I have to be honest—COVID, remote schooling, and all of the other things that make it so difficult for me to get a single. Thing. Done.—are really getting to me. It’s making me a less nice version of myself. It’s making me a less nice wife. If anyone wants to send my husband a note of encouragement, he could probably use it right now.
When I’m stressed (and I think now would more than qualify), I can get on what I call “the crazy train.” It’s when I decide that my stress is caused or exacerbated by one and one person only—my husband. When I’m on the crazy train, I can’t seem to stop myself from letting him know of his grave errors. It’s a good thing I know how to get off this train and keep my marriage intact.
I’m sharing a part of my new book, From Chaos to Connection, from Chapter 2, called “You Don’t Need Good Communication (Gasp!).” I picked this excerpt specifically because I needed this reminder. I know 2020 has thrown a million things at each of us. Some of you may be managing the stress in lots of lovely ways, but I think for many of us, the stress has affected our marriages. I surely needed to read these words today. I’m hoping they are helpful to you too.
Excerpt from From Chaos to Connection: A Marriage Counselor’s Candid Guide for the Modern Couple by Lori Epting, LCMHC
We All Sound Crazy at Times
I think it is important to know that we all get on the crazy train at times. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is that happy couples find it easier to get off that train. During moments of discord, she may feel, He is so selfish. He only cares about himself. It’s all about him. He couldn’t care less about what I feel or what I need. He only thinks about Number One. He may think, She is so unappreciative. She doesn’t realize all I do for us. She is never happy with me; it doesn’t matter what I do. But after couples learn how to respond to these normal feelings and thoughts effectively, they begin to feel differently. Even as they feel slighted and upset, they know in their hearts that their spouse does care.
For me, these crazy-train thoughts surface every time my family prepares to go on a trip. My husband brings down his small, neatly packed suitcase and says, “I’m ready; are you guys all ready?” I want to scream at him (and often do): “No! We are not ready! Did you think to pack the swim diapers, or the loveys, or the girls’ toothbrushes? How about the beach towels and sun- screen, or the infant ibuprofen, or the puddle jumpers? Actually, did you think about anything apart from your golf clubs, tennis racquet, and bocce ball set? I have to pack for three people, but you only look out for Number One! Must be nice!”
But here is the reality: he has thought about us. He has already cleaned out the car, filled it up with gas, adjusted the car seats, taken the running stroller to the gas station to put air in the tires, and packed the beach chairs and umbrella. But in that moment, when both kids are hanging onto my legs and yelling “Mommy!” in harmony while I’m trying to find the matching tops to fit their sippy cups (the bane of my existence), I feel that everything falls to me. And I’m quick to let him know that.
Now, this could turn into a blowout fight within seconds. In fact, here’s a conversation I often hear between couples who come in for counseling:
Husband (throwing car keys and going to sit on the couch and watch TV): Fine, do it yourself, then!
Wife: I will! I already do anyway, so what’s the difference?!
Husband (to himself): She is always nagging. She doesn’t appreciate anything I do. In fact, it doesn’t matter what I do, because nothing is ever enough for her. I basically suck as a husband, so why even bother? I may as well sit here and catch up on ESPN’s SportsCenter, because even if I try, I get yelled at.
Wife (to herself ): There he is, watching SportsCenter again. He gets to do whatever he wants, while I do everything around here. He obviously doesn’t care about me or our family. I don’t know why I put up with this!
Now, here is how this situation plays out in my marriage:
Chad (spitefully and sarcastically): Actually, I already cleaned out the car, got gas, adjusted the car seats, filled up the tires of the jogging stroller, and packed the beach stuff. But yes, you are right, I only think about myself!
Me: You did? Well, that’s awesome. Thank you.
Seriously, thank you. I didn’t realize you did all that. I’m sorry. Do you accept my apology?
Chad (still spiteful and short): It’s fine. No big deal.
Me: No, seriously, I am sorry. Thank you. (I give him a kiss on his cheek.) Will you forgive me?
Chad (a little more softly): Yes, I do. (And he kisses me back.)
Me: I really am sorry.
Now, notice something here. This was a stupid, petty little fight that made no difference in the world, and I still had to apologize three times in this one conversation to make an impact, to soften my husband and convince him I was genuinely sorry. Three times! One of the things that strikes me is that my couples will go through huge blowouts or major betrayals, disappointments, or breaks in trust, and may never say, “I’m sorry.” More likely, I hear, “I said I’m sorry. I don’t know what else you expect me to do! You just need to get over it.” Or, “I said I’m sorry, but she just keeps bringing it up over and over and over again. Enough already! She just needs to move on and quit dwelling on it!”
Now, in this shortsighted husband’s defense, he is right—to an extent. She does need to move on. I promise, she desperately wants to, despite what he thinks. Often, I hear, “I think she wants to stay stuck on it; I think she likes to be miserable and make me miserable.” I can promise you, she doesn’t. She just doesn’t know how to move on, how to keep your hurtful words, actions, and insults from feeling like a punch in the stomach or a dagger in her heart. She does not want to feel this way.
So here is a hard truth: you may need to apologize over and over again, especially if you’ve committed a true betrayal of trust. Did you get emotionally involved with a coworker? Did your spouse catch you in a lie? Did you hurl a verbal insult to your partner’s character in a heated moment? If you did, you will need to apologize many times over, from a place of true sadness and contrition. She has to feel that you are sorry. She has to see it on your face—see a tear in your eye, a look of sadness, something that will let her realize how pained you are to have caused pain in her. And she may need to see this many times before it finally sinks in.
When a person gets hurt, they put up a wall. For some, this wall is light and spongy, and can be torn down easily, allowing reconnection to happen in seconds. For others, it is a ten-foot-wide concrete behemoth with an armed guard posted in front of it. Such a wall can feel insurmountable, impenetrable. But with each heartfelt apology, a chip is knocked out of the wall. And sometimes, a lot of chips must be knocked out to make an impact.
When she starts to feel, Maybe he truly cares that he hurts me. Maybe if I show him this pain, he actually will care. Maybe he does care about me after all!—this is when the magic of reconnection starts to happen, and the pain starts to subside. This is when couples start to turn it around. As a therapist, I live for these moments.