The Couples’ Story. Who is right?

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“My wife is pestering me for one of these”, announced the carpenter who was building the deck on the back of my house.

“Oh, really?” I replied.

“Every weekend for the last year she’s been on at me about building the thing… as if I really want to do this on my weekends!”

“Sounds a bit rough”, I say.

“It’s as if she never wants me to relax!  It’s just constant nagging. “WHEN are you going to get started on OUR deck!!” he yells, giving his best imitation of his annoying wife with her annoying broken-record of a request.

“Well”, I say (a bit cautious now about suggesting he might possibly feel better if he continues to ponder the situation while resuming work on the deck he’s currently building for me).

“You’d think she’d get the message by now”, he continued.  “A bloke has a right to a bit of down-time on his weekends!  Sometimes I’m still finishing these jobs on a Saturday anyway.  It’s not easy getting up at the crack o’ dawn every morning to do this for everyone else and then to get no thanks at home.  I’m building a business here!  She’s got no gratitude for all I AM doing for her!”

“Hmmmm!”, I think.  “A year is a long time”, I say (telling my feet to start facing in a ready-to-walk-away direction).

“Well, she’s got Buckleys if she thinks I’m going to give in to her rants.  She can wait another bloody year!”

It’s such a common fight pattern.  One person digging-in to maintain their position while the other becomes increasingly more desperate for action.  I think of it now as a tug-of-war, reinforced with strategies and tactical manoeuvring and a massive lack of self-awareness.  In this fight, it’s always the other person who is to blame… and they need to pay for their crime.

I used to call it the tradie’s fight because I heard it so often in that context.  “I need to build/fix/paint/wire-up/clear away/install one of these at my place.  Not gunna happen anytime soon”.

A few years ago, the blind guy (as in curtains and blinds) refused to take the time out of his massively busy work schedule to install blinds in his new-born’s bedroom – until his desperate wife had an idea and bought loads of silver stick-on car window block-out-sun-shields and plastered them all over the inside of nursery window. 

He installed the much needed blinds in his own house the very next weekend.

I’d like to think he could see how absolutely desperate (and resourceful) his wife had become and so decided to prioritise this need, but sadly, he told me that he only gave-in because it was a new house in a new neighbourhood and he drove a van that clearly advertised his business.  He was embarrassed about what his new neighbours were thinking about the silver sun-protection stuck all over the windows of his front room.  His embarrassment turned into fury whenever he saw his ‘complaining’ wife – and this fury stopped him from being able to own that his baby’s needs were also important to him.  Potentially, as his ‘baby’ prepares for big school in a year or two, the part of his brain that stored the offense may still be triggering his anger toward her, keeping the fight alive, long after the problem has been fixed.

The big question in these fights is… who is right?  The big idea of this blog is that… both are.

The blind installer was extremely aware that reliability and service were vitally important for increasing not only his business but his reputation in a competitive industry.  He was absolutely correct when he was prioritising his clients’ needs with the aim of growing a strong and reputable business – supporting his family now and in the long-term.

His wife was also right because she was struggling with the pressure of a new house, a new baby and a husband who was always at work.  Their baby couldn’t have daytime sleeps in his own room because of the light.  I imagined her at her wits end, trying to settle the bub to sleep in his pram in a darkened space somewhere while unpacking a house.  Not ideal – and also extremely frustrating – in light of the fact that the baby’s other parent installs blinds, somewhere, every day.

So how can two people, who are both right, find a remedy without resorting to the threats and ultimatums that leave long-lasting feelings of hurt, betrayal and loneliness?

Well, it’s easy… and complicated.  It begins with remembering love.  I’m not talking about the romantic kind of love where you see your partner as some kind of super-hero-who-can-do-no-wrong.  That kind of love can’t walk your relationship warmly and respectfully ‘into the sunset’.  I’m referring instead to the grown-up version of love – where you allow yourself to recall the things that you value about your partner (perhaps think about how others see them), that they are generally well intentioned and that the things that mean a lot to them, in other words, their side of the fight, makes sense to themIf you choose to remember love – and to consider what that might look like in the daily grind of your relationship – you might be able to choose to see your partner as a well-meaning individual with something important to say about the situation.  Important from their perspective.

This might actually be a sound working definition of love: offering to understand your partner’s perspective.  Sadly, we erroneously learn somewhere in our lives that if we do this type of ‘loving via understanding’, we’ll lose our own perspective and maybe even ourselves.

The carpenter just wanted his wife to understand that he was both exhausted and excited by his workload.  His business was important to both of them and he was keen for her to actually see his truth, and his needs.  He wanted her to say that she understood.  His wife couldn’t take their kids out on their old deck because it was decrepit and dangerous.  She was so frustrated because her deck-building husband, who acknowledged the current structure was unusable, refused to see her struggle.

She thought that if she offered him understanding, she’d be agreeing to never getting her needs met.  He thought, if he offered her understanding, he’d be losing the fight.

This difficult process of understanding can be helped by asking yourself the questions: ‘What message is my partner is trying to get across to me right now?’ and ‘What is it that is important to them in this argument?’

Tragically, we are usually hijacked by these questions instead: ‘Why can’t my partner hear my message? and ‘Why don’t they love me enough to hear my side?  And then we might proceed to make our message in a louder or more passive-aggressive (or even aggressive-aggressive) manner. 

What if the blind installer could allow himself to remember that he actually promised to love (and even cherish) his wife once upon a time?  What if he could step over to her side of the line and offer her some understanding regarding the unworkable position she was in – and even how laughably tragic it was that his new house had no blinds.  It could then become a point of agreement for them.  I can only imagine how she might feel to have him speak words of understanding to her.  She might begin to believe they could still be a team in this business of parenting.

And what if she could really hear his gut-churning message about the heavy responsibility he’s carrying in growing their business.  Instead of insisting, “Don’t tell me that you’re doing this for me/us.  You’d be working like this for yourself anyway”.  She might, instead, be able choose to see and acknowledge the pressure he’s under and offer understanding and even thanks for the long work hours as he tries to succeed. 

Her understanding doesn’t mean her message is unimportant.  It means instead that she is in a less triggered/angry/hurt position from which to share her message.

As you can see this is about understanding and love.  Not about who has to yield their position.  Not about who wins and who loses.  If the couple choose to remain in the gridlock of the old ‘fight’ positions, then they both are losers in terms of the relationship they’d once hoped to build.

How about solutions?  The couple discover they have resources to come up with a working solution once they’ve genuinely understood the other’s perspective.  It may seem impossible to find a solution when you’re in the tug-of-war position, but it’s actually not so bad once you feel understood and valued by your partner – and offer the same to them.

Often, instead of choosing to remember love and offering understanding, people choose to double-down on their tug-of-war strategies… I wonder out loud to the carpenter if it might work for both of them if his wife does what I had to do and just hires someone else to build their much desired deck.

“What!?!?  No-one else is going to build my deck!!  It’s what I do for a living.  There’s NO WAY that’s happening”!