Ben Martin realized his wife was doing all the thoughtfulness in his marriage, so he made a plan to become a more thoughtful person.
Last fall, about a month after they married, my sister and her husband were hit head-on by a drunk driver.
It happened two days before they were scheduled to fly in for a visit. Their injuries weren’t severe enough to prevent them from making the trip (three cheers for seat belts and air bags!), but their car was totaled and they sported a sizable collection of bruised bones, cuts, and scrapes. Our plans for their visit slowed considerably to accommodate their pains and injuries, but we had a good time regardless.
About a week after they went back home, my wife asked me how my sister was doing. I had no idea.
“You haven’t called to check on her all week?!”
Well, no. I had not. I hadn’t called, texted, or emailed.
I am clearly an ass-hat.
Surely, no one but an ass-hat would go a week without thinking, “Hey, my sister was looking pretty sore after that drunk driver plowed into her. Maybe I should call to tell her I’m thinking about her.”
Or maybe I’m not an ass-hat. I’d like to think I’m just another one of those guys who doesn’t always think to do the things that thoughtful people do. And, of course, I really was thinking of her. I just didn’t think to tell anyone.
Here are some other things I often don’t think about:
- Life events of any sort,
- How other peoples’ days went,
- Whether guests want a drink
I know that many men are thoughtful and I’d love to think of myself as a thoughtful person. In fact, I always did until my wife, upon finding out that I hadn’t called my sister, said, “How could you not call to check on her?”
“Well,” I said, “I didn’t call to check because … um … I don’t know. She’d have said something if she wasn’t okay, right? And what am I going to do if she’s not? She’s over a thousand miles away — it’s not like I can help her fluff her pillows so she’s more comfortable.”
As much as I believe that there are lots and lots of men out there who are thoughtful, I know that there are also a lot, like…um…me, who are practical and concrete and haven’t always seen the value of being a consistently thoughtful person. If we’re married, we often don’t need to be if we rely on our partners to keep up with these things.
It can be really tempting to use a spouse as an emotional intelligence app / date book. “Don’t forget to call you mother to say happy birthday.” “Did you ever tell your dad thanks for sending that book?” “We need to start planning Liam’s birthday party.”
I’ve only recently realized that it’s a more important role than a lot of us realize. My wife’s reminder to call my sister had nothing to do with making her injuries heal any faster. Even if she hadn’t been healing up all on her own there would have been nothing for me to do. I live over a thousand miles away and I’m not a nurse or an orthopedic surgeon. But calling and checking in — even when there’s nothing I can do in a practical sense — is an important part of maintaining the kinds of connections that make for a strong relationship.
When it comes to family and friends, my wife can keep me on track. But if I always rely on her to tell me when I need to step up and be present for people, who will tell me when I need to be present for her?
If I’m not thinking to call my sister when I know she’s not feeling well, am I remembering to ask my wife if she needs me to get her a Tylenol for a headache? Or even how she’s feeling? Am I taking the time to listen to her vent when she’s had a bad day at work? And if I’m not, how am I maintaining the kinds of connections with her that she helps me keep track of with others?
I’m a practical, big picture guy. But whether it’s in my genes or from my upbringing, I’m not a guy who thinks of those ‘little’ social and emotional flourishes that I’ve just begun to realize are so important.
As I said before, I suspect this is something I share with a lot of good men. I think there are probably lots of us who love our spouses deeply and want to be the best husbands we can be, but who don’t have a naturally occurring set of practices to guide us through the day to day steps of thoughtfulness.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean we’re not capable of being thoughtful. We just have to create it from the ground up. So, here are 5 simple steps to get started at being more thoughtful with your spouse and everyone else:
- Keep a calendar. Put birthdays, anniversaries, etc. in it. Check it every day. Really, you can put anything on it. You can even pick out random dates in advance to do something nice for your husband or wife.
- Run through your list of people. Sometime each day (you could do it when you check your calendar, but really it could be any time — on your drive to work or while you’re cooking dinner, etc.) think of the important people in your life. It might sound like this, “Mom’s okay. Dad’s excited about the vacation he has coming up. My wife’s okay. My daughter’s having a rough time with her music teacher. My son’s okay.”
- Mentally set aside regular, daily ‘check in’ times with your spouse (e.g., every morning over coffee at breakfast, or when you or your spouse get home from work, before bed, etc.). It’s easier to remember if you tie it to something you do everyday anyway. Check in times are basically just time to chat after you’ve run through your list of people and asked yourself if your spouse is going through anything particularly tough or particularly great. Then you ask them about it.
- Listen. That’s how you’ll know what to think when you run through your list and check in. Here’s an article called The Most Important Ingredient For Improving Communication that has some good stuff about specific listening skills
- When you’re already thinking of your partner, show it. Sometimes, I find myself wondering how someone’s doing…and then moving on to my next daily task. Thoughtfulness is more than just thinking about someone, it’s turning that thought into an action that shows them we care. So, for example, if I’m going about my day when I remember that my wife had mentioned some unpleasant task she had lined up for the day, I might take the extra step of sending her a text telling her I’m thinking of her and hoping her day is going well.
I’m sure there are a lot of other things that would help me to be more thoughtful, but this is what I’ve come up with so far. Feel free to add more ideas in the comments below!
Image: Designs by CnC/Flickr
— Cyndi Whitaker (@635cynbad) March 1, 2014