Most of us married folk think we are right, much of the time, and we believe we know what is best for us and our marriage. This is especially true for women, who generally take the plunge when it comes to initiating marital repair tactics. However, what is true all of the time, without fail, is that each and every interaction between two people is just that, an interaction between two people. While it might feel like one event (we went to the park) and may be perceived by both as the sharing of one experience (we had a wonderful time), it is actually the convergence of two people and two experiences. Neither of which, is more right than the other. Still, we each think we are right.
I learned this early in my marriage. Back when my husband and I were just discovering the fine points of how to arbitrate terms of a young marriage, something caused me to storm out the front door with a harrumph and a half. Off I went, with self-righteous fury, and plunked myself on the street curb. Like a four-year-old tantruming in protest while simultaneously checking back to make sure Mommy is there, I repeatedly glanced behind me, expecting to see my husband, dutifully chasing after me. Surely, he knows how upset I am, I know he will come get me and apologize or at least make sure I’m okay! But the trail from the house to the curb was silent with only the exasperated sigh of my unmet needs. I can’t believe I have to sit here and feel bad by myself. This is not okay. I sat and sulked a bit more, all the while peering back at the doorway in disbelief. He was not coming out to look for me. Unbelievable. Who had I married? Was he really this selfish? Was he heartless? Did he not care? Did he not even know?
Grudgingly, I sucked back the tears, took a deep breath and went back to the house. There, I found my husband sitting on the couch watching TV, as if nothing had happened. “Hi Babe,” he quipped, “Where were you?”
Really? Wow. Is this A.D.D.? Is this Men-Are-from-Mars stuff? Is he kidding?
“I was outside. Crying. By myself. Waiting for you.”
“You were? Why were you crying? Why were you waiting for me?” He looked at me as if he had no idea what I was talking about – his eyes and mouth wide open like a toddler being punished for doing something he didn’t know was wrong. Almost immediately it was obvious that he, really, honestly, and most assuredly, had no idea what I was talking about.
“Did you know I was upset?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes.” He replied proudly, positive that he had the right answer for me.
“Well if you knew I was upset, why didn’t you come out after me? I mean, helllloooooo?? I went out, upset. WHY DIDN”T YOU COME AFTER ME??!!”
“Because… I… I thought you went out because… you wanted to be alone?”
Now, it was my turn to look at him as if I had no idea what he was saying.
“Why would you think I wanted to be alone?”
“Because you went outside, and I was inside?”
Omg, I thought, do I have to teach him, coach him, tell him every single thing I need? I would find out later that yes, of course I would.
“Okay, so let’s be clear about this,” I began slowly, “When I’m upset, and you know I’m upset, and I bail out, leaving a dust trail behind me, I do.not.want.to.be.alone.”
“Okay.” He responded gently. Probably thinking something like, that doesn’t make sense to me at all, but I’ll buy it.
“So,” he calculated, “when you crash out the front door in disgust and say something like, I can’t stand this, and you slam the door behind you, that means you want me to come after you, is that what you’re saying?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Well, for the record,” he continued, “I thought that meant you wanted to be alone. Because when I’m upset and I walk out to be alone, I actually want to be alone. I assumed that what you wanted, too.”
“Okay, so when you’re upset,” I tried to make sense out of this, “You do NOT want me to follow you and talk to you about how you are feeling?”
“Really? I thought the best thing for me to do, if you are upset, is to help you express it so we can talk about it together.”
“Nope. The best thing for you to do is let me be alone. At least for a while. Then we can talk about it later.”
I concluded, “So when I walk out by myself, I want you to come be with me. But since you want to be alone, you presume (mistakenly) that that is what I want. Therefore, by leaving me alone, you think you were doing what I want, but I feel abandoned and unloved. On the other hand, if you walk out and want to be alone, I presume (mistakenly) that you need to me to come help you express yourself (major misperception) so by following you, chasing you, stalking you, I am making things worse, instead of better?
Oh, yeah. Definitely.
This is an example of the good sense that two people can actually make, when they are not quite making sense to each other. Couples often take two divergent paths to reach a common goal. This is true for couples in conflict and couples in harmony. Thus, while the common goal may be marital satisfaction, each partner may maneuver the pathway with opposing tactics and without understanding of what is happening, feelings can get hurt and resentments can mount. The revelation that opened my eyes that day was as simple as this:
I will feel better if I better understand what he needs.
Overshadowed by our tender marriage of cluelessness, prior to that instant of divine enlightenment, we had strolled along with naïve confidence. Until that moment, I wasn’t ready to think in terms of how he was thinking. I really believed much of that would just take care of itself when two people love each other. Isn’t that how it works in the movies? Truthfully, as an insanely sensitive person who is empathetic by nature, it didn’t always dawn on me that I would have to do more than that sometimes! I just presumed my husband would have the same instincts I did. Rule number one that I learned early on: Never presume.
That’s the moment I realized I was ready. Ready to dig in and figure out what I needed to know to help him help me and by doing so, enable me to be a better partner to him. When we think about that seemingly simple statement, I will feel better if I better understand what he needs, we elucidate the underlying motivation for the use of Tokens and the paradox it presents.
Do you feel ready to give?
You will know when you are ready to use the Tokens because it won’t feel like work. It will just feel like the right thing to do.
Excerpted from “Tokens of Affection” by Karen Kleiman
image credit: 123rf.com/Victor Kuznetsov