Three days after our sixth wedding anniversary, I asked during the crescendo of a fight if my wife wanted a divorce. Three days after that, I caught myself in a moment enraptured by her beauty and goodness and felt lucky.
So yeah, I overshot it with the divorce question. It was more misinterpretation than anything. I wasn’t getting a response out of her on how to address or even identify the problem. A friend who went through a divorce once told me the beginning of the end was when the other person just gave up.
I should know by now my wife wasn’t giving up. She just has a way of being silent when processing, whereas I work things out mind-to-mouth when pissed off. The ratio of our word counts during fights is like 100 to 1, which makes me seem like a bad listener, but really she’s not giving me anything to listen to. Hence my anger-influenced conclusion she had no interest in making it better.
During my three relationships including this one, I would say the clear majority of arguments boil down to this sequence:
1) I’m not mad.
2) She’s mad.
3) I get mad at her for being mad.
4) She wonders why I’m mad.
5) I get more mad at her amnesia regarding who was mad in the first place.
It is surely unproductive for me to point out there is one step we can omit here that stops the spiral before it starts. This might be unforgivably sexist to say in 2022, but in my narrow romantic experience, I’ve seen a lot of truth in the cliché that men want to solve the problem tactically, while women… let’s say, prefer more variety in their approaches.
I only mean that half pejoratively. My wife is great at seeing the bigger picture, the problem behind the problem. I’ve always thought she would be an excellent therapist.
On fight day, I played with our 3-year-old for five hours beginning at 4 a.m. and was impressed with myself for maintaining a good mood. He had been up all night scratching a rash outbreak all over his body, but also was in good spirits.
Yet my wife was the one in a sour mood. I ignored it all morning until I reached my limit. After my pre-dawn marathon with a needy child before a full day of work, I thought a benevolent king’s reception would be more appropriate than the ice princess treatment. If anyone should have been excused for being irascible, it was me.
With few words, my wife let on about being upset I didn’t share her urgency to take the kid to the doctor. I snapped back that I already set up our switch to PPO insurance in Texas, and she could take him anywhere. I had already told her this in previous days and encouraged her to make an appointment even though I didn’t believe one was necessary. I asked both rhetorically and genuinely what she wanted from me at this point.
If she was looking for someone to join in her “panic” (probably unfair word choice) and seek peace of mind in a rubber stamp from a white coat, then consider me a dead end. There will be a time when doctors are among the most important people in my life, but now is not that time.
People get too much medical treatment. I don’t worship at that altar yet. It seems to me there is often a misalignment of incentives in the healthcare system, to the point where it’s not really about health or care. Some opioid addicts probably would back me up on that if they’re not dead.
I told my wife our son had heat rash, and it was already fading. My dismissiveness without an M.D. annoyed her, but frankly I’ve been right every time when downplaying ailments.
Our aftershock tiff happened when I spoke too confidently about bananas going bad because of oxidation. I suggested we shouldn’t keep letting our son play with them in the shopping cart because smushing would speed the process.
My wife made a comment like “there you go again with your theories,” not meaning to start anything. But that struck a nerve, and I let her know.
Here was the problem behind the problem. We have very different ways of approaching the day. I hover around an internal locus of control. I feel like I can affect things. I am constantly trying to improve myself, others around me and our conditions. It’s almost like a game, a significant one that makes me tick and gives me purpose.
Often this entails thinking, hypothesizing, drawing conclusions based on observation, and iterating with more information. I don’t care about being right as much as getting it right. (I did guess right though about both the rash receding and the bananas. Smushing creates more exposure to oxygen, which is what causes the browning.)
In short, I have the growth mindset stated on nine out of 10 entry-level résumés. Truly I enjoy the process of getting or making things better.
My wife highlighted this trait in her touching wedding vows, saying sometimes she found it exhausting but most of the time she found it inspiring. But the ratio of inspiring to exhausting could be shifting over time. What seemed interesting to her six years and two kids ago might feel tired now.
There are lots of evolving ratios like this in any marriage. When we first met, I kept thinking my wife was like Jennifer Aniston in “Along Came Polly.” Most of the time I found her spontaneity and free spirit charming; occasionally it was a nuisance to a square like me.
Ten years later, with two small humans pushing up against our sanity every day, Polly doesn’t fit the lifestyle as well. What seemed like freedom and going with the flow back then feels like procrastination and suboptimal outcomes due to lack of planning now.
All this to state the obvious: “Happily ever after” is a moving target that takes work because life circumstances change. Children take your opposites-attract differences, turn them into acute pressure points in your relationship, and grind their nasty little fists into them until you want to tap out.
Our tradition of watching those wedding vows every anniversary got steamrolled by the kids this year, but we did get a “The Notebook” moment. Not the sexy 365 letters scene, but the end when they die holding hands with nothing left to give. That is how kids make you feel regularly, the conditions they create for your marriage. And you fight on.
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