OK, I’m cheating here a little (or a lot). I wrote much of this story years ago, and it actually ran in the Westport News at the time. But my mornings lately have looked a little similar, what with surly teenagers having taken over my house. So it seemed to be worth updating this story and including here on my own page. Might look a little familiar to a select few of you, but it’s been a while, so hopefully you don’t mind. Read on.
This year’s (and every year’s) edition of The Unofficial Marital Handbook clearly demands that couples need to “keep communication channels open and flowing between each other at all times”. According to the experts (thanks, Dr. Phil), a marriage only works by making sure there’s a consistently open and honest dialogue between partners, whereby each party feels comfortable sharing their insights and feelings at all times. Healthy communication equals a healthy marriage.
But does it always? Allow me to take the slightly contrarian point of view on this one. I’ve learned over the course of my marriage that a healthy relationship comes from knowing when to talk, but (perhaps more importantly) knowing when to seal your ignorant and deluded lips shut with carpenter’s glue.
For what seems like decades, I’ve been one of the population of Connecticut commuters who spends more time in the office and on the train to New York City than with my immediate family. To those in the Metro North know, that’s no surprise, as simple math dictates that a typical work day and a three hour commute adds up to more time away than present.
Despite this, my wife and I have had a solid marriage through it all, and have felt fairly comfortable airing our occasional grievances. Most dramatically, we’ve had a bi-annual fight about the time I’ve spent away and my lack of connection with the day-to-day life of the household. This hours-long argument can be adequately condensed and summarized as follows:
Her: “You work too much, and are away from home too often.”
Me: “Well how exactly are we supposed to pay for our home?”
Her: “Fine, but I want you more engaged when you’re here.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Her: “Did you even notice that I changed our shrubs two months ago, or that I started painting again?”
Me: “I love you.”
Her: “Don’t change the subject.”
Me: “Who is that reading over there?”
Her: “That’s your daughter. She’s 16 now.”
Me: “OK, I’ll try harder.”
There’s usually a cruel quip lobbed in there somewhere, and occasionally a tear or two is shed when things get heated. But after each side presents its closing arguments, we normally end up in a good place, at least temporarily. I’m more likely to do the dishes and comment about haircuts and landscaping, while she ends up smiling more often and hating me less. I suppose that’s considered “balance”, and ultimately most of us find it (or are exhausted trying).
But the daily equation changed dramatically recently. Instead of spending the majority of my time in far-away places, I’ve been working locally and have cut my commute by almost two-thirds. I’ve been absolutely and utterly present.
That’s a good thing, right? What a blessing for my family and our marital relationship!
That’s what I thought, until I decided to “share my feelings”.
Before this transformation, I would rise early and leave our house before sunrise, on the train to New York before my family even awoke. I never saw my kids in the morning, only heard the occasional stirring as the stairs creaked on my way out the door. I always missed the idea of spending a nice morning together, sharing a few laughs and our plans for the day over eggs, orange juice and smiles. I truly looked forward to the morning together in this new world order.
On one of my first weekday mornings home after years and years of commuting, I awoke in bed to the sound of screaming. Hair had been pulled, revenge had been taken, and war had been declared, all before 8 AM. No one had told me about the demonic side of children being forced by law to go to school.
I shook the morning sleep out of my head and walked down to our kitchen, pouring a cup of caffeine to begin the day before engaging with the kids. But the screams continued upstairs, alternating between adult female (“Get your clothes on already!” “Stop touching your sister!” “You’ve got five minutes before I…”) and psychopathic children (“Get out of my room!” “Where are my pants?” “I hate you more than anyone in the world!”). It was like a heavy metal chorale, punctuated by rhythmic thuds of rage on the floors and doors, harmonized by the occasional crash of thrown objects. I quickly changed my plans and decided to stay within the relative safety of my kitchen seat.
But the battle eventually came to me downstairs. I tried to intervene to bring calm to the proceedings, but the participants would have none of it. Simple questions and comments like “Hey, how did you sleep?” and “That looks nice on you” were met with cold stares or outright scorn. It was a seething cauldron of anger, my wife at the center, bravely deflecting the cruel words hurled among the kids while still managing to artfully prepare bagged lunches.
I silently made breakfast, hoping to avoid being dragged into the conflict. In the end, I consider the fact that the kids left the house with all limbs intact to be a minor triumph.
After the demon seed made their way to the bus and my wife collapsed into a kitchen chair, I decided to share my feelings in the spirit of marital openness.
“Honey,” I said matter-of-factly, “I don’t think your morning routine is working.”
You read that correctly. Seemed like a statement of fact at the time to me, but in hindsight? Big, big mistake.
My wife’s head rose, and began to glow with a radioactive fire straight out of Chernobyl. Smoke burned out of her eyes and the skin on top of her forehead began to melt. The dog looked at me with puzzlement, then whimpered out of the room. I tried to follow him, but the music from The Exorcist began to play from the stereo speakers as my wife spoke.
“After years and years away, you’ve been home 15 minutes and you have the nerve to tell me that my routine isn’t working???”
“Well,” I said calmly, “you have to admit…”
“Well then, if you know better, Mr. Dad Of The Century, why don’t you take over? Let’s see you play referee while they’re at each other’s throats and make breakfast at the same time? Better yet, why don’t you just take over all the responsibilities around here, seeing as I’m doing it all wrong?!”
“No, I was just saying…”
“Let’s see you keep this house in order and stay sane while your disinterested spouse is away for, oh, two decades! This is great!! We’ll start…NOW! How’s now, you idiot!!!”
She then stormed out of the room and into her car, returning home later that evening to a contrite and humbled husband. I recognized the error of my ways, complimented her on her amazing ability to keep the trains running, and promised to help out in a more productive way.
I know it’s important to make sure your spouse knows how you’re feeling. You need to be comfortable expressing an opinion and finding an emotional partner to build a productive relationship.
But don’t take that too literally. There’s a time to share what you’re thinking, and a time to swallow your brilliant insight down so hard that it breaks your esophagus. I learned this the hard way, but it’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart.
I can’t say our mornings have turned into love fests. I’ve got teenagers now, predisposed in the mornings to bursts of anger and outrage (typical A.M. exchange between loving parent and child: “How did you sleep?” “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”). But over time, things have improved, and we’ve found a kind of detente in the morning, thanks to my wife’s patience. With my kids, for sure…but also with me.