One of the things I immediately liked about Gretchen Rubin was that she reads books about relationships, even though she’s happily married.
I’m exactly the same way. I find the science and psychology of relationships and marriage utterly fascinating. I feel like I have to hide the books though, because Q. always looks at them with suspicion. If he catches me reading them, he starts to worry that I’m not happy in our marriage, which isn’t remotely true. We have a great marriage. I read the books to see if I can make it even better.
If you read multiple books on marriage, you notice that the same points are made over and over again:
- You can’t change your partner or his/her actions, you can only change yourself and how you react to those actions.
- Contempt (best identified through eye rolling) is the number one sign of a relationship that is in very serious trouble.
- It takes five good things to outweigh a negative, so keep your marriage bucket filled (or make sure you make five deposits in your marriage account for every withdrawal).
- People make bids for attention all.the.time. In the happiest, healthiest marriages, spouses respond frequently to each other’s bids for attention (and they respond with real focus- saying “mm-hmm” while continuing to read the newspaper counts as ignoring a bid).
- Don’t keep score. Just don’t.
- Be able to talk about the big issues (money, sex, parenting, household labour, extended families, etc.).
- Keep having sex. Have sex even if you think you don’t want to- your body will take over quickly and you’ll enjoy yourself. And your marriage will be happier.
- Learn how to fight constructively.
- Don’t belittle your spouse or complain about him/her to others, even as a joke (and especially NOT in front of your spouse).
It’s not rocket science.
But boy can it sometimes be hard!
Q. and I have significant strengths. We have always been good about sitting down and talking about serious issues in a rational fashion. We haven’t learned to fight constructively, because we’re both huge conflict avoiders, but we have learned how to raise minor issues in a gentle fashion, and most of our grievances don’t simmer for long enough to become big, roaring blow ups.
We also respond very well to bids for attention, even if that means the other person is being annoying (like reading funny bits of the newspaper out loud when the other is trying to read a book- we are both guilty of doing this).
Reading The Five Love Languages a number of years ago was a game changer for our marriage, because I realized that I express love most strongly as Quality Time, whereas Q. shows it through Acts of Service. I immediately understood why I got so irritated on weekends when Q. spent the entire day cooking an elaborate meal. I wanted to go and DO something together, and he was confused as to why I was upset because he’d spent the entire day cooking largely to show me how much he loves me.
So now I am much better about explicitly saying to Q., “I want us to do something together as a family on Sunday”, and I am also better at expressing appreciation for all the things Q. does as acts of service. And I make sure to make time for my own acts of service for Q. (like doing his laundry), even though that is not my default love language, because I know he will appreciate it.
We’ve been married for seven and a half years now, and we’ve survived the crazy years of infancy and toddlerhood, and our insane plan to balance E.’s care between us while I continued full-time work on the PhD dissertation and Q. kept up his full-time job as a tenured professor. We had a couple of rough years, but we got through it, and we’re doing a better job now of making time for our marriage. Our monthly “presence, not presents” date nights are certainly helping, but it also helps that we have more time in general and we’re not under as much pressure.
Still, I certainly have room for improvement. My three resolutions for MARRIAGE are:
- Ask, Don’t Order
- Stop Keeping Score
- Give Up Gold Stars
Ask, Don’t Order
I have a (very) bad habit of phrasing things I really want Q. to do as a question. As in, “Do you think we should clear out the shed this weekend?”
Q. pointed out recently that E. has started doing this too, which was the kick in the ass I needed to really try to change.
If I want to raise a polite, well mannered, son, I have to be well mannered myself.
So I’m working harder to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to Q.
I’m also trying to just come out and ask him if I want or need him to do something.
And I’m trying very hard not to remind (read: nag) him about something he’s agreed to do. He rarely forgets entirely, but he often doesn’t do things as quickly as I would like him to do them. If something needs to be done right away, I need to remember to say this when I first ask if he can do it.
Stop Keeping Score
Despite knowing that this is one of the worst habits to have in a marriage, especially with parents of young children (where there is ALWAYS something more to do), I have really, really struggled with score keeping. Q. and I often say to each other, “It’s no problem, we’re not keeping score”, when one of us does something that could have been interpreted as the responsibility of the other. I don’t usually score keep with household labour, because we’re fluid and flexible with how we deal with it and we usually know who’s in charge (right now: me for almost everything; when I was pregnant, Q. for almost everything). Cooking and dishes are clearly set out (I cook weeknights, Q. cooks all meals on the weekend except I make Sunday breakfast; dishes are done by whoever is not putting E. to bed). Putting E. to bed was a zone of contention because I took it over entirely for months when E. was going through a terrible Daddy rejection phase (it just was not helpful to have the two of them fighting each other for hours), and then started to resent it when E.’s behavior shifted. Now I have four nights where I do bedtime, and Q. has three, and E. knows exactly who is going to put him to bed, and if we have to switch things around we make sure to tell him in advance.
Q. grumbles sometimes if he’s had a long day at work and E. is particularly fractious. I get it, but I don’t feel guilty and I don’t offer to take it over on that night, because I have long days too where E. is particularly fractious, and I deal with E. for ten to twelve hours at a time. So we muddle through.
Where I have a hard time is on the weekends.
This has always been a problem area for me, because I have always resented that I am the default caregiver- unless we specifically set out that Q. is handling E., I’m in charge. This is less contentious now since I’m at home full-time, but it really drove me mental in previous years.
On the weekends, it is very easy for me to slip into patterns of, “Well, you got an hour to relax while I did X with E., so now I should get an hour to relax”.
Q. usually has a quiet time when E. watches his videos and has his quiet time. He often naps. This does not bother me, except that when Q.’s quiet time extends past when E. returns to his regular routine, I start to get irritated, because I’m the one who has to keep track of when quiet time is over, and engage with E. once it is finished, etc.
I end up score keeping again.
The thing is, if I ASK Q. to take responsibility for E. at some point on the weekend so I can do something, he is always happy to do so. I just don’t ask often enough. And Q.’s quiet time is often the only time he steals for himself the entire weekend. And a lot of the time when I’m annoyed that I’m in charge of E., Q. is cooking, and even though I get annoyed with spending all my time with E., I would still rather be doing that than cooking for hours on end.
So. Score keeping. I’m trying to stop it.
Give Up Gold Stars
Like Rubin, I love gold stars. I love getting praise and external validation. Nothing I can say to myself tops what other people say to me (good or bad).
Also like Rubin, I do things around the house and then get annoyed when Q. doesn’t notice/praise me.
The really annoying thing is that most of the time these are responsibilities that neither of us is officially in charge of, but are chores that are gendered ‘male’ in my subconscious. Like putting out the garbage. I am perfectly capable of putting out the garbage. In fact, I do it almost every week now that Q. puts E. to bed on Wednesdays and Thursday morning is garbage day. Once I’ve tidied up the kitchen, it just makes sense to go put out the bins.
But in my head, taking out the garbage is something MEN do, so every week I have to fight the urge to tell Q. that I’ve done it, solely in the hope that he’ll then praise me for this.
We have a feminist marriage. No chores should be gendered. It drives me mental that this is so conditioned in my brain.
The worst one is snow shoveling. There is no reason why I can’t do it, but in my head it’s gendered male. On days where I do the shoveling, it is almost impossible for me not to tell Q. this the moment he walks in the door, just to get my gold star. (Ironically, this is one of the times where Q. is likely to spontaneously notice and thank me.)
When I don’t get a gold star I think I deserve, I get annoyed.
But I don’t need gold stars for doing things that need to be done and that either of us could do.
And I can’t expect gold stars from Q. for doing things that I think should be done that he doesn’t necessarily think need to be done (or indeed notice that they were done). If I decide I need to deep clean the kitchen from top to bottom, my reward is having a clean kitchen and feeling better about being able to cook without noticing the grease spots on the walls. I shouldn’t need Q. to notice.
So for the next five months I’m going to work harder at not needing gold stars.