A few days ago — on Wednesday, I think — I got a call from Nym. During the conversation, we got on the topic of marriage. She’s getting married in September (to a great guy) and as it so happened, Wednesday was my third wedding anniversary. (For those of you who don’t know, that’s the “leather” anniversary. Do us both a favor and don’t think too hard about that.)
I started by telling her that in the short span of time we’ve been married, I’ve had to learn a lot more than I ever expected. “Yeah, I can imagine,” she replied. “I’m sure it’s, like, the things that you found totally cute about her and that attracted you to her in the first place are now the biggest annoyances, right?” Anyone who’s ever heard the word marriage has heard something along those lines.
“No,” I replied. “Actually, that hasn’t been the case. The first thing that I noticed about her, and that attracted me to her, for that matter, were her looks.”
“Oh…uhm…OK,” Nym finally stuttered out. I’m sure she thought me a pretty shallow guy at this point.
I tried to explain to her that her looks weren’t why I married her, just what first attracted me to her. It should go without saying that that attraction would quickly had turned to revulsion had her personality betrayed her looks, or petered out if she hadn’t turned out to be as deep a thinker or as surprisingly multifaceted as she has.
Of course, it hasn’t all been bliss. The honeymoon eventually ended, but that’s OK: I didn’t get married expecting there would never be problems. However, while I didn’t expect there not to be problems, I never expected some of the problems which cropped up.
In the last three years I’ve learned more about myself through making the marriage work than I could’ve hoped to if I had stayed single. Of course, most of these things have had to do with simply learning to live with a spouse — like how to be just psychic enough to know when my wife is thinking I screwed something up, and how to listen to my wife without trying to offer solutions unless she really wants them — and to accept my wife for who she is, realizing that what she becomes is in large part due to the environment I help create, with no small part due to her own efforts. In fact, it’s this last lesson — or rather the lessons that make up that last observation — which have most impacted me during the past year.
There’s an old saying which states that a man marries a woman hoping she never changes (and she does), and that a woman marries a man hoping he’ll change (and he doesn’t). I guess maybe I surprised The Wife when she saw that I was actively changing, usually for the better (I hope).
For the past five years I’ve been on an active program of self-improvement: I spend a fair amount of time reading PMA (positive mental attitude) books, interacting with people who don’t let me stay in my comfort zones — EVER — and continually challenging myself be better than I was the day before. More often than not, this has meant taking two steps forward and two steps back, with the occasional third step forward thrown in, and if I’m very lucky, a hop (but never a skip or a jump). Herein lies the crux of the first challenge in marriage: accepting that people change at different rates.
There have been times when I’ve felt myself growing as a person, where I started to see things within myself and others I had never noticed before, like when someone finally told me to my face that I had a propensity towards the “if you want to do it right, do it yourself” attitude, or when I discovered that I wasn’t the only one afraid to greet and start a conversation with a total stranger because I thought I’d look stupid. (I had more than my share of stupid moments, very few of which came by way of greeting someone.) Unfortunately, people living together are like continental shelves: one shift from one side or the other and suddenly the ground starts to shake. I found that whenever I started to grow faster than The Wife, we started having fights, lots of them. Big ones. Explosive ones, fights we could sell tickets for. Not surprisingly, she’s the type which likes to avoid confrontation. I say “not surprisingly” because while she likes to avoid it, I thrive at it. Whenever there’s silence during one of our
fights times of non-bliss, I start prodding. Eventually she gets sick of it, and the heated conversation starts up again, which is exactly what I want, since that way at least then the conversation is still going, instead of us going to different sides of the apartment and ignoring the other while brooding inside. (That’s another lesson, by the way: never ever ever stop talking. This may not be the right way to do it, but it’s worked for us.) Eventually we both get tired of discussing things in high volume and we finally get to the root of the issue and talk about it like human beings and not orangutans.
The Wife, on the other hand, is much better at the growth thing than I. Whenever she’s growing faster than me, she does everything in her power to uplift me and encourage, instead of using my tried and false method trying to attract flies with a ruler. Ever the people person, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that her methods usually work better than mine: while I asked “why aren’t you doing this? Don’t you want to grow?” she instead said, “I believe in you.” With the help of books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, I’m starting to learn how to do what seemingly comes naturally to her. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s definitely been worth it.
So what’s the lesson here? For starters — and this is aimed at guys — grow, damn it! Grow! Work at becoming a better person. Trust me, your wife will appreciate that. If you don’t have a wife yet, grow anyway. Everyone around you now will take notice, and while the crabs out there will try to drag you down, the true uplifters will do what they do best: uplift. The second lesson here is to have patience with your spouse. Always try to see things from their eyes. And don’t be so quick to place the blame on them: the fault may lie with you. Work at being the right person, and you’ll find that your partner will likely follow, if you let them. They married you for a reason, and I’m guessing it wasn’t just so they could see how miserable you could make each other.
As odd as it may seem, The Wife’s amazing people skills, or rather the passivity they’re borne out of have been a cause for lessons learned during our marriage. Like most good lessons, most of these have been painfully learned, but have offered great rewards, insofar as the relationship is concerned.
Nym thought that the first thing which attracted me to The Wife has likely been the root of some trouble during our marriage. She wasn’t far off on that account. The first thing which attracted me to The Wife — I mean really attracted, not just eye candy — was the fact that she actually listened to me, that she actually seemed to be honestly enjoying spending time together. As I later found out, almost everyone I’ve ever heard talk about her says something similar about her, usually along the lines of “she’s the best listener I’ve ever met.” And she is, phenomenal in fact. While this in and of itself hasn’t been a point of contention in our marriage, the passivity this is borne from has.
By nature I’m a very driven person. Very driven. So when I came to the realization I had married someone who could be described as laid back, I was taken aback. This realization, like almost all others regarding marriage, came after trying to figure out why it seemed like I was working so hard for things we both wanted while in my eyes (whether rightly or wrongly) The Wife seemed to be doing everything possible to stay relaxed, even if it meant that whatever we wanted would be delayed. This drove me nuts.
One of the first manifestations of this passivity was her use of the phrase “don’t work too hard”, usually used as a farewell during phone conversations.
I hate that phrase. Haaaaaaate it. I mean, seriously, what does “work too hard” mean? As a workaholic, I had absolutely no idea why hard was a bad thing, and that phrase was the very antithesis of the very way I defined myself. I always saw myself as a hard worker, and in my mind I always saw The Wife and I working hard towards our goals and dreams no matter the cost. The problem here was that The Wife’s idea of “no matter the cost” included time for such little details as planned date nights, which I tried to convince her didn’t really need to be planned, but could be taken whenever we saw ourselves having a break.
As you can guess, this led to many, many fights. Eventually I came to the realization that I had been trying to force the Wife to do things she didn’t really want to do, at least not under my method of working. Once I realized this, I decided to stop pushing her to do things I thought she wanted, and just allowed her to do the things she really wanted. While at first these seemed like completely undirected and useless activities, I soon came to realize a large number of things about her I could never have while pushing, both good and bad. A major realization took place when we figured out that while she may feel strongly about some things, there are times she’ll not take action in them because of what those actions would mean in the way of consequence, since they would indicate total commitment. (This didn’t mean she was afraid of commitment, but rather that while she had great intents and ideas, there were times she would not follow through on these, fearing what the consequence of the actions might be, even if the consequence was actually a good outcome. I define that as a fear of commitment. She vehemently denies it to be so. We’re still working this one out.)
Of course, she wasn’t the only one in this relationship going through that: I was battling that myself, although in a slightly different manner. While she avoided action because of the consequences of those actions in term of commitment, I avoided commitment by trying moving in several directions at once, fearing that if I don’t I might miss something. Needless to say, in the process I missed a lot, and became like a shallow pond, with my interests and knowledge (and their rewards) a mile wide and inch deep.
The operative term in both of these is “fear”: she feared the consequences of what her actions might define her as, and I feared missing out on something. It’s as if she was a parked car with the engine running and I was doing donuts in the parking lot. Both of us were getting nowhere just as fast, and both were running out of gas in the process. I guess opposites do attract.
After I stopped pushing, and after learning a few more lessons because of it, we found it easier now to move in a unified direction, since we started to understand ourselves and our roles a bit better. As such, here’s some advice which I think is worth remembering: Guys, you’re the heads of your families, act that way. Ladies, you’re the neck of your families. This doesn’t mean use your position to strangle your husband, it means that while the neck submits to the head, where the neck makes the head look, the rest of the body will eventually follow. We started really understanding this, and took a small hop forward.
The lesson here is simple: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Don’t force your spouse to do things they don’t want to do, and let them do what their heart leads them to. They may surprise you with what they’ve got within them, and you’ll soon realize that, like you, they want to benefit from this marriage, both personally and socially. They didn’t get in it to make you miserable.
While there are about a thousand more lessons I’m sure I could talk about (like not fretting so much about the damn toilet seat: it’s OK if she refuses to learn how to work it, since it’s not just her butt that’ll stay dry; and the necessity of learning your spouse’s love language) I’ll stop here, since these are probably the two most important lessons I’ve learned over the past year.
Of course, there are things to which I was attracted which I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ll ever tire of, such as her being one of the few people who really understands and actually enjoys my sense of humor, but thatâ€™s a topic for another time.
Iâ€™m not sure Nym caught all of this after my comment about the looks, however. The conversation ended a few minutes later, before I could really explain all of this. Maybe in three years she’ll have figured out what I meant.