
Couples have an “inner scoring device you probably never realized you had” that the author calls a Love Bank. Somewhere deep inside our (mathematically skilled) subconscious, we’re keeping track of each others’ balances, and we understand when we’re due payment, and when we owe. When the giving is roughly equal and both partners get their needs met, the relationship is satisfactory to both. When there’s unequal giving, though, the marriage runs into trouble—if not right away, then eventually. The goal, then, is to ensure your transactions even out as much as possible so that neither partner ever feels cheated.
Neale Donald Walsch on Relationships, Neale Donald Walsch:
Relationships don’t have to be a friendly (or not-so-friendly) game of tug of war. When disagreements arise and neither partner is willing to compromise, offering clear consequences takes care of the problem. An example: If one day your partner suddenly decides to take up smoking, and you aren’t okay with that, you don’t have to yell or nag. The solution is simple: You tell your partner that you love and respect them, but if they keep smoking in your home you’ll have to move out.
Parenting With Love and Logic, Foster Cline and Jim Fay:
Many parenting skills apply to other relationships, too, including friendship and marriage.
Effective parents don’t use anger, nagging and threats; instead, they offer choices. When kids try to argue, they don’t engage; instead, they say “I understand,” then repeat the choice.
Some examples of choices effective parents give: “Are you planning to be unkind for a while? If so, I’m going to spend some time away from you.” “If you hit, you lose.” “If you spend your allowance on something else, I won’t be able to pay your phone bill for you.”
My Relationship Resolutions:
I won’t over-romanticize marriage. My husband isn’t going to do whatever I want him to do just because he loves me; there has to be something in it for him, too. By the same token, I won’t be embarrassed to admit when I’m doing something for him in order to get something in return. Doing so is just part of my self-care.
When something isn’t working for me, I won’t nag. I’ll negotiate. I’ll communicate my needs clearly and allow him to do the same.
During negotiations, I’ll focus on solutions, not emotions. No anger. No accusations. No spinning off into fear. Instead, I will simply describe what I want, then discuss the matter till it’s resolved.
I will have clear and reasonable expectations. I will know what I really need from Matthew and what I’m willing to compromise on or give up.
I will have clear consequences. If Matthew doesn’t follow through on an agreement, I will look for a way he can make it up to me.
I will always have a bottom line. If Matthew doesn’t agree to giving me a certain amount of money or a certain amount of alone time, I will take it anyway and let him choose to either remain angry or accept it.
I will keep my end of the bargain.
I will demand a fair transaction. I won’t stay in an unhealthy relationship. I am not a martyr.
Most of all, I will remember to keep it simple. Relationships are hard—some of the time. But with clear communication, clear expectations and clear consequences, most of the time, they should feel pretty easy the rest of the time.
For the Fridge:
“I promise to negotiate, not nag.”
“I promise to focus mainly on solutions, not emotions.”
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.”
The fight was our most embarrassing one, occurring in a restaurant during a busy wedding celebration dinner. Almost as soon as we sat down, there was something between us, something we couldn’t seem to shake. At first, little things got to us: Poppy’s fussing in the high chair, throwing food, grabbing at our silverware. While I scolded gently, Matthew attempted bribe after bribe, pointing out that his technique was more successful. Poppy spilled her water, and interrupted every conversation, and by the time dinner came, I was ready to leave.
But of course, we could not leave.
Finally, dessert: peach pie and coffee and a port tasting at the bar. As the mood lightened, it happened: Matthew took a large forkful of the pie, and put it on Poppy’s plate.
“Matthew!” I said, a little too loudly.
“Rachel. It’s pie. It’s a treat.”
“I’m training her taste buds. You know how hard it is. It takes a lot of work to avoid unhealthy stuff.”
“Well, maybe it’s not worth it. Maybe it’s okay to give in every once in a while. Maybe you’re making your job too hard.”
“Oh, you’re blaming me now? For what? For trying to be a good parent? You’re blaming me that raising a kid is so hard?”
I glared at Matthew. He glared back. Then I looked around, noticing the people that were noticing us. After picking Poppy’s food scraps off of the floor and throwing them on the table, I escaped to the bathroom.
He breaks our rule, then embarrasses me about it? Wow. I can’t believe that just happened. These were some of the thoughts that rushed to mind as I looked in the mirror and washed my hands. How dare he say I make my job too hard, when he’s the one who’s making it so much harder? He acts like it’s my choice that I’m stressed out about Poppy. If he helped me more, it’d be a lot easier.
I took some deep breaths, then washed my face, and by the time I returned the check had been paid. My friends gave me sympathetic looks, then retreated to their cars. Matthew, though, was a little less well-mannered. We gathered up the baby and the baby supplies, and quietly walked out. On the way home, we got stuck in traffic.
I’m not going to stay mad, I’m not going to stay mad, I repeated to myself as the car slowed. How can I act in this situation that will make me proud of myself afterward? How can I talk to him about it honestly, while still being nice?
Immediately, I had my answer. It was all in the tone of voice. That’s what really mattered—not what I said.
Fucking eureka. I could say whatever I wanted, pretty much, as long as I used a respectful tone of voice.
Gathering scraps sympathy, much as I’d gathered Poppy’s leftovers, I took a deep breath and began.
“Matthew, I’m sorry I nagged you about the pie. I know you were just doing what you thought was best. I’m sorry if you thought I was accusing you of something.”
Matthew turned his eyes from the traffic and looked directly at me. He relaxed a bit, giving me a forced smile. “It’s not that you nagged me that I didn’t like. It’s that you always question my judgment. You try to make every decision about Poppy, and even when I have good ideas, you don’t listen. You think you know everything and I know nothing.”
“Really?” I asked. “But you don’t tell me many ideas. I’m always the one who has to take charge.”
“I don’t need to give you input on every little thing. But when I do, you should know it’s because it’s something I care about.”
I paused, taking this in. It made sense, actually. It wasn’t about the nagging. It was about respect.
Matthew went on. “How many times have I given you good advice, and you just kept ignoring it till it was obvious I was right? Remember sleep training? You put it off for so long, and now you’re so much more well-rested.”
“That’s true,” I said. “You are often right. And it sounds like you don’t think I know that. But Matthew, I do respect you. I know I’m a control freak and we don’t always agree on everything but please don’t ever question that. Okay?”
Matthew gave me a strange look, one I didn’t quite recognize. Then, I did. It was emotion. He knew I was angry and was restraining that feeling in order to . . . well, to be nice. And he appreciated it.
For the rest of the ride home, we were quiet—quietly grateful. The argument had turned into a good thing. The pie, the no pie—that’s not what this was about, we realized. It was about wanting to feel heard and loved.
Matt and I slept well that night. Then the following evening, after I’d thought it over a while, I decided to broach the subject—an uncomfortable one for Matthew—once again. I called him into the bedroom where I had been reading and told him I wanted to tell him something.
Matt stood in the doorway. “What is it?”
“You know, for everybody you love, the feeling is a little bit different,” I said. “Some people, you have to work at it a bit. But with you, I’ve never had to. I’ve never had to convince myself of anything. Ever since we met, I just loved you. I love you as close to unconditionally as I am capable of—and nothing that has happened between us has ever changed that. Not the arguments and disagreements—nothing. Not even a little. You are just someone I truly like and love.”
“Thank you, Rachel,” Matthew said. “Thank you. Really. That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“And I’m trying really hard to treat you this way, in a way that shows you this. I’m trying really hard every day.”
He sat on the bed next to me. “I love you, too. I really do. I’m sorry for the restaurant thing.”
“So our friends think we hate each other now, probably.”
“It’s fine. Just wait till they have kids. All judgment will be gone.”
And that’s how I learned my next important relationship lesson: it’s not the words you say that matter most. What matters is that the other person feels cared about and respected—even in the middle of an argument.
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.
For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed, Tara Parker-Pope:
Seventy percent of the time, couple’s fights are never resolved–even among happy couples. No two people agree on everything all the time.
“To expect your husband or wife to agree with you on all things is an unrealistic burden to place on a marriage.”
The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, Shaunte Feldhahn:
Remember that your partner probably loves you a great deal. In one survey, the overwhelming majority of people said that they “care deeply” about their partners, but only four in ten believed that their partners felt the same.
“Once you believe your spouse absolutely cares about you . . . hurt, anger and resentment arise a lot less often.”
Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstanding, Aaron T. Beck M.D.:
“When it comes to talking out conflicts, again there is a sex difference. Many women, for example, take the attitude ‘The marriage is working as long as we can talk about it.’ Many husbands, on the other hand, have the view ‘The relationship is not working as long we keep talking about it.'”
My Relationship Resolutions:
I won’t overtalk. I won’t discuss every nuance of our relationship with Matthew. Men love their dogs for a reason.
I won’t expect too much. Matthew has the right to a bad day, and so do I. We can apologize and move on.
When something is bothering me a little too much, I’ll point it out nicely, once only, then drop the subject for a while. No big deal.
I will continue to maintain close same-gender friendships, as well as hobbies that may or may not include Matthew. If Matt is my whole life, every disagreement threatens my happiness. I will not let this happen.
Most important, I won’t overreact, ever. In fact, I will underreact. Even if at the time the problem seems like a big deal, I’ll trust we’ll figure it out eventually.
After that night, and until Poppy was about nine months old, things were decidedly better between Matthew and I. Though we still argued regularly, and the ends to those arguments were more truces than resolutions, they were very welcome truces indeed. Sometimes, I even dared to hope our relationship was back to normal—or at least on its way to getting there.
I should’ve known this was just the beginning of the adventure.
And there was another, even greater consolation to be had, and that, of course, was the baby.
From the very first night—the very first moment, really—I just loved being a mother. I loved nursing. I loved cuddling. I loved long car rides and walks to nowhere. I loved staring at Poppy’s face as she slept.
I loved that my job was loving.
Contrary to popular opinion, I told Genevieve, being a mom wasn’t the hardest job on earth. If it weren’t for the long hours and the sleep deprivation, it might’ve even been easy.
And so, even though I still remembered the hard times with Matthew that first year—the stress, the arguing, the frustration—it’s not those feelings that come to mind first when recalling that time in my life.
Mostly, I remember my baby.
The baby’s smile. Her dark curls. Her new discoveries, favorite songs. The way she drew admiring looks from total strangers wherever she went. The first time she sang, played with a ball, and didn’t cry when Mom left.
And that’s what Matthew remembers, too. He remembers falling in love.
Of course, the intensity of the experience of first motherhood wasn’t all the good-feeling kind; particularly between the sixth and twelfth months, negative emotions ran high, too. Poppy hated babysitters, and being left alone, even for a moment. And getting her to sleep was still difficult. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t love the work.
It was just a whole lot of work.
One evening, the exhaustion caught up to me. Matthew was working late, so to kill time I took Poppy to the mall. In a seating area there I let Poppy “off the leash,” so to speak, to explore the area as I rested. As the baby ran her hands over some scuffs on the floor, a woman stopped and stared at me in surprise.
“Aren’t you afraid she’ll get some horrible disease?” she asked.
And I very nearly lost my composure. To prevent a scene, I glared at her, saying nothing, until she took her disapproval elsewhere. Then I spent the next thirty minutes just trying to breathe.
Finally, it was almost time to meet Matthew for dinner. As expected, Poppy cried all the way home. When we arrived, I tried unsuccessfully to put her to sleep early, and when Matthew got home—even later than expected—I had no tension left, only sadness.
“Hi, Hon. How was your evening?” Matthew asked as he poked his head into the bedroom.
I didn’t even look at him.
“That rough, huh? What happened?”
I just shook my head. I could speak, but nothing in me wanted to.
Matthew took Poppy and started pacing the room, singing a song, while I curled up on the bed. Twenty minutes passed, and after Poppy finally drifted off, I was ready to tell him how I felt.
My voice was hushed to the point of unfamiliarity. “Why does she cry so much?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Matthew said. “I’m sorry, Rachel. I love you.”
It was the right response.
He put a hand on my shoulder, then put Poppy next to me and curled up on my other side. That night whenever Poppy woke up, he picked her up and rocked her, allowing me to sleep without interruption.
With that first big fight after having our baby an invisible barrier was breached. Gradually, over the course of our first half-year of parenthood, our arguments became not exactly frequent, but much less unexpected than before. Granted, they were quiet fights, usually–no yelling, no slamming doors.
But they were definitely still fights.
On the surface, the topics were few—sort of a greatest hits situation: Matthew’s long hours at work, my long days at home, undone chores. But now we had an even bigger problem: even when we weren’t actually arguing, there was an atmosphere of impatience.
In other words: we were moody.
Day by day, small annoyances were piling up, much like the dishes in our increasingly neglected kitchen sink. Misplaced belongings. Forgotten diaper bags. Car trouble. All the things that get under our skin even when we aren’t already on edge were accumulating, taking on greater significance for their number. Matthew’s bad attitudes caused my bad attitudes and vice versa, until we both felt we were the one being wronged the most. As a new, often overwhelmed mom I desperately wanted Matthew to be the strong one, to put a smile on his face and “take one for the team.” But that isn’t how relationships work, is it? I had to be the better one, the more enlightened one, the more mature one. Me. If I wanted anyone to. Only me.
And so, as month five approached, the tension that had once been rare and easily forgotten was now our default mode; grumpiness had become our new normal. This scared me, and rightly so; I’d always said I’d never be one of those wives, the kind that seeths quietly and avoids looking into her husband’s eyes. When I started actively seeking the hidden significance of every questionable remark, looking for reasons to be mad, I knew it was time to make an adjustment.
That adjustment came on a warm summer morning, when Matthew was mowing the lawn and Poppy was sleeping. I was using the quiet time to clean the kitchen and to reflect a bit. Okay, not reflect. Worry.
I’m avoiding the big fights most of the time, I thought. I’m keeping a positive outlook on Matthew’s character, giving him the benefit of the doubt. And yet, the annoyance is still there; underneath it all, I’m still angry. How can I learn how to just let the little stuff go?
I turned to the dishes, rinsing them hastily and placing them in the machine while watching Matthew out the front window. He was wrestling with the push mower, the one I opted to buy over the gas-powered kind, which meant that whatever went wrong with it would be my fault.
Here we go, I thought. He seems frustrated. He’s probably going to take it out on me.
Unfortunately, the hasty assumption wasn’t wrong.
Matthew let the mower fall from his outstretched hands. Then he kicked it and stormed toward the house.
Unbenownst to him, however, I was ready; in the seconds it took for him to get to the front door, I ‘d come up with a plan. Recalling my desire to reduce the annoyance that was clawing at us both, I decided that no matter what, I wouldn’t overreact.
I wouldn’t get defensive. I wouldn’t make it a thing.
I would just let him be mad, and say nothing.
“Whatever possessed you to buy a manual mower?” Matthew said, predictably, entering the kitchen. “With our huge lawn, and all our pine trees? What a ridiculous waste of money that thing was. I’m getting rid of it. Today.”
My internal reaction: bristling, hot-headed self-justification. My external reaction: do I flatter myself to say I was bemused? I didn’t frown, didn’t smile. I just looked at him and tilted my head. Maybe I raised my eyebrows, too.
Matthew paused a moment, waiting for the response that didn’t come. Then he stormed down the hall to the TV room. I took a deep breath—one, then another. I was behaving well, but I was still upset.
Why is he blaming me for the lawn mower not working? I fumed. He’s being seriously irrational. He’s taking something small then blowing it out of proportion at my expense. It makes me feel so disrespected.
I placed the last dish in the machine. Then I went outside to retrieve the mower.
It looked as abandoned as I felt.
For the next half hour, I struggled through the tall grass, picking out the pine cones when they got stuck. As the lawn slowly improved in appearance, my sour mood shifted, too, and by the time I returned the mower to the garage, I had some perspective.
After washing up, I joined Matthew in the TV room and smiled at him over the screen.
“Don’t let the lawn mower get the best of you, Hon,” I said. Hearing this, Matthew’s mood changed perceptibly.
“Thanks for finishing up,” he said. And then he smiled. It was his way of apologizing, and I knew it.
What was I so worried about, anyway? I wondered. My husband is wonderful, and he loves me. Yes, he was disrespectful. And emotional, and unfair.
The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, Shaunte Feldhahn:
“Don’t follow the traditional advice to never go to bed angry. By all means, crawl in and sleep! Be angry, feel your feelings fully, think it over a while. Then talk about the problem when you’re a bit more level-headed.”
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Daniel J. Siegel:
Our brains are hard-wired for conflict and danger. Due to our heritage of difficult survival conditions, we’re often on the lookout for anything that threatens our sense of well-being—even in our relationships.
When people get mad, the anger part of the brain (the amygdala) becomes highly active. This activity then partially overrides or obscures the activity in the places of the brain that are responsible for logic and reason. “I wasn’t acting like myself,” then, isn’t just a lame excuse for bad behavior. There is a lot of truth to it. Therefore, it’s best to wait out the anger before discussing a problem with your spouse.
For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed, Tara Parker-Pope:
“The study showed that the nuanced first few minutes of an argument can set the tone for the entire fight, determining whether the discussion will be productive or harmful to your relationship. In fact . . . just watching the first three minutes of the conversation helped [researchers] predict which couples would stay married and who was headed for divorce during the next six years.”
“Marriage studies show that one of the main differences between a good fight and a bad fight is whether it begins with a complaint or a criticism . . . Couples who engage in a harsh or brusque start-up–leveling harsh words and spiteful criticisms–are headed for trouble. Couples who launch conflict discussions carefully and gently are more likely to have a productive argument that strengthens, rather than weakens, their relationship.”
“Speak in a slow, quiet voice. (No gritted teeth or seething tone.) Look your partner in the eyes. . . . If needed, take a time-out to collect your thoughts.”
Use key phrases that help de-escalate an argument, such as: “It sounds like you’re saying,” “It seems like,” “What if,” “I know this is hard for you,” “What are your thoughts?” and “What are the next steps for us?”
Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d, Candace Pert
Emotions are real. They’re a molecular entity. Once a feeling is established, it won’t die–give up its place in your body–without a fight.
Cell receptors and the signals that direct them are, together, the “molecules of emotion.” There is also a ligand–a protein precursor–for each. The receptors wiggle and send vibrations to attract the proper ligand, like a lock and key mating. These vibrations and constant responses form a continuous electrical current throughout your body.
When cell receptors don’t get the right ligands–the proteins that fit them to create the emotion you’re used to creating–the hypothalamus signals thoughts that trigger that emotion.
To rewire your brain to get angry less often, regularly visualize a different outcome, idea or emotion, and “. . . train yourself to come from the highest possible ‘observer’–the subpersonality that’s most closely associated with the divine, or the higher self.” Do this through meditation or prayer.
My Relationship Resolutions:
I will perform a pre-fight cost benefit analysis. Is the best possible outcome worth having the argument?
I will start no unnecessary fights. Simple as that. When I get mad at Matthew about something minor, I’ll just let it go. The resentment won’t kill me; to the contrary, it’ll die out more quickly.
If I decide the fight is worth it, I will wait a while before bringing it up.
Rather than fighting, I will learn how to just talk. No snapping. No sarcasm. No condescension. No crankiness, even. I might even find space for a joke.
I will focus on solutions.
I will use “I” statements.
I will not expect a verbal apology. I will understand that sometimes, apologies are disguised as actions rather than words.
Above all, I will use a kind, respectful tone of voice.
For the Fridge:
“I promise not to discuss an issue unless it’s worth the tension it will cause and unless I’ve given it some time.”
In the weeks following our first big fight after having a baby—the Post-Baby Brawl we’d been waiting for—my fearful nighttime thoughts were more frequent and disastrous than ever. First, I returned to the previous theme of questioning Matthew’s character: Matthew is a selfish person, a taker, inconsiderate in the extreme. But I found even those thoughts could be topped.
My whole life is a sham. I go around pretending that everything is okay, but it’s not; a lot of days, I’m barely hanging on. I’m never going to solve my relationship problems. It’s impossible. He will never change.
One afternoon about a month after the argument, I put Poppy in the carrier and took her to the nearest running track for an easy, undistracted walk. I didn’t want to think about the scenery or where to turn next; I just wanted to focus on my thoughts. When we arrived, the park was empty, and I decided to take the opportunity to speak my feelings out loud, try to untangle them.
“How does everyone do it?” I asked myself. “There’s got to be something I’m missing. My friends, people I know—they have kids and recommend it. They seem happy with their partners despite the challenges. What do they know that I haven’t figured out yet? Is there something here I need to learn?
“I just feel so lost. I don’t know what to do, how to get through to him. It’s obvious to me that he needs to do more. But there are only so many different ways I can ask him. I’m angry so often, and I hate it.”
Then a thought came. A feeling, really, much like the one that came a month prior. Like its predecessor, it came with a rightness, with a force of knowing—and even with a bit of peace.
“What if you tried not showing Matthew your anger?” it said. “What if you just had a lighthearted conversation? There is no rule that says you have to be honest all the time about your feelings. You can fake it a little–smile, make a joke. Even when you’re mad, you don’t have to fight. You can say nothing, or just talk.”
I rounded the next curve in silence, letting the thought sink in. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Hadn’t I always heard that it’s good for couples to fight, to vent their feelings before they grew into resentment? If I never yelled at Matthew, how would he know that he hurt me? What would motivate him to do better?
Soon, good sense set in. Of course, I thought. A smile. A joke. Learning how to just talk. I can show Matthew how I feel without yelling.
I can be mad, but not fight
For the rest of the walk, I contemplated the advice further, and by the time I reached home, I had a plan. In addition to always assuming the best of Matthew, I would attempt to never show him my anger—to only either speak nicely or be silent.
Though the months that followed proved the plan difficult, even impossible, to carry out flawlessly, I never stopped believing in its effectiveness–and the more I practiced it, the easier it became. Far from adding to my resentment, it helped me keep my perspective.
Just talking, it turned out, was pretty awesome.
Why didn’t anyone teach me this sooner? I wondered. I guess there’s a point to marriage after all.
Two months into motherhood, I still hadn’t gotten the hang of co-parenting. Though my hormones had largely normalized and the night crying had stopped, the tension between Matthew and I was still there. It came in waves—small ones, mostly, with the occasional whitecap. Though I did my best to withstand them one by one, it wasn’t enough; I wanted to swim.
And then, the argument I’d been waiting for—that Matthew and I both, probably, knew was coming—finally happened.
It started, predictably, in the evening, when we were most tired and vulnerable. Despite the recent improvement in our feelings toward each other and in our overall communication, our core post-baby issues hadn’t been addressed yet.
We still had some stuff to figure out.
Little by little, the frustration returned. Then the mouse took his place at the end of the rope, and pulled, and pulled again, and I came down with the flu.
It wasn’t the worst flu I’d ever had. But it was one of the most unpleasant, if only because I couldn’t lie in bed. I had to hold. I had to walk. I had to hit the damn button on the damn musical toy, staving off moment by moment a crisis of boredom from a child that couldn’t yet work her own hands.
I had to mother a newborn while sick.
When I stopped any of these things, the crying started up again. And of course, it wasn’t just crying. It was that wailing, tragedy-has-already-struck-and-I-don’t-want-anyone-to-forget-to-save-me cry that serves our little humans so well.
Since it was a Saturday, Matthew was home all day, but unfortunately he wasn’t much help. “Every time I pick her up, she just cries louder,” he’d complain after what seemed like mere minutes of carrying. “She’s probably hungry. She needs to nurse.”
Then he’d hand Poppy back, and sit back on the couch.
Uncomfortable minutes became painful hours, and hours became a morning and an afternoon. Finally, sometime after the sun went down, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore.
I decided I’d have to start a fight.
I couldn’t just go to the bedroom without Poppy, leaving her with Matthew for a while. I couldn’t calmly draw a bath and lock the door behind me. I couldn’t gently ask Matthew to take Poppy out or, God forbid, simply talk to him about my feelings. All those choices were the choices of emotionally stable people, people with full reserves of self-control.
And right then, I wasn’t one of them.
So, I did the only thing left for me to do. I stormed into the TV room, threw a toy on the floor, and, for the first time, screamed at him.
“Get off the couch! Help me with the baby! Get in here and play with Poppy!”
Matthew looked at me with surprised eyes, then with cold ones. Then he looked away without responding.
“Get up! Get up!” I said again, walking in front of him. “Get over here and take the baby right now!”
Matthew set his jaw tighter, still saying nothing. Seeing this, I crossed another line I hadn’t crossed with him before: I swore.
“You are an asshole!” I yelled. “You are an asshole! There, I said it! Finally! I am sick, and overworked, and you’re just watching TV, acting like it’s not your problem!
“I am mad at you! I am mad at you! I am mad at you!”
The screaming was new. The cursing was new. But the most significant part of the outburst was the end. It was the first time I’d ever told Matthew, outright, that I was mad at him.
It was the first time I admitted there was a problem in our relationship.
Matthew stood up. He went to the playroom in silence and sat with the baby on the floor. I stormed off to the bedroom, slamming the door as loudly as possible. Then I lay in bed, feeling even more miserable than before.
Clearly, this fight isn’t over, I knew. But how best to talk it out? Should I wait till tomorrow when I’m feeling less emotional? Or should I go talk to him right now?
I tried to read but couldn’t focus on the book. Then I made a cup of tea I didn’t drink. Finally, I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night avoiding the problem, distracting myself; what I really wanted to do was to talk.
I really, really needed to talk.
I went to the playroom and sat on the floor against the wall a comfortable distance from Matthew and Poppy. When after a long moment Matthew finally looked at me accusingly I looked back sadly and started to cry.
“Honey, what’s going on?” Matthew asked, hurt. I was relieved to hear his voice.
“I know, Hon, I know. I snapped. I shouldn’t’ve said what I said. But really, I am so beyond my limit.”
“I know I’ve told you this before. But I don’t think you really understand: I am so far, far beyond my limit. I’m exhausted. I’m working and sleeping and nothing else. And sometimes you don’t even try to help.”
“What are you talking about?” Matthew asked, bouncing Poppy in his lap. “I help almost every time you ask. Don’t you notice?”
I paused. He does? “You do?”
“Wow. Wait a second while I rearrange my entire mental recording of our past few months.”
“Yeah, do that.”
“You think you help me a lot? And how often is a lot to you?”
“Often. A few times a day.”
I took a deep breath. Not only doesn’t he help me enough—he doesn’t even realize it, I thought. He really doesn’t have a clue.
“And what do you consider helping?” Another breath. Then another.
“The diapers and the cooking and the grocery shopping and playing with the baby when you need me to? You don’t think I help? Wow. I feel so unappreciated.”
“You feel . . . unappreciated?” I said. “You feel . . . unappreciated.” And from that moment on in the conversation, nothing new was said. The conversation that followed was very long, and very circular, and the resolution we came to far from adequate.
I pointed out what I felt was patently obvious: the number of hours I spent every day with the baby, the lack of significant breaks. Matthew defended his position–didn’t give an inch–which, to me, was more than wrongheaded. It was betrayal.
“And here this whole time I’ve been so proud of myself, sacrificing so much for our daughter. I’ve missed so much sleep. I’ve done almost everything for her. And you think changing a few diapers actually compares? I have never felt more unloved in my life.”
Matthew pointed out that though I was with Poppy during the day, he couldn’t be; he was at work. “Anyway, we talked about this. We decided I’d take the baby every night while you make dinner. And that is exactly what I’ve been doing.”
“Don’t you get it, Matthew? Don’t you see what I’m going through? When you take the baby in the evening, I’m still working; I’m getting dinner. Then you go off and have your time alone, but when do I ever get a break?”
“You never ask for a break.”
“I never ask for a break? Isn’t it obvious that when your wife is sick, she could use a little help? Isn’t that just human decency and compassion? Besides, when I do ask, you get moody about it, and I feel like even though you say you’ll help, you don’t want to. Sometimes it’s just easier not to ask.”
“Well, you’ve been pretty moody lately, too, you know. It’s not fun for me, either.”
I shook my head. “Wow. So an hour a day of help is enough in your mind. You really have no idea.”
“If you need more help, Hon, you need to ask for it.”
“Fine. I will. Remember this conversation when I do, though, and you say no or get annoyed.”
“Fine with me.” A long pause. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
That night as we lay next to each other, not touching, I surprised myself; I decided to move my legs over and rub them against Matthew’s. Because, in spite of everything, in spite of my anger and my disappointment, I was glad that he was there.
“I’m going to try to communicate better with you,” I told him in the dark.
“And I will help you more with Poppy,” he replied.
Then we both said “I love you,” and went to sleep.
“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.
The day after my decision to change my story about Matthew, nothing particularly notable occurred. And yet, there was a change: subtle, yet obvious. I sensed that Matthew sensed my new perspective. Maybe it was my eyes–softer now, easier. Maybe it was my tone of voice, my body movements. Whatever it was, the small differences truly made a difference, even though for a long time that’s all there were.
Matthew was more helpful. He was happier. He bought me flowers. But the best changes were the less obvious ones. There were more smiles, more loving conversations—and a lot more conversations overall. It was like since Poppy was born we’d been living in a bubble of irritation without knowing it and suddenly the bubble popped and disappeared. Together we realized what we’d been missing out on.
We realized we were breathing again.
Of course, seeing the best in my husband wasn’t all it took to overcome the assault of early parenthood; for me, doing so took three years of fighting and learning. Which is why during those three years, my advice-collecting practice continued in earnest till my list of lessons looked something like this:
Change Your Story
Don’t Fight; Just Talk Instead
Don’t Make It Into a Big Deal
Be Uncomfortably Nice
Apologize Every Chance You Get
Brush Up on Your Endocrinology
Change Your Partner the Right Way
Don’t Defend Yourself
Appreciate the Gift
Admittedly, some of the advice was odd. Simplistic. Optimistic. Overly so, probably, on all counts. But when I followed it, a funny thing happened: my perspective on my relationship changed dramatically. No longer did I feel overwhelmed by the task before me, that of ensuring my marriage survived parenthood intact. The tricks gave me confidence in my husband, in my relationship skills and, finally, in myself.
They make me feel like I had some power.
There was only one problem: At times, I was unable to use that power. When I first set out on her parenting adventure, I realized it wouldn’t be easy. What I didn’t predict was the magnitude of my emotions, their ability to override all logic. Because of this, and because of the challenges Matthew and I faced, things did change in my marriage after we became parents, just as I feared they would.
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.
Still, about three weeks into parenthood, it finally dawned on me: This problem wasn’t one to wait out. It wasn’t going to go away. It wasn’t going to fix itself. I’d have to find a way to get rid of it. So, I did what any other self-respecting self-help junkie would do: I started collecting advice.
I searched the Internet, of course, as well as the library. This was a lot harder than it sounds. Most of the relationship advice online was generic, to say the least. And the books I found didn’t seem to address parenting. What I need, I decided, is real stories, real experiences. I need to call a few friends.
My first choice: calm, collected mother of four, Marianne.
Marianne was one of the happiest people I knew, and for good reason: She had the whole Zen thing figured out. While my habit was to analyze a problem from every angle, suffocating it with my prolonged attention, Mare knew how to just finesse things away. She knew how to let things be until they weren’t—until they either died of boredom or left.
“Is this normal?” I asked after briefly explaining the situation. “Is this just the way new dads are?” What I really wanted to ask, though, was more personal, more probing: What had Marianne’s own husband been like when their kids were born? But I didn’t dare.
“I don’t know if it’s normal,” Marianne replied. “But is that really the question you should be asking? Or should you just ask if it’s something you can live with? If you’re okay with what he’s doing, or if you’re not?”
Sensible advice, I thought, taking a deep breath. Balanced, like Marianne herself. Maybe I should call Emily and ask her what she thinks.
Maybe I asked the wrong person.
“Yeah, sure, I get it,” I said. “There are no right answers, and all that. But what would you do if you were me? If you had this situation to deal with?”
“I know you want advice. All I can say is, think it over. Take a long walk. Pray about it a little. I know you’re not religious, but try it, anyway. Then get really quiet and ask yourself what the answer is.”
“That’s all you got?”
“Okay. And let me know what happens.”
Yeah, I thought as I hung up the phone. I definitely asked the wrong person. I don’t need philosophy. What I need is help. I know. I’ll call Gen instead.
“I need to fix this,” I whispered to Genevieve later that evening after I’d moved out of the office and away from Matthew. “I’m hormonal, and I’m miserable, when I should be the happiest I’ve ever been. This sucks. There must be something I can do.”
“I know. There should be. There’s got to be,” said Gen. “It’s almost impossible that nothing you can do will make a difference.”
“Exactly,” I said. “You get it. My fellow control freak. So, let’s come up with some ideas.”
“Have you read any marriage books yet?”
“Of course I have.”
“Of course you have. So? What did they say?”
“Meh. The usual stuff. They were pretty bland. Nothing I haven’t heard before.”
“Maybe you read the wrong ones. Or maybe you need to branch out a bit. You know what I would do? I’d look for relationship advice in other kinds of books.”
“Like spiritual books. And parenting books. And psychology books—happiness research, that kind of thing.”
“Woah. Hold on there. You lost me at parenting books. I’m not going to have time for all that reading.”
“So skim it. Do what you can. I’ll give you my notes, too. You can keep a journal of everything you learn that might help. What I’ve noticed is that when it comes to self-improvement stuff, if I don’t write it down somewhere and keep a checklist, I forget it.”
“Hmmm. All right. That does make sense. If nothing else, it’ll make me feel like I’m doing something.”
“No, it’ll work, Rachel. The answers are out there somewhere. You’re not the first person to have these problems.”
“No, I’m not. But that doesn’t mean they’re solvable.”
“Rachel. Snap out of it. Matthew is great. He’s not perfect, but he’s … basically normal. It’s hard to see it when you’re mad, but trust me. He’s fixable. If anybody is fixable, he is.”
“So what you’re saying is I should try to change my partner? Isn’t that supposed to be the worst relationship advice ever?”
“They only bad advice is the advice that doesn’t work. And if you never try, you’ll never know.”
“That is true.”
I hung up. I put Poppy in her swing, then, while making dinner, considered both my friends’ advice.
I love Gen’s practicality, I thought. But Marianne’s advice is easier. I think a long walk is in order.
After a short dinner, I told Matt I’d be back in an hour. I put Poppy in the stroller and headed to a well-lit park. As I walked, I spoke out loud about my feelings, about my anger, about each and every perceived relationship problem. Then, I did as Marianne instructed: I got very quiet, and imagined my higher self giving me advice. It took just a few minutes for a small miracle to occur.
For the first time, I clearly heard her inner voice.
It was just a sentence—just a handful of words—and I heard it only in her thoughts, silently. But it came with a knowing, with a rightness, with a force. And the words were definitely not my own. They were: “Change your story about Matthew.”
What the hell was that? That was my first reaction. It was followed by, Where did it come from?
Was it an angel? Or did I make it up myself? Naw. That’s the last thing I’d come up with. Denial? Can’t be good. Especially about my marriage.
My subconscious is smarter than that.
I took a deep breath. Then another, and another. “It’s time to head back,” I said to Poppy.
On the way home, something strange happened. The sentence I heard changed shape in my mind. I found myself remembering the early days of my relationship with Matthew, when things were so simple, so easy. Rare were the times when I questioned Matthew’s character or motives, even when I disagreed with his choice. When he didn’t bring me flowers on her birthday, for instance, he just wasn’t into romantic displays. When he lost his temper over a tricky repair job, he was just tired or hungry.
Change your story about Matthew, I repeated to myself. Yeah, there is some truth there. Matthew isn’t without flaws. But he’s who he is. He’s doing the best he can.
Like all of us, he’s learning. He’s trying. And when I remember that, our disagreements don’t feel quite so horrible.
When I got home, I gave Matthew the baby and started getting ready for bed. As I did, she noticed something: she felt better. Lighter. Less angry, more hopeful that things would work out.
So this is what all those religious people feel, I thought, adjusting my blankets.
I felt a little transformed.
“Change your story.” It just might work. But can I actually do it?
Afterwards, I called it the Muffin Incident. Because though it wasn’t exactly a fight, it was significant enough to name. It happened in December when Poppy had just reached three weeks of age and Matthew’s mom, Mary, was visiting.
I’d taken a walk with Poppy, who had by now established herself as a fairly high-maintenance child. The stroller calmed her and the walking calmed me, and even in the coldest weather I didn’t go a day without at least one long outing.
When I returned home, I was tired and thirsty and I badly needed to pee. I opened the door to see Mary sipping tea and Matthew on the couch, his bathrobe still on, even though it was eleven in the morning.
“Hello,” I said.
Mary stood. “Nice walk?”
Mary turned to her son. “Now, this is when you step in, Matthew, and take the baby so Rachel can get her shoes off and settle in.”
I smiled tensely. Matthew did as he was told. Then I escaped to the kitchen. I got a glass of water and was heading to the bathroom when it happened: Matthew asked the question.
“Can you make me a muffin, honey?”
I paused, took it in. Emotion rushed to my head. My throat started to close, but I caught it, swallowing.
“Sure,” I told him. “Just a minute.”
I went to the bathroom, then to the kitchen, made him the muffin and brought it to the table. He sat down to eat, handing the baby back to me, and I sat on the couch and nursed.
As we chatted with Mary, I reflected on the exchange, not objectively, but honestly nonetheless. Mary wasn’t just telling Matthew to take the baby at the front door, I mused. She was telling him to be more thoughtful. She was telling him to take the baby when I brush my teeth, do the laundry— whenever he’s available and I’m not.
She was telling him to be more involved.
And yet, here I am—exhausted, overworked—holding the baby so my husband can eat a muffin. Why doesn’t he get it? What am I doing wrong? I should’ve said something. But what?
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t regret my choice not to argue. Mary was there, for one, but it was more than that. Thing is, Matt and I never fought. We prided ourselves on our self-control, our marital harmony. Now here we were, new parents, and the last thing I wanted was for that stability to be compromised.
It was too soon. I was too tender. I was only three weeks post-partum. Our first fight after having a baby would happen eventually. I just didn’t want it to happen right then.
Evening came. By then, I’d replayed the incident two dozen times. In later versions the I-should’ve-saids were expertly phrased and placed at the perfect, most humbling moment.
Matthew asks me for a muffin. A one-second pause. Then I reply, without breaking my gaze.
“I’m thirsty, I’m exhausted, and I badly need to pee, and you’re still wearing your pajamas and talking to your mom. How long have you been sitting there, waiting for me to get home so you could eat? Or do you not even get hungry when I’m not there?”
By bedtime, I’d branched out. My thoughts grew and sprouted thick foliage, reaching into every aspect of our relationship. I questioned the basis of our marriage, Matthew’s ability of Matthew to be a good father. But mostly, I questioned his character.
Is Matthew a good person? I wondered, starting at Poppy. Or have I been deceiving myself somehow? Maybe when I fell in love, I ignored all the signs? Maybe Matt isn’t who I thought he was.
Yeah. Those kinds of thoughts. They were ruthless.
The feelings I had that night reminded me of the day in high school when my best friend moved away; they were that pitiful. However, there was one consolation.
Though on that night and those to follow I was convinced my fears would still be there in the morning, every morning when I looked for them, they were gone.
The following day, the hospital. Only that room in the hospital, and the bathroom adjoining it. Nothing more. Matthew came and went, bringing meals, bringing news. We opened a few presents, saw doctors, did paperwork. I slept a bit, too, Poppy next to me on the bed, though the nurse had advised against it. When I had to change my pad, the nurses helped me to the bathroom. They changed all of Poppy’s diapers and held her when she cried. It was the first time in my life I’d been waited on so thoroughly, and I relished it. I didn’t want to leave.
The following morning, Matthew arrived at 9 a.m. to take me home, and I delayed the departure as long as possible. When the time finally came—it was close to noon—I took a long last look at the room.
Maybe it was nostalgia. Sentimentality. Hormones. Or maybe—just maybe—it was more than that. Maybe it was the inkling I’d had the night before about Matthew.
Maybe I was sensing the learning curve ahead.
Yes, that was it. Just hours after giving birth, I had the mom thing figured out. I didn’t know how to do anything—not even change a diaper—but I knew how to be alone with my child. But four years into my marriage, I still didn’t know what Matthew expected of me, what he didn’t expect of me, and, most important, what to expect of myself. When it was just Matthew and I, this oversight didn’t matter. I compensated for not understanding what he really needed by giving him more of what he wanted, which worked fine. But now—now I had a second relationship to consider. My usual coping strategies wouldn’t work.
Even before Matthew and I arrived home the tension between us had begun. Matthew wasn’t himself. He was irritable. Hurried. Though whether due to jealousy, neglect or just impatience, I’ll never know.
He tried to hide his annoyance with humor. “Should’ve had a home birth.”
I responded with a tight smile and forced laugh. “I liked it there,” I said.
“Yeah, I noticed. Thought you were going to sprain an ankle so you could stay.”
“Don’t begrudge me my reward,” I told him, smiling again. “Besides, I thought about it. Wouldn’t’ve worked.”
The things I didn’t say: “Why do I have to bring up the pain of childbirth this soon?” “Why aren’t you happier?” “Why aren’t we celebrating?” I wanted the day we left the hospital to be special, an occasion. Instead, I just felt sad to go home.
Maybe it was too much to expect him to know how I felt, how I wanted him to support me on that day. But a small gesture made in that tender time would’ve gone a long way towards lessening my fears. He could’ve held my hand. He could’ve told me how proud he was of me. He could’ve just asked me what I needed. It would’ve taken so little, almost nothing—but instead, he chose jokes and I chose smiles.
The first two weeks after the baby was born, I cried nearly every night before sleep. A few times, Matthew heard me; he came to the bedroom and asked what was wrong. Each time I told him the same thing.
“It’s just hormones, Hon. I’ll be okay.”
I was working too hard. That was part of the problem. I always had and didn’t want to stop. Baby in the chest carrier, I cooked, cleaned and, my favorite, organized. There’s never an end of things to organize.
Part of me realized the emotions were normal, and that I wasn’t taking good enough care of myself. Another part of me, though, blamed Matthew.
He wasn’t helping enough. That’s the truth, unvarnished. He didn’t seem to know how to, really. While my life had changed completely—no more day job, constant sleep interruptions—he was quickly back to his usual routine. Work. Eat. Play. Sleep. Weekends: basketball, projects. Which is why, during those first few weeks with Poppy, I felt all the good stuff you’re supposed to feel— gratitude and love—I felt a lot of bad stuff, too. I was scared. I was angry. But mostly, I was sad. Sad that things weren’t right with me and Matt.
Everyone told me it was normal to be nervous. More than nervous—freaked out. Insecure. You’re going to let us take her home now? By ourselves? they remembered thinking before leaving the hospital. Are you sure that’s such a good idea?
And actually, it was pretty weird. The nurses taught me how to latch the baby, how to change a diaper, how to adjust the straps on the car seat. They helped Matt and I get the swaddle neat and tight. But they didn’t say a word about, well, parenting. Crib or bed? Feeding schedule or no? Go back to work or stay at home? All of the hard decisions were saved for another day, not this day, the day Poppy was born.
I labored at the hospital, Matthew there and gone again, making trips between the delivery room, various eating establishments and home. While he distracted himself with errands, I distracted myself with an audiobook, trying not to wish he was nearby. Thing was, I didn’t want him there. I really didn’t. I didn’t want to have to have a conversation. But if he would have held me–just that, and nothing more–that might have been all right.
It took two hours for the Pitocin to kick in, and in late afternoon the real labor came. For this, Matthew did hold me, both my head and my hand, offering his body as leverage. When the midwife told me to curl, Matthew pushed my legs to my head, and laughed at how hard I pushed back. Lots of pushes. Lots. So many. So many. Then the head was visible, and the midwife asked if I wanted a mirror.
“Yes!” I said.
“No,” said Matt at the same time. Then: “You do, Hon? Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course I do. Don’t you?”
The midwife positioned it for me, and I saw my baby for the first time.
It didn’t look like a baby.
Three more pushes. Hard pushes. Long ones. Then: relief. The head was out, and with a last push for the body, Matthew and I became parents.
Matthew looked at the baby, then at me. “It’s a girl,” he announced.
“We know that already,” I said, laughing.
“She’s beautiful,” he said.
“But we knew that, too.”
“Of course we did. She is perfect.”
The midwife put Poppy, now crying heavily, on my chest. As I smooshed my breast against her mouth, Matthew put his hand on her soft hair.
“There she is.”
“There she is. She is ours.”
Late that night. Matthew gone again. He didn’t want to sleep on the pull-out. And as I soon learned, it was just as well. No, not just as well; it was better.
I got to spend the whole night with just her.
No sharing. No small talk. No deciding. No details. No normal life stuff. Just life. Just the room, the dark, except the street lamps below the half-drawn blinds, and a simple light behind the bed dimmed to almost nothing.
So this is motherhood, I thought as I stared at Poppy’s face. This is who I am now. Strange that I’m not scared. Everyone says you’ll be scared. But I feel good. I feel confident. It feels simple.
Here’s this little alive thing, sort of like a plant, except that I am her air and sunlight, her photosynthesis. She needs me completely, and I accept the challenge. That is the way this thing works.
It’s the most straightforward relationship I’ve ever had.
Honestly, that was it. That was my conclusion. I would be the giver, she’d be the taker—and I was fine with that. It was when I expected something, when I needed someone to behave a certain way—that was the situation I worried about.
Which is why lying in bed that night, there was only one thing I was worried about, and it had nothing to do with the baby.
It was Matthew.
What’s he going to be like, now that we have a kid? I wondered. Will he be the same person? For that matter, will I? Will being parents affect the way we treat each other? How we are together?
How will our relationship change?
And as it turned out, I was right to be nervous. Because while that first year with Poppy was one of the best of my life, it was the worst for me and Matt.