Last week, I emailed out our family newsletter and was pleasantly surprised with all the responses we got. Not only did we hear back from a lot more people than usual, but they actually responded with personal updates of their own! I was delighted to have “real conversations” with old friends and connect with them in a meaningful way despite the miles and years between us.
In my newsletter I broke from my usual goal of keeping everything short and concise, and decided to share real stories about real things that happened this year. One of the stories was a marriage story, and gave a glimpse at my efforts to love Ben better this year:
About halfway through 2017, I (JoEllen) had a realization: Ben did not seem very happy. He was loving and self-sacrificial and as much a family guy as anyone could hope for, but the spark of laughter and happiness seemed far off and hard to find. He always insisted he was fine- just tired- whenever I asked and probed again and again… yet the bits and pieces of extra sleep I gave him did not seem to do the trick. So I decided to start my own personal mission, which I called The Ben Happiness Project.
In the end, the solution was simple. The problem was me, and I had to exercise more self-control, hold my tongue, vent at him less, and be generally less selfish. It was not easy to admit or fight against, but I was determined. A few weeks later, the happy man I knew was inside began to peer out from behind the distancing walls of safety and the sun began to shine on our marriage again. It’s been a game changer. Still a work in progress, but there has been progress!! Feel free to ask me for the long version haha.
It wasn’t easy to pull back on all the selfishness and self-centeredness I had grown accustomed to throwing his way, but it was a good exercise in putting someone else’s interests before my own, and praying for and receiving the strength from God to be a better wife to Ben. And, of course, this has made me immeasurably happier, too.
I guess this resonated with people, because several people asked me for the long version and now I have several coffee and Skype dates in my future.
A lot happened between Paragraph 1 and Paragraph 2. I usually have a pretty good memory for these things, but it’s a blur even to me, probably because it involved a lot of very late night discussions with Ben and a lot of late night discussions with some of my best pals. Now, I can’t remember exactly who said what, or when things happened, but here are some of the things I do remember.
Ben would not own that he was unhappy
His unhappiness made me feel incomplete. I guess I must really love the guy. I could feel something amiss in our family. There was less joy in our time together. He laughed with the kids less, and sometimes felt mentally absent in the evenings. I would mention that I missed him, or whisper that my “love tank” was empty, and he would give me forced side hugs or agree to attend a date night with me. Despite his continual insistence that he was fine, I could tell he was oftentimes answering a different question than the one I was trying to ask.
“Are you upset about something?” I’d question.
“No,” he’d say, but I could just feel the rest of his sentence: …not something I want to tell you about.
“Did I do something wrong?” I’d ask.
“No,” he’d say, without finishing, not something you think is wrong, so I’m not going to say it.
“Are you happy?” I’d press.
“Sure,” he’d shrug, his voice indifferent and his face placid.
It drove me mad.
Sometimes, he was purposely hiding something away from me, not wanting to start an argument or worried about disrupting the peace. Most of the time, he didn’t have the energy to reflect or wasn’t introspective enough to realize that something was wrong, even in his own feelings. He was, as he put it, just going from one day to the next, not really thinking too hard about any of it. He figured he was just tired- you know, parenting- and told me as much.
His wife is nothing like that. When I perceive that something is broken in my heart or my soul, I dig at it and pursue it and fight the beast- even when it is myself. I introspect and process and verbalize and feel and pray and I keep at it. It is rarely easy, and is usually very uncomfortable. This time around, it was downright agonizing. It’s one thing to tear away at your own heart and search out the ugly parts that need work. It’s another to realize how your own shortcomings are wounding his heart.
I thought about it a lot. I talked about it with my closest girlfriends. I talked about it with my other closest girlfriends. We considered his job, his sleep, his social life, his health, his opportunities to pursue his passions, his wife. I tried to make yummier dinners, plan more dates nights, let him sleep in more, encourage him to “take days off.” Maybe it was a self-care issue?
Nothing seemed to be working, so I enlisted my girlfriends to pray. Over time, I began to have an inkling of the problem: me. But every time I tried to scratch at it, he batted my questions away. He refused to open up and he refused to admit that I was the one destroying his happiness. But I kept pressing him, growing stubborn to the point where I started detailing my faults and the ways they must wear on him until he finally broke one night and started to agree with me.
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but I remember feeling so many things at once. Exhilaration, upon realizing that we were finally talking! He was finally opening up and being honest with me! Humility, because I needed him to know that I was not trying to win and I wasn’t going to be defensive. I needed him to know that I was going to listen and take it and try to improve. Devastation, once I saw how many cycles of my own previous pride and defensiveness had knocked him down so many times he didn’t even want to try with me anymore. Indignant, when he admitted that he was actually aware that these sinful characteristics of mine were wearing him down and also that he wasn’t ever planning to bring it up.
I lost my calm at that knowledge.
“Wait, you HAVE to!” I cried out, “It’s your JOB! Who else is going to tell me these things if you don’t?”
He shrugs, as if to say, I really don’t know, Jo, but it ain’t gonna be me. I’ve taken enough.
“But sanctification (becoming a better person) is one of the purposes of marriage, and how is that going to happen if you’re not even going to tell me what I need to work on?!”
“You’re right,” he conceded, “I should. I just can’t. It’s too hard.”
Wide eyed, “…I’m not THAT bad, am I?!”
I think I might be making myself out to be more of a villain than I like to think I am. Or, maybe that’s just the prideful and defensive part of me talking, I don’t know. I have to remind myself that it’s not a matter of being better or worse than the average wife, or compared to any other person out there. I have one standard to try to hold myself up to, and that guy is perfect (Jesus). So until I’m there, I guess I should go ahead and concede that I fall short quite a bit.
This conversation was a turning point for us. It was a lot to think about, but the negative cycle was pretty clear:
I had the luxury of forgetting about things because either they were super minor and not that important anyway (like misplacing an item), or because he was quick to change and then I forgot it was ever an issue (like him coming out to help me bring the kids and groceries in when we got home). He would make several adjustments to his lifestyle to ensure that he never made the same mistake again, and I continued in blissful ignorance of all these little changes he constantly made in order to appease me.
I thought of two practical ways to stop this cycle:
The first one is hard. I am good at writing things I’m thankful for, but I’m also pretty good at noticing things that bother me. The second one takes training and practice. It is also hard for me. I used to pride myself in being very honest and direct, and there was a time when I felt like anything else was sugarcoating or even somewhat dishonest. What if someone tried so hard to say it nicely that I didn’t even realize it was a correction? What if I tried so hard to say it nicely that they missed the point entirely?
Early on in our marriage, I decided this was a skill I needed to learn, but I found it very hard and unnatural to master. I frequently had to ask Ben for advice on how to better approach difficult conversations I needed to have with others. He would help me look over sensitive emails and suggest ways to reword and rephrase parts of it until sometimes it sounded like a completely different person wrote it (which was not so untrue). He was my mentor when it came to saying things more graciously… except when it came to himself. And that’s where things began to break down.
Since Ben wasn’t going to stop me and help me re-frame my complaints to him, I needed to stop myself. But sometimes it was just so hard! Over the course of 10+ years of marriage, I had grown so accustomed to turning to him as my sounding board for everything. He heard my highs and he heard my lows. He heard my stories of success when the kids shared with each other and my vents of frustration when they wouldn’t stop crying after nap time. He heard me thank him for moving the laundry, but in the same breath criticize him for putting my sweater in the dryer. I was learning to filter my words with everyone else in the world, but I thought of him as my safe place to say whatever I wanted, however I wanted to say it.
I could not have been more wrong.
As the man I am supposed to respect and love more than any other, it’s quite possible that he is the very person I should be most thoughtful and loving to when I speak my thoughts out loud. This isn’t to say I shouldn’t be honest and open and sharing with him. I should. I will. But I should be thoughtful and loving about it, too. And since this kind of thing doesn’t come super naturally to me, then here’s what I have decided to do. This is the one 2018 resolution I have so far: Wait Until Tomorrow.
If I find myself stewing about something he did or did not do, I should wait until tomorrow. If I go to sleep and forget about it the next morning, clearly, it was not that important. And if I remember it later in the day, I will probably remember it with gladness once I realize it was something I did not end up burdening him with. By that point, I will almost certainly know that it was really not a big deal. Not big enough to make him upset about. Not big enough to weigh him down with. Not big enough to steal his happiness for.
If I find myself stewing about something he did or did not do, I should wait until tomorrow. If I go to sleep and still remember it the next day, at least I will have slept on it and will have the cushion of a night of sleep to help me see the situation in a clearer light. My mind will not be as muddied with emotion and I will be able to figure out a more gracious way of bringing it up with him. This is almost certainly better than snapping at him thoughtlessly and letting loose all my complaints and criticisms. I know I can have a sharp tongue, and I have seen its cutting effects on the man I love. I am gonna reign that thing in, even if it means feeling unresolved for a night.
If I find myself displeased with something he did or did not do but I know I can approach him in a calm and reasonable manner, I think I’ll give myself the green light to try to work it out with him. But short of that, I will try to hold my tongue and wait until tomorrow. I experimented with “waiting until tomorrow” a few times in 2017 and almost every time, I found that I did not remember or did not care about it anymore the next day. I let it slide, I forgot about it, and he never had to deal with it. We were all happier. We didn’t have to have a follow-up conversation to try to make up for the poorly done conversation the night before.
But we aren’t supposed to go to bed angry, right?
I used to take the verse “Do not let the sun go down in your anger” to mean that as a couple, you should work out all of your issues before going to sleep each night. Sometimes, I would bring up an issue with Ben at midnight, which left us exhausted and frustrated and tired and sometimes a little incoherent at 2am still trying to work through it. Sometimes, it has worked out, but a lot of times, it was a process that grew more difficult as the hour grew later.
I understand that verse differently now. Surrendering your anger and resolving the issue are two different things, and they can be done at different times. While we should always strive for relational reconciliation and forgiveness, you can let go of your anger before that process begins. You shouldn’t go to bed angry and nurse your wounds all night, or go to bed angry and simply hope to wake up caring less. I think it’s important to work through your heart and try to let go of your anger as soon as you can (don’t give the devil a foothold!), but also be wise about when and how to approach reconciliation and working through the problem with someone else. I think it is better to wait a little bit and figure out a gracious way to approach things than to bulldoze through it and make everything worse, especially if your heart is still angry and your emotions are out of control.
Also, what I’ve noticed more and more is that the things that used to bother me now seem increasingly trivial. They’re not even things worth getting annoyed or angry about, and not talking about them actually helps me not notice them as much! The more I go on about something, the more I think about it and the more I care about it. The less I talk about it, the less I am likely to care or notice things like that in the future. Basically, choosing not to dwell on the negative stuff has the upward spiral effect of making me notice them even less in the future. I’m not talking about major offenses or times when feelings are hurt, but silly little things that we really don’t need me being sensitive about.
It makes sense to me, and this year I am going to try to reign in my tongue and be more loving in my speech. I will resist the urge to let my words fly out like so many flaming arrows and I will try to take time to examine my heart first. I’m doing it for Ben, I’m doing it for myself, and ultimately, I’m doing it for God. The Bible says we should “die to ourselves,” and I think surrendering the desire to fuel anger or the right to be selfishly angry is one way to do it. And if it increases the happiness of those around me while I’m at it, then all the better.
My mantra is to wait until tomorrow, but that is code speak for so much more:
Stop and think before you vent your frustrations.
Stop and examine your own heart before you point at someone else.
Stop and pray for God to help you let go of your anger before you let it loose on someone else.
And if, after all that, it still needs to be talked about, then consider sleeping on it first so you can think coherently and do a better job of that tomorrow.
. . .
So, there’s a longer version.
And hey, if we’re on for coffee, let’s still do it. Clearly, I’m gonna need some prayer and accountability for this.