Where is he? Where is he where is he? It’s two thirty and she’s coming at three and he’s not picking up his phone which means he hasn’t left yet which means he won’t be on time and, dear God, where is he? Whereishewhereishewhereishe?
Me: “Honey? Where are you? Why weren’t you picking up your phone?”
A: “I’m leaving now. I’ll be home in a bit. What’s wrong?”
Me: (Said in increasing tones of agitation and desperation) “You’re leaving now? It’s two-thirty. We’re not going to have any time before she gets here. We need to talk, we need to plan. We need to pray. What were you thinking? You set up the times, for your appointment and with her, why aren’t you here? This isn’t ok, I’m not ok. I need you here now.”
A: “I was planning on calling you on my way home so we could talk about things. This is important to me too, I want to plan this out, I want to pray with you. I’m with you…I’m sorry, I didn’t know I had to be home now. I’m heading out the door, I’ll call you when I’m on my way. Love you.”
Me: “……(sullen silence)……”
Not often, but every now and then I have to have a Very Important Conversation with someone. By this I mean a conversation that I anticipate will be difficult, emotionally taxing, with high risk if it doesn’t go well. I never embark on having that kind of talk without a lot of prayer and outside wisdom to make sure I’m not overstepping or overreacting. In short, a conversation that creates a perfect storm for one Christy A. being seriously stressed out. Usually I’m on my own as far as the stakes go, but in this case A was in it as well. In this case, we were both hurt, both feeling misunderstood, and both far more invested in making sure both parties came out of this talk maintaining a strong relationship with each other than in being right.
It’s taken me a long time to get there.
I grew up in a family who would scream at each other at the slightest offense. The offended party would come at the offending family member with both barrels blazing. Guilt, blame, hurt, anything but vulnerability were used to try to make the person feel badly that they’d hurt them. In turn, the offending party would look for any reason that the offended deserved what they got, had earned their hurt, and would endeavor to beat the other down with words and emotional blackmail. Nothing is my fault, everything is yours. We would yell until we were hoarse, no one hearing the other, and break apart at an opportune time hoping that the other would change and actually hear us and care about our point of view. Needless to say, it never happened.
The way I was brought up to fight was broken, dysfunctional, and poison to healthy, mutually beneficial relationships. Thank the Lord that A, avoider of conflict though he is, called me on my crap early in our dating relationship and told me that the way I fought made me a bully. I was a broken person. He was too. Neither of us came from families that equipped us to handle real-world relationships in a way that put our marriage before the self. But we are called to be better, to be less ‘me’ and more ‘we’, and we learned.
Here’s how our conversation went when A called me back,while on his way home:
A: “Hey, Baby.”
A: “Before you say anything, I called and asked if she would come over at three-thirty. I’m sorry that my appointment ran long. I want to be there for you, and I’m sorry we mis-communicated about when you needed me to be home. We’ve got time now, and I’m happy to talk to you now, or when I’m home in a bit.”
In one simple swoop, he completely disarmed me. Took the wind of indignation out of my sails.
I was already stressed about the upcoming Very Important Conversation, and when he wasn’t home when I needed him I freaked out. But instead of hearing my anger, he heard my hurt. Instead of hearing my frustration, he heard my need. Instead of hearing my bitterness, he heard my fear. And that made all the difference.
Emmerson Eggerichs once said (I’m paraphrasing, it’s been awhile) that all the marriage advice he offered in his study Love and Respect is assuming that you have a good-intentioned spouse in your home, who wants better for you than they want for themselves. I chose well, and as far as our marriage is concerned, this is generally true for us. We (mostly) want better for the other than we do for ourselves, and we definitely work to put the heath and viability of our marriage above being right, above feeling self-righteous, above the illusion of being infallible.
And that’s what A showed me when he called me and said, “Before you say anything, I wanted to let you know that I called her and asked if she would come over at three-thirty.” That he heard me, he loved me, and he put me first. He knew that he would be dealing with a pissed off and defensive wife when he called me back, so he preempted me with love. He knew that I was hurting and needed him, even though I came at him with pain and disappointment.
The man I was married to a year ago wouldn’t have realized that. But the man I’m married to today does.
In my house growing up, you never said, “I’m sorry.” It was an admission of weakness, an admission of failure, and our home was not a safe place to be fallible. What we never realized, church-going family that we were, is that we all fall short of the glory of God. Which means that we are fallible. Learning to say, “I’m sorry, I messed up,” was the most grown-up thing I’ve ever learned to do. And, as I often say to my high school kids, if I hadn’t learned to admit to my fallibility and married a man who would do the same, our marriage wouldn’t have made it a month. Really. If I’d had a recorder and could replay our arguments from our honeymoon and that first month you’d know what I mean. But we learned, together. Which brings me back to my story…
A year ago A would have had a very different response to me in that second phone call after the way I’d talked to him in the first. Then he would have heard my hurt, the implied failure on his part, the accusatory tone. Though I’m sure he still heard all that, this time – to my amazed surprise – he heard the panic, the worry, the hurt at feeling like I was facing a Very Important Conversation alone. And he took care of it without me asking. Throughout our relationship, I’ve been the one to instigate change. I’m always looking for the next great marriage book we should read, to seek out the next small group, to suggest prayer topics and call us to look at the bigger picture. But the man I married is willing to grow. He’s willing to not be right if it means keeping us close. He knows how to say, “I’m sorry.” And it makes all the difference.
“Before you say anything, I called her and asked if she would come over at three thirty…”
No, he didn’t understand my need from the beginning. But with those words he showed me that he heard me through my fear, through my accusations. He heard me, and he fixed the problem. Without me asking. Because I would have found a way to make it work, even though I was stressed, even though I was scared. But he made it all go away, because he heard me.
It’s moments like this that show me that despite the dysfunction we are born into, despite the human tendency to never admit when you’re wrong, when we love each other (and I’m talking sacrificial love, the kind that puts the other’s daily well-being above your own,) we can choose to put your needs second when our partner is hurting. A could have been defensive, self-righteous even, given how I reacted. Instead he chose to act in love. And it was beautiful.
You have many choices in marriage. The greatest choice you can make is to put the health of the marriage above yourself. Even with both of our backgrounds working against us, we’ve learned to choose marriage. And I believe that if we can learn, anyone can. Which will make the world a more beautiful place.