Four years ago my marriage was falling apart. Things were so bad that I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking not only about divorce, but whether I had it in me to screw my husband out of our retirement savings, who I would date when I was finally, happily single, and what brand of beer I’d serve at my ex’s funeral.
I no longer obsess over this stuff because things are a lot better now. Yet from time to time, I am tempted. For instance, not long ago I was e-mailing a friend when Mark came into the room, stopped in front of me, cleared his throat in that way I find so utterly annoying, and growled, “You bought Kaarina a doughnut?” My mind raced. Has he told me he’s against our 7-year-old eating doughnuts?
“Yeah, I did,” I replied.
“Well, she asked me to buy her one yesterday and I said no. Then you go and get her one?”
Before I could say another word, Mark stormed off in a huff. I wanted to chase after him, throw something at the back of his head and scream, “How the heck was I supposed to know you didn’t want me to buy Kaarina a doughnut? You give her cheese curls! Cheese curls!” Instead, I stayed put and just stared at the wall. “You can handle this,” I told myself. “Your marriage isn’t doomed. You know what to do. You’ve come a long way.”
And I really have. Let me explain…Our problems began when Mark lost his job several years ago. For a while, he embraced unemployment as if he’d been reunited with an old girlfriend who’d just gotten implants, liposuction and inherited a trust fund. Then he opened a business (which, I might add, wouldn’t become profitable for three years). When Mark wasn’t at work, he was riding his bike or hanging out with buddies. He turned surly and distant. I was either working or being mom to our little girl. When our paths did cross, Mark and I either had nothing to say or got into arguments about how to fold the laundry, exactly what was and wasn’t allowed on the bathroom countertop, who was the better grocery shopper.
But mostly we fought over “me” time. I’d ask him to do something with Kaarina so I could attend a meditation class; he would forget and schedule a bike ride instead. When it was my book club night, he’d suddenly crawl into bed and say he didn’t feel well enough to babysit. I considered couples counseling, but worried that Mark would blow off the appointments. Truth be told, I also worried that the counselor would take his side.
The only thing that scared me more was divorce. If we split up, would I be making the biggest mistake of my life? Hadn’t I married him for a reason? Smart women don’t say “I do” to guys they despise. I must have loved him back then. Maybe I could find a way to love him all over again.
So I set out to turn him into the man I wanted him to be. I read books and trolled the Internet searching for the source of his flaw, the personality defect that prevented him from being a doting husband and father. Problem was, I just couldn’t find it—and for good reason. “A bad marriage always takes two people,” says Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D., author of Emotional Fitness for Couples.
“What’s really happening is an imbalance where one person wants one thing and the other wants something else. Our reptilian brain, however, always tends to blame someone else.” On top of pointing fingers, I foolishly clung to the belief that I was the good and perfect wife. “We don’t like to admit we have faults that contribute to relationship problems because it feels terrible,” says Pat Love, Ed.D., coauthor of Never Be Lonely Again: The Way Out of Emptiness, Isolation and a Life Unfulfilled. “It’s like making an appointment with pain.”
As it happens, my wake-up call was quite humbling. One Saturday I was waiting for Mark to come home from a bicycling event so I could go for a run. He was late. I called. He said he was catching a ride with a friend who wasn’t yet ready to leave. Ten minutes later, I rang again, asking, “Are you guys on your way?” Then I phoned again, except this time when he answered I yelled, “Did you tell your friend that your wife wanted you home?” Then I called him a bunch of names, out loud, in front of our daughter. “What’s wrong with Daddy?” she asked.
That’s when I finally realized I had a problem communicating. And if that was true, it stood to reason I had contributed to our troubles. I faced the facts: I expected him to know and do everything I wanted without me telling him what it was. When he failed, I punished him with silence, sarcasm or rage.
That was the turning point that saved our marriage. I apologized to Mark that day, abandoned my efforts to fix him, and set out to fix myself.
It wasn’t easy. For instance, when I wanted him to cancel a bike race he was planning on, I found myself tongue tied. I worried that I’d say it all wrong and start a wicked fight. In a halting voice, I managed to ask, “C-can we talk about the bike race?”
“What about it?” he said.
“I’d prefer you didn’t go. I’d like us to have some family time.”
“Okay, I’ll stay home.”
I blinked the tears out of my eyes.
Over time I worked on my delivery, and I got better at it. I kept my requests succinct. I used a soft, warm tone. I’d place a palm gently on his thigh. Instead of blaming, I asked for help. Something wonderful happened. Mark began vacuuming more often, took Kaarina to the park on weekends, and thoughtfully closed the bedroom door when I lay down for an afternoon nap. And I, in turn, decided to become the kind of wife I wanted to be. I complimented him, said thanks for the smallest of gestures. I started real, two-way conversations and became the best listener ever.
One night I came home from a business trip. “Can you get me a beer?” Mark asked, a smirk on his face.
“Oooo-kay,” I said.
Opening the fridge, I saw that he’d not only rearranged it while I’d been away, but also scrubbed the crud from every corner. He’d tidied up all of the kitchen cabinets, too. That’s just one of many amazing things this man—who I’d once thought of as a poor excuse for anyone’s husband—began doing for me and our daughter. I’d changed him simply by changing me. “Think of a relationship as a system where all parts are interconnected,” says John Friel, Ph.D., coauthor of The 7 Best Things (Happy) Couples Do. “When one person acts her best self in a romantic relationship, it influences and encourages her partner to do the same.”
I thought about all of this as I stared at the wall after our doughnut dustup. And I remembered something my meditation teacher had told me the week before—“Everyone suffers from pride. It’s human nature to think our wishes, ideas and opinions are more important than those of others. It’s only by abandoning pride that we find lasting happiness.” I took a deep breath and swallowed a big lump of it. I stood up, walked over to Mark and said, “I’m sorry I bought her a doughnut.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “You didn’t know I told her she couldn’t have one.”
Of course I couldn’t have known, but somehow I kept my mouth shut. I hugged him instead.
After all, he’s an imperfect man, one who deserves to be cherished by the imperfect likes of me.