Even my naïve, 8-year-old brain could pick up that something was not quite right. Although at the time, I couldn’t articulate exactly what was wrong about the situation.
We were visiting my uncle and aunt for a week and I had just overheard my uncle say something seemingly innocuous to my aunt.
He said, “This is the heavier bag. I’m going to let you carry it. You know, cause I’m worried about hernias.”
I paused. Why did that sound weird? Then I realized that my older brother says this exact line to me every time we go grocery shopping. Except in his version it went like this, “This is the heavier bag. I’m going to carry it since it will be harder for you.”
After I made the connection that what was weird was my uncle’s inverted logic, I started paying more attention to when he would say the same things as my brother, but arrive at a different conclusion.
“This piece of toast is a bit burnt. I’m going to let you have it. You know how burnt things make my stomach funny.”
I made a strange game of it that week. Taking note that my uncle would say things like that at least half a dozen times a day with the outcome always in his favor.
It didn’t just apply to things he didn’t want to do or have but also to whose priorities were more important. For example, if they both had a work event, my uncle would always expect them to go to his because he supposedly had the more important job.
It wasn’t exactly that he never considered my aunt. It was always that he considered himself first. He was more than happy to do things for her or go to her events, so long as they did not contradict with his needs.
I didn’t think of it again until years later when my aunt unexpectedly announced one day that she wanted a divorce. My parents were surprised. My aunt and uncle rarely fought. They had built a successful business together. My uncle often made very public declarations of love for his wife and showered her with expensive gifts. He was a dutiful father and a mild-mannered man. As far as the world and their friends were concerned, they were a good couple.
Why you shouldn’t wait too long to take this test
“Why now?” my mom asked the obvious question that was on everyone’s mind. After all, they had already been married for over 25 years at this point.
“Did you guys have a big fight?”
“No…..” my aunt paused. “This is going to sound silly.”
My mom listened expectantly.
“So, you know that new colleague at work? Well, I’ve been having lunch with her every day. She’s a huge foodie and we always order a couple of dishes and share it so we get to try everything.”
“Every time we go, I noticed that she always gives me the better piece. If there are two pieces of crab, she’ll give me the larger one. If there are three pieces of dumpling, she gives me two. If there’s a piece with more filling in it, she gives it to me.”
“And you know what? It feels so damn nice! I hadn’t realized how much I miss someone making my feelings a priority!”
“I took Max to one of the places we discovered the other day. Of course, he took the bigger piece. He took the two dumplings, and he took the piece with more cream on it even though he knows I love it.”
“And I realized how much less pleasurable that lunch was. Oh my God, the realization that I had been sacrificing moments of joy for over 30 years hit me like a ton of bricks!”
In that moment, my mother understood. She said, “You’re right. It’s time. It’s been too long.”
Don’t make the same mistake as my aunt. Don’t wait 25 years for a revelation of what you’ve been giving up.
Why it’s hard to walk away
The reason my aunt took over 25 years to leave her husband is that often, the hardest relationships to walk away from are not the ones with glaring issues. When there is abuse, infidelity, lying, and meanness — it’s clear what we should do. Our friends and family are there to guide us, remind us, and sometimes even force us to move on.
But when the signs are more subtle and there are other good things in the relationship. It becomes a much harder decision.
Are these behaviors an insurmountable obstacle to a relationship? Absolutely not. Should you try to change it? Absolutely yes.
To this day, I don’t think my uncle ever intended to be anything other than a kind, loving husband. Perhaps he lacked self-awareness. Perhaps that was how relationships were modeled to him. Perhaps, my aunt should have tried to communicate her feelings about his actions with more consistency and clarity.
In the end, whatever gestures he could muster turned out to be too little too late to save his relationship with my aunt. But it doesn’t have to be for yours.
What you can do
Fortunately, the steps to take are fairly simple:
1. Assess — Think about the primary relationships in your life. Your romantic ones for sure, but also the ones with your close family and friends. Would they pass the litmus test? Do they always put themselves first?
2. Communicate — Most people simply let incidences like the one with my uncle slide because as a single instance, it just seems so petty. However, creating that awareness to the other person as to how frequently it occurs may help them see the impact of their behavior on your feelings and the relationship.
Take note that a person who behaves selfishly may not take feedback well. So, be careful to give feedback on what they are doing (e.g. “The way you phrased that..”) instead of expressing judgement on who they are (e.g. “You are so selfish!).
To help you put things into perspective as to why seemingly small actions are important, think about this with me — there are 365 days in a year and you have 3 meals a day. That makes 1,095 meals per year and 10,950 meals in 10 years. Ask yourself, do you want to have 10,950 pieces of burnt toast?
At the end of the day, life is not as clear cut as we want it to be. Sometimes, we find that the people who fail this litmus test are our spouse of many decades, our closest family members, or even oldest friends.
I’m not suggesting that we cut them off right away. I’m simply suggesting that we should always attempt to communicate with them. It may be possible that nothing changes and the relationship is still worthy of being maintained but at least we would have consciously made that choice instead of being surprised after 25 years.
“The way people treat us is based on the permission we give them.” — Sam Qurashi
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
Photo credit: Author
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