In the summer of 2013, we drove from our temporary home in North Carolina to a new one in New York. Before we even got on the highway we had a legitimate fight over a cast iron pan I packed because, according to him, it was “weighing the car down”. It was a bold suggestion from someone whose surfboards in the front seat forced me to sit in the back, and the only way we could snap out of that fight was to get into a new one. That pattern continued for the entire season or so, but it wasn’t really about the pan.
My husband and I have been together for seven years now. Within this time, we’ve lived in 2 countries, 3 states, and about 7 homes, thanks to medical school. We also threw two children into the madness, and do you know what results aside from the crazy closeness of sharing a journey and beautiful little beings? The irritability of settling in to new neighborhoods, houses, roles, and responsibilities. The irritability of uncertainty. There’s nothing like packing all your belongings, living out of a suitcase, and traveling with children to make you hate the way someone chews food and breathes air.
It’s no secret that arguments are a normal part of marriage. Wedding vows always include sticking together through the good times and bad, except on your wedding day it’s hard to imagine what The Bad Times might be. From the alter (or beach, in my case) you know there will be disagreements, but you might not see those disputes stringing together, creating a negative feedback loop, and putting your relationship in an infuriating rut. My husband and I generally get along like peanut butter and jelly, but when we do fight, it’s usually not for an hour, but for days or weeks. It takes effort and humility to break the cycle, and pick up a different script.
Josh’s best attempt at mending things is to make a joke, which generally doesn’t go over well. I’m from Venus, and after arguments I’m a little fragile. I don’t want to laugh at the situation or myself. I want to be held and have my hair stroked. My Martian wants to brush things off with a laugh, and I get mad, then he gets mad that I’m mad, and right when we think we’re snapping out of it we’re back to square one. One of us will undoubtedly end up wanting to withdraw, which is my specialty. When this happens, I don’t even look at my husband because 1.) I don’t want intimacy 2.) I want to punish him with my distance and 3.) If I do catch his eye he might actually succeed in making me laugh and then I won’t be able to take myself so seriously anymore.
Relationships ruts are real, and it’s can be hard to get unstuck. Here are my tried-and-true methods for getting on a smoother road again:
1.) Touch. Relationship coach, Mort Fertel says absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, it separates people and creates distance which is the opposite of what we want. To create closeness, I let my guard down, and grab his hands when he walk in the door. I put my head on his shoulder while watching TV, and wrap my arms around him when he’s pouring coffee. I hug and kiss with above-average intention, because physical closeness creates emotional closeness.
2.) Talk, but not about your issues, responsibilities, or the bills. We put our problems aside for a while, and just talk for the sake of sharing and connecting. I’ll pick up the phone just to say I’m thinking about him, or to tell him something funny that happened. When he’s home, I’m sure to give him ten minutes of my attention without also looking at my phone or computer, or letting the kids steal my attention. (Yes, they will cry at my feet, but I will give my husband my attention, dammit!)
3.) Appreciate. When I’m focused on all the reasons I’m frustrated and mad, they seem to magnify. When things need to get on smooth ground again, I choose to see the good because it breaks that negative feedback loop. When I think of the reasons I’m grateful, they multiply. This isn’t about ignoring problems, it’s about connecting first to create an environment more conducive for understanding and compromise. Once we both feel loved, making each other happy comes naturally.
4.) Trust. Even when I feel like shooting my husband an aggressive bird behind his back or throwing a jar of coconut oil on the living room floor (who would do such a thing?), I must remind myself he doesn’t have bad intentions. When I’m not getting the love I want it’s not because he doesn’t care but because we’re speaking two different languages. (I’m an acts of service kind of girl, and he’s a quality time man.) And although it’s important we both get our needs met, when I shift the focus to fulfilling my husband, I find myself more fulfilled in return. This is the beautiful way love works. The more you think of the other person, the more you get thought of. The more you act with love, the more love you feel.
Just as studying makes you feel smart, exercising makes you feel healthy, and cleaning makes you feel tidy; loving makes you feel love. In this atmosphere, reaching agreements, working as a team, and feeling connected is easier. Elvis Presley sang that true love travels on a gravel road, so get out of that rut, and keep rolling.
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