Happy couples are interested in having as few checks as possible on their partner’s “I’ve had it!” lists. They figure out how to compromise and help each other gradually shrink their lists and cut way down on annoying behaviors over time. If you ask them how their marriage is doing, they’ll give you a variation of what I think is the ideal answer: “We’re not perfect, but we love each other and we’re both working at getting better at loving each other.”
Several years ago, I was working with a stay-at-home Mom named Cynthia. She had three small children and a hardworking husband named Jim who often arrived home tired and irritable. He’d waltz in, announce his presence, collapse on the couch in front of TV while Cynthia cooked dinner, served it, and gave the kids baths, stories, and put them down. When she asked Jim to help, he usually refused. “I’ve been working all day while all you’ve had to do is play with the kids,” he’d complain. Or, on the rare occasions when he roused himself from the couch to actually pitch in with homework, housework, or to play with the children, he’d make a big show of what a hands-on dad he was and how lucky Cynthia was to have him around. Being a particularly clueless kind of guy at this point, Jim had no idea that such whining was guaranteed to neutralize any pleasure his wife might feel from him lending a hand.
Once Eric and Camille got the message about not treating each other like objects, it marked a real break-through in their marriage, because they’d finally become conscious of each other’s humanity when they were upset. They could be distressed yet simultaneously see the other person as a real human being with fears and hurts. Their love and compassion for each other deepened over the years, and I’m happy to say that the man who could so easily insult his wife and the woman who attacked my wall are now entering the fourth decade of a pretty darn good marriage.