The Relationship Litmus Test

When we’re dating we can’t complain about our partners fast enough to enough people and then when we get married we can’t sew our lips shut tight enough.

This paints a very confusing picture; all relationships are dysfunctional and all marriages are perfect…? At least until one partner cheats or it ends in divorce. Some people think that fighting is a necessary part of romantic relationships. Other people assume that a marriage is on it’s last legs when another couple even hints at a difficult experience.

All relationships– even the platonic ones– have problems. That is an inevitability anytime two human beings interact given that we are all distinct individuals. So what is it that sets apart the healthy relationships from the dysfunctional ones?

As far as the conflicts go, it’s the quality, the duration, and to a lesser extent, the frequency. It’s obviously not possible to have a healthy relationship while you fight every day. It’s a similar red flag if every disagreement ends in name-calling, mud-slinging, and overturning furniture.

The biggest factor in the health of a relationship is the turnaround time. How long does it take you to get from difference of opinion to a productive conversation to a resolution?

Yesterday morning Oliver and I were sour with each other– and understandably so, since Zoe woke up every 30 minutes from 4:30 AM to 6, when she woke up for good. In my past life, certainly in my past relationship even without the baby added to the mix, this would have escalated into a carnival of vindictiveness, and once simmered down, days or even weeks of resentment bursting through in moments of passive aggression.

Yesterday morning Oliver and I exchanged about four unhappy sentences. I think I may have made one slightly unkind, snippy remark. And then I excused myself. We spent about twenty minutes of that day being upset at each other and it only got better from there.

I was sleep-deprived, PMSing, fasting and nearly faint from lack of water, and utterly exhausted from listening to Zoe scream non-stop for the past two months with an unbearable separation anxiety. I couldn’t even look like I was about to get up to go relieve myself without her breaking the sound barrier over all Manhattan. I was certain that I didn’t have what it took to offer my husband the support he needed.

And twenty minutes later I was certain that my previous assessment was false. Maybe on my own I can’t offer the support, but I never have to do anything alone anymore.

The rest of the day was spent in search of solutions. I spent the next three hours drawing support from my friends in the area and troubleshooting in my head. Obviously we hadn’t prepared well enough for handling Zoe. I should have more clearly explained to Oliver her needs before she woke up at four in the morning, since we had been away for two weeks. And I shouldn’t have tried to point out his mistakes while I was angry at him. That could have waited.

Too drained to cook, I suggested that we order food, rather than waiting for Oliver to read my mind and magically know what I wanted. And last night while we feasted, we problem-solved like two sane human beings, held each other tenderly, and then watched Jurassic Park. I rounded off the night by calling my best friend and recounting the whole success story of the day in detail to her willing ear.

This is the marriage that I always wanted and almost believed was possible.

And I. Have. It.

With Oliver’s help, I am creating it. Certainly it’s not perfect, but if this is as bad as it gets, what more could one possibly ask for?

When I describe in detail any conflict between Oliver and I, people typically have one of two reactions: either assume that I am a monster and offer a litany of well-meant solutions, or assume that Oliver is a monster and offer a load of well-meant sympathy. Neither is true, which is why I don’t go into great detail with many people. When two people commit to be together, the result is sometimes messy and sometimes difficult. That is okay.

In relationships and generally in life, all that matters is an overriding commitment to learning to do the right thing. It doesn’t matter how far off the straight and narrow path you may have strayed. All that matters is that one, single next step. It is never too late to do the right thing.

My brother has requested more practical, generally applicable advice, so here goes (and tell me how I’m doing, Venkat). How can you resolve conflict the healthy way?

A. Pick your battles. Particularly with a spouse, nothing is more important in life than the amount of love in your marriage. You think you can’t live with the clothes on the floor or the dishes on the table? Oh, you underestimate yourself. If I can, you can. You adapt. And you get faster and more efficient at cleaning. Save the difficult conversations for things like when to have kids and what apartment to live in.

B. When you’re angry, shut the hell up. In my limited twenty-two years of experience, I can confidently tell you that nothing good has ever come out of my mouth when I am in the irate condition. The lest offensive thing you could possibly hope for is regurgitated food, and that still doesn’t smell particularly nice. Can it and cool off until your wits return.

C. Get support. One human being cannot possibly bear all the weight of your emotional well-being. Get help from whoever is capable of offering it and use that support to strengthen your marriage/ relationship/ friendship.

D. Figure out what you did wrong and when you are ready to have the conversation, start with that. I promise you, no matter how many things you are right about, there is always some way in which you’ve screwed up too. Yes, Oliver should learn how to take care of his daughter without constantly depending on me. Yes, Oliver could learn to offer me support when I’m upset instead of always expecting me to solve everything. And yet, when I’m upset I completely forget how drastically he has improved in those respects over the past year. I forget that Oliver needs gentle, consistent reminders and instead snap at him and expect him to learn how to be loving father and husband overnight. I am wrong in those expectations and I can do better.

And finally:

E. Practice. I know it seems impossible. I never thought I’d make it to a twenty minute turnaround time, and yet here I am. You don’t get to reap the rewards until you do the work.

With more and more experience the fights get replaced with progressively more efficient and more loving conversations.

Let me know if you guys dig the clear, list-style instructions. Enjoy the problem-solving.

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