talking things through

In ALL, MARRIAGE by Stephanie Klein

A day later, I was still sick over it, being curt, avoiding you. You called me out on it, wanting to know what my problem was, and I told you I was still angry about what happened. "Well, I’m furious," you said. "And you still haven’t told me when you’re ready to talk about it." Clearly not now. There was still tone. It would be nasty. I didn’t know if I could get through it and make it a productive conversation.

"Not now," I said, "it won’t end well."

Once the kids were asleep, I said I was ready, suggesting that we try things differently, with each of us beginning with what we think we could have done differently in the situation. "I could have done things differently in a few ways," I began. "One, I could have sat on the bed directly, without dropping the things off first." I wanted to say, "How was I supposed to know it would set you OFF like that?" but I didn’t. "Two, had I put the things down in the bathroom, just as I did, maybe ‘no’ wasn’t the best response when you commanded me to sit. I could have said, ‘Be right there,’ then later taken up your tone with you, privately. Or, three, I could’ve come to the bed after putting the things down, and instead of saying, ‘You’re not the boss of me,’ said ‘I’m here now; I’m listening.’"

And I mean this; I’m not just saying it. I was offended by the way you ordered me to "come here now." I realize that you were outraged by what Lucas was saying to you. You hated the idea that anyone could laugh at him or make him doubt himself. I also realize that none of us can always say things perfectly. That, sure you could have been more patient, softened your tone, said please. It’s not always going to come out right. But it’s still disrespectful. It just shouldn’t happen. And what came out next, is inexcusable.

I continued, "Before you tell me what you think you could have done differently, would it have made a difference if I had still dropped the things off in the bathroom, but then sat on the bed, saying, ‘I’m here now; I’m listening’ ?"

"No," you said. "It wouldn’t have mattered what you said, Stephanie. The fact is that you went into the bathroom and made it about a power struggle between us instead of making it about our son. And you didn’t take what I was saying seriously enough. If I tell you to do something, you do it then because it’s important!"

"So the only thing I could have done differently in that situation, that wouldn’t have instigated your reaction and a subsequent fight was to obey you?"

"See, there you go again. It’s not about obeying me. It’s about your recognizing that someone else’s needs are more important than your own."

I stopped things again, thinking about what else I could have done differently, saying I wasn’t sure there was anything else I could have done, that I tried to walk away, but you wouldn’t let me. I genuinely don’t know what else I could have done differently. "Not be selfish," I can almost hear you say. Because you honestly believe that I was being selfish by putting down everything I was holding, first, before sitting down. And that’s the problem. You can take the slightest action and attach a sweeping judgment like "selfish" to it, instead of just seeing it as an action. And you take it personally, when you shouldn’t, and maybe this is something you should work on at our therapy sessions. But I don’t express any of these thoughts to you during our discussion because it’ll only put you on the defensive, and it really won’t let you see things more clearly.

It was your turn. You said, "I guess what I could have done differently is done a better job at letting you know how important it was to me. Though I have no idea how I could’ve made it any clearer." I just look at you. "And, I could have not allowed the situation to escalate the way it did."

"What do you mean by that?" I ask.

"Just what I said, that I shouldn’t have let it escalate to that."

"Yeah, but what’s ‘that’?"

"To getting agitated."

"To shouting, you mean?" And you just sit there, like you don’t know what I’m getting at. So I say it, even though I can’t believe it’s not the first thing out of your mouth, "For involving the children in it?"

"What do you mean?"

"You told Lucas," and I can hardly get the words out, "you told him, ‘you’re mother doesn’t care about you.’"

"I did it once," you say. And I want so much for you to hear yourself. As if once isn’t more than it should ever, ever be. "You should never ever say that," I say. "Do you know how hurtful that is?"

"To you, again? Jesus, Stephanie, it’s not about you!"

"Me? You don’t think it’s damaging to Lucas to hear from his own father that his mother doesn’t care about him?! What’s wrong with you?" I’m thankful just then that actions speak louder than words, that no matter what you tell him, he knows how fiercely I love him. "And you said it more than once," I remind you. "You also told him, ‘your mother only cares about herself.’"

"You’re right. I did. I shouldn’t have done that." That’s the closest you’ve come to anything approaching remorse. There has been no "sorry," no "I have to change." Instead, what I’ve heard from you is this (you haven’t said these words, but I’ve heard them):

We have a history, and you have a habit of always having something else to do rather than dealing with the task at hand. I say it’s time for dinner, and you say you’ll be right there, there’s just this email that has to go out… there is always something. And in that moment, your having to drop things off in the bathroom was just another link in a chain of excuses, of reasons why your needs come first. And this was important to me, and your saying they were heavy and putting them down was just another example of how you put your own needs before everyone else. I feel like you don’t care what’s important to me.

That’s what I hear from you, even though you don’t necessarily say all the words. I’ve tried to explain that putting things down, as I did, then coming over, quickly, as I did, was showing that what was important to you at that very moment, was important to me. But it wasn’t enough for you because it didn’t happen the way you wanted it to happen. And because of that detail nothing else mattered. You saw red. And you need to ask yourself why.

We had been discussing it for a half hour. We weren’t getting anywhere. You wanted me to admit how wrong I was. How selfish. I wanted you to show even the slightest bit of remorse, to express how much you realized that you needed to change. How you want to work on not taking things personally, just as I’m trying to work on being less defensive (which is damn hard when someone’s being demeaning and demanding). When neither of us was getting what we wanted out of the conversation, I suggested we save it for therapy. Which is what we’ve done to hopefully talk things through in a productive way. Going forward, I feel like we need to establish a code word, when either of us believes the other is even approaching "out of control," you say the code word, and that person, whether they agree with it or not, absolutely must shut down, stop talking. Disengage. I don’t know if that’s an answer, but I know we need to find one.