Heather Gray is debunking the avoidance strategy in marriage.
Meet Shawn. He’s really happy in his marriage with Becky. They have plans tonight for dinner. Becky’s cooking. As Shawn is leaving work, his co-worker stops to ask him a “quick question” and then he gets caught up in traffic that adds ten minutes to his commute. When he arrives home, he’s a half hour late. Becky’s clearly irritated and acting distant. She’s mad about dinner being late and wonders why Shawn couldn’t just tell his co-worker that he’d catch up tomorrow. She would have appreciated a phone call.
And so it goes.
Shawn’s confused. He didn’t talk that long to his co-worker. There was no way to anticipate traffic. He wasn’t that late. As soon as he could, he explained himself and apologized. Still, he finds himself in the doghouse.
How does this happen?
Well, here’s the thing about Becky. She was raised by a high-powered single mother. Growing up, she spent a lot of time in afterschool centers and was often the last kid to be picked up as her mom would frequently run late or get stuck in traffic on her way to pick up Becky. Becky’s experience was that she didn’t come first. Something else was always more important. She was always left somewhere, waiting.
This experience is what Becky brought to the proverbial dinner table that night…the feeling of coming second. Intellectually, she’s grown up now. She gets it. She might even understand that a half hour is no big deal. Still, that feeling of waiting gets stirred up in her, causes hurt or agitation, and leads to an argument because she needs the tension-release.
Scenes like this happen in relationships and marriages every day. One of the hardest things about being in a relationship or marriage is that we have to accept that our past experiences have had some role in shaping who we are, how we act, and how we view the world. While our pasts don’t necessarily define us, they do inform us. We are influenced by how we were raised and by our experiences in previous relationships.
There are so many great quotes that float about in social media today. We see many reminders that in order for someone to love us, we have to love ourselves. It’s just not that simple. We also need to know ourselves and what we’re bringing to the table. We need to know our soft spots, trigger points, and vulnerabilities.
I often hear couples talking about “Well, that’s his stuff” or “That’s all on her. It’s not my fault her mother kept her waiting and I am not going to be punished by it.”
That’s crap. Thinking like that is what leads to insidious cracks in relationships that are really hard to repair.
For relationships to remain strong and stable, we can’t just be responsible for our own stuff. We have to know our partner’s histories and the stories he/she brings to the table. We have to be aware of those sacred spaces and be willing to take care of them, even when we haven’t done anything intentionally wrong to cause the upset or hurt.
Doing so helps our partners feel taken care of, old wounds are healed, and relationships are strengthened.
An easy way to understand it is to pretend Becky had an allergy to peanuts. First and foremost, she is responsible for knowing that she can’t be around peanuts. She’s responsible for the EPI pen. She has to inform others of her peanut allergy. This is, after all, “her stuff”. She’s on her own a lot and has to manage this for herself.
However, Shawn, being the caring and compassionate guy that he is, would naturally move through the world with an awareness of Becky’s allergy. He might inform a friend of her allergy before they go to his friend’s house. He might double-check the ingredients in something he ordered at a restaurant before offering her a bite. He’d be willing to go out of his way to make sure Becky didn’t have a bad reaction.
This is how we avoid arguments and hurt feelings. We move through the world being aware of our partner’s soft spots and acknowledging them when necessary. We don’t want our partners to feel hurt or agitated unnecessarily. Unless couples have lost control, no one starts an interaction deliberately jumping on someone’s soft spot with no regard. It can feel that way for the other person but that is rarely how it goes.
For her part, rather than picking a fight, Becky might consider saying “I get that you didn’t anticipate being late. You know me. When I am waiting, I feel like I’ve come second to something else.”
For his part, even though he may not want to or think it’s necessary, after he talks to his co-worker, Shawn might consider giving Becky a call or text. A quick “Hey, hon. I got caught up. Leaving work a bit late. See you soon.”
Not convinced? Thinking I just may be playing to stereotypes? Not so fast. Here’s the thing about Shawn. His parents divorced when he was six. His dad wasn’t really the reliable type and would often cancel his plans with Shawn at the last minute. Often in childhood, Shawn would look forward to seeing his dad only to be rescheduled. It’s been years since then but Shawn still gets ticked and agitated when someone he cares about cancels plans with him at the last minute, even when the reason is understandable.
That’s ok, though. Becky knows this and has his back. This time, it was her turn. Next time, it might be his.
And so it goes.