We pulled off into the drive of an abandoned house that I wanted to photograph, and we got out of the car. My husband’s irritation emanated in palpable waves—directed at me. I wanted to shoot the house: we were two hours from home, and I didn’t know when or if I’d get the chance to shoot this ancient beauty again. Our visit with my friend Rachel at her house on the lake, and our photography shoots at the stores at Lake Oconee, had me feeling life was pretty alright, and I wanted to hold on to that feeling a bit longer. Besides, what if we waited to photograph the house until the next time we visited, and someone tore the house down in the meantime? My husband just wanted to get home and do more work on his thesis; he wanted me to understand that he always needs to do more work on his thesis, whether or not he feels like doing the work, so that he can relieve the pressure of getting the work done to graduate on time. We had been two stubborn souls at an impasse about the house, but I had pushed until I got my way. He had relinquished, unhappily, and now he was letting me know without saying a word.
It sounds so simple and minor, but the stress had been building. I’d already talked to him a bit a week prior about how I felt he’d been treating me—which is to say, as a nuisance. Not all the time, certainly, but often enough to make me cringe inwardly and question myself. I had tried to be accommodating to his need to work longer hours, to have me assume more of the burden of house cleaning, to have me accept that his stress level was just going to be higher than normal even though he’s usually the laid-back one in this duo. I kept telling myself that everyone goes through tough patches, that to have a husband who clearly loved me (everyone who meets him knows he loves me) meant we’d work through this, that the way we were getting along 70% of the time should make up for the way I was feeling the other 30. But we all come into marriages packed with burdens and expectations from our earlier lives. I grew up watching my mother assume more and more of the work of maintaining our family while my father withdrew, except when he was angrily thundering in, before he eventually walked away. I always knew I never wanted what they had in their marriage. And here in fall, at the time of year that I watched my father walk away, I found myself standing in front of that abandoned house, looking at my husband, wondering, How did we get to the point where this man who has adored me so much now considers me a burden?
The adjustments of me quitting my job to create a unique one while he has worked on his thesis have been large. The decision was a good one, but even good decisions cause stress. Finding a way to work for myself and not overwork or underwork has been taxing on me. I have questioned myself and have struggled, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, to find the empathy for myself that I thought had become an easy part of my core. Meanwhile, our financial investments, like nearly everyone’s, have been tanking, and they took their largest hit the week after I left my job. My husband’s job prospects—even though he is an excellent student, well-liked by his peers and well-known for his accomplishments—have been receding with the economy. My husband has his own set of fears and self-doubts, of course, and his own burdens and beliefs he’s brought into our coupledom. I know all this cerebrally, and yet—
My emotions welled up in my eyes and flowed down my face as my throat caught on a sob. I stopped walking and clenched my fists. My husband turned, concern replacing irritation on his face, and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I feel like I’m not as important to you as I used to be,” I said, my voice cracking in the middle of my sentence. Having said the words, I broke down further, weeping openly, afraid in that moment that he might agree. My husband was clearly shocked. He drew me to him and said, “Of course you are as important as you were. You’re my everything.” He continued to soothe me with sweet descriptions of what I meant to him. He told me that I need to tell him as soon as he does something that makes me feel unimportant. I told him examples of what he’d done to upset me. I felt him stiffen, and I stiffened waiting for his response, but then he relaxed, didn’t counter the examples, and actually listened. “Yes, I see what you mean,” he said. Our conversation deepened, and I relaxed a bit. In the end, I told him, essentially, that words and feelings mean little without action to back them up—which I knew he knew, but I thought deserved some new consideration. In the relationships I had had before being with my husband, I would have been setting myself up for a big argument, but my husband and I both know that seeking to really listen, understand, and take action are at the heart of a good marriage. We struggle against that knowledge at times, because we can be as stubborn and self-righteous and indignant as anyone, but we always come back to the fact that if we aren’t listening to each other, we can’t support each other. With the support of the other, we can at least survive, and we can sometimes do great things. Without that support, we fall apart as a couple, and we are less individually, as well.
The stressors haven’t disappeared, of course, since that conversation. But he’s taking the time and energy to respond to me better when he’s feeling stressed out, and to avoid making me feel the brunt of his frustration. I see him working to make sure he’s patient and loving with me at a time he is finding it difficult to feel patient and loving about much, and I fall in love with him more, realizing, yet again, that I really can trust him with myself. And in turn, I’ve been seeking ways to better balance myself so that I rely less on him for my well-being: increasing and diversifying my exercise; sleeping a bit later in the mornings to balance my poor nighttime sleep; spending more time with other friends; looking for additional sources of income while I wait for writing checks; decreasing some of the expectations on myself; letting myself cry even if I don’t understand why I’m crying, just to get the emotion out. I’m doing a better job of giving myself the gift of patience so that I can extend more to my husband, as well.
I’m in the process; I’m becoming; I’m trying. That is what we can ask of ourselves, and I am better able to grow when I remember that.