Thomas Pluck on the value of empathy.
Josh Stallings, a great friend of mine, told me a nugget of wisdom gifted by his father on his wedding day: “Things will be fine as soon as you realize she’s right.”
At first glance that sounds like the usual self-abasement men are expected to endure in advice columns that stereotype us as overgrown boys who are always wrong and just need that sit-com moment of epiphany to calm down and realize that family can only live with the sacrifice of our own happiness, and we should feel childish for expecting to be happy. But trust me, it isn’t. There is plenty of that around, however.
For example, read this popular piece at the Huffington Post, entitled “When Marriage Isn’t For You.” He plays a supposedly clever switcheroo in there. We think it means he doesn’t want to be married, but the lesson the immature male learns is that you marry to make other people happy. Your parents. Your future children. And of course, your spouse. Nowhere does he mention the obvious reciprocation, that this only works if your spouse also wants to make you happy. Can we get past this stereotype, that marriage is about subverting all of your dreams and desires, and that expecting any sort of equal compromise is childish behavior? Because it is not. It shouldn’t be martyrdom for either partner.
Sacrificing your goals will only end in bitterness. If they are truly realistic goals, you should be able to compromise and make them fit with the dreams of your spouse. If you want to be Batman, you will need to leave the batcave sometimes, and keep your home life in order. But that doesn’t mean you can’t wear a cape and go beat up thugs (preferably by sparring at your local gym. Vigilantism will kill your dreams and home life by putting you in prison). Dreams can be delayed, tweaked, shared. They matter. If I married someone who mocked my goal of becoming a prolific novelist, it would not last long.
I had other goals, when I was married. One was to be a decent fighter, at least capable of defending myself and my family in an emergency. But my wife didn’t like me being a punching bag while I learned my striking game. Six months before my wedding, I stopped striking and concentrated on grappling and submissions, on two feet and on the ground. And while I still eat a punch now and then getting in the pocket for a choke or a takedown, we are both happy. She only sees bruises everywhere but my face, and I get to have fun and ask two fellow students to jump me to see how long I can survive (the answer: longer than I expected, if you use one opponent as a sort of club and shield against the other one).
But let’s get back to the good advice, from my friend’s father: “Things will be fine as soon as you realize she’s right.”
Does that piss you off? It did to me, at first. But after a few years of marriage, I understand that it does not mean “You are the man, and you are always wrong.” That’s become kind of a running joke in the sitcom world- tell the woman she’s right and you’re sorry so she will shut up and you can go back to building a kumquat cannon or trimming your toenails with a Dremel tool, or any of the stupid things sitcom men do.
But it’s not about that. It’s about seeing how your partner thinks and sees things, and admitting that they can be as right as you are. It’s not always a zero sum game, where one is right and the other is wrong. Badly written stories with black and white heroes and villains have taught us that there is always one right way, but the most tragic and truest stories are when both people are right, and at odds with each other. Because they will tear each other apart. And so will you and your partner, if you don’t learn that sometimes, the other person is right, even if you are right, too.
That’s what “Things will be fine as soon as you realize she’s right” means. And it’s important, because it is easy to be dismissive and say that her way is “crazy woman thinking.” It takes a staggering absence of empathy to avoid understanding how the person you love feels, and more importantly, why she feels that way. And it will poison your relationships, and turn every discussion into an argument, and make you anticipate her “crazy” reactions so you avoid communication, and soon enough, you both are contemptuous and have no idea why you are so angry at each other, when you’ve done nothing wrong.
The good thing, is if you’ve acted this way, maybe you can fix it. It will take some humility, to admit you behaved badly. You may have to save explaining how you feel until after the first wounds have healed, by understanding how she feels. But that doesn’t mean you do it forever. Just until the trust returns. I’m no marriage counselor, but to quote Warren Zevon- “they say love conquers all, you can’t start it like a car, you can’t stop it with a gun.” It takes time, is what that means. One conversation won’t fix the problems created by a year of dismissive behavior. Like physical therapy, it will require lots of little exercises, but if you stick with it, what was torn and injured could come back stronger than it ever was.