In fifteen years of marriage, we've learned a few things about together.
Oh, I've learned other things, too, and so has he. I am much better at respect, at laughter, and at putting grated Parmesan on the table with the Wednesday evening spaghetti. He is now a professional listener (well, almost) and he finally stopped leaving dirty socks on the floor (which certainly counts for something). These are distinguished accomplishments to achieve as individuals, but there are some things that can only be learned together.
Fighting is one of those things.
We have fought about everything from children to money to movies to schedules. Actually, schedules would probably be number one. I'm a time girl. While I love a good conversation full of rich words and depth of ideas, I feel warmest in my own skin when someone gives me the gift of time. It's not an easy request of my ambitious, driven man—the one who works thirty hours a week on top of being a full-time student in graduate school. Oh, and did I mention we have seven kids? Yeah, sometimes they take up a little of our time, too.
But our fighting about time, as you have probably guessed by now, is not really about time at all. It's about wanting to be known.
When we get around to the calendar talk, my tendency is to approach from a he-doesn't-know-how-important-this-is-to-me angle. Very quickly, with just a few dates circled in red that cannot be moved, I start to feel the noose tighten and go all you're-standing-on-my-oxygen, wild-eyed. He takes to the defense on the things that are important to him—y'know, silly things like getting a good education for the money we're investing into it and being a good employee. Psssht. (dismissive wave)
Our civil conversation routinely morphs into a dull roar when we let it go unchallenged at that. But when we remember to go deeper—to the issue of knowing and being known—resolution begins to surface.
Bruce Feiler, author of The Secret to Happy Families, tells a story of how a decision between serving pizza or pretzels at a child's birthday party fueled a marital conflict. His wife was sensitive to the opinions of the other parents, believing that they would appreciate their children being properly fed with a full pizza meal at a party. Bruce's opinion was that simpler is better; hence he came in heavy on the side of pretzels. Both held their ground about the party fare, not because of the issue itself, but because the conflict was representative of their value system. Ultimately, the deeper solution he and his wife reached had nothing to do with cheese or sourdough, but rings true with conflicts in our home, too:
"We were arguing about who we were. Or, more precisely, we were arguing about trying to feel understood."
That's what we all want, isn't it? We want to be understood at our most vulnerable place, loved for our most intimate selves. Perhaps letting him see the neediness I bear as we flip the glossy pages and fill in the boxes would be both an act of courage and an opportunity for grace. I could open my eyes to him, not in aggressive combat, but in a bald-honest act of coming out of hiding.
Eyes can say so much between lovers. They can affirm or dismiss. They can validate or despise. They can create safety, a place to be known and loved; or they can create ridicule, a place to hide.
And unlike picking up dirty socks, exposing the soul in an unedited meeting of the eyes can only be done in that sacred space called together. Yes, I suppose in fifteen years, perhaps we have gotten better at that, too.
On Mondays in August we're discussing The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More by Bruce Feiler. Join us next week as writer Shawn Smucker leads our discussion of chapters 7-10.(This is the section about having THE TALK with our kids so you don't want to miss this one!) If you are reading along, join the discussion in the comments or drop your link there if you blog your thoughts. See you next week to talk about more secrets!