The year was 2008, and our youngest son was just a newborn. Let me clarify. Our youngest son was just a newborn who didn’t sleep. We were tired. We were completely, utterly exhausted. Looking back on it now, I can see what was happening so clearly, but in the midst of our exhaustion I couldn’t tell the slippery slope we were heading down in our marriage. We were in survival mode, and not doing very well at it.
Our tiredness became a competition.
My husband would come home from work, and make some innocent comment about how tired he was. My response would instantly be something like, “Oh yeah? Well, I’m tired too! Micah got up 4 times last night, and hasn’t napped for more than 20 minutes at a time all day! I didn’t even have time to shower!” Then his response would go something like, “Well, I got up with him too, and I had this huge meeting today at work, and was totally swamped!” As you can imagine, this conversation even between well rested people would not have ended well.
Then one day, I honestly can’t remember when – I can’t even remember if I had this epiphany while Micah was still a baby, or if it came later when Savannah was a baby – but one day Ben came home from work, and announced he was tired. I was all geared up to defend my own exhaustion, when the thought, “Why can’t we both be tired?”
When did the idea that his tiredness took away from, or somehow invalidated my tiredness enter the equation?
The truth is that his level of tiredness did not change the fact of me being tired. There was enough tiredness to go around.
I think we do that all the time in our marriages. I certainly see it in my clients all the time. We operate under an assumption that we are playing a zero sum game. That there is only so much tiredness, stress, worry, anger, sadness to go around, and if our spouse expresses one of those things then it somehow diminishes the validity of our feelings.
This attitude turns marriage into a competition, and when marriage becomes a competition our spouse too often becomes the enemy. Those conversations that Ben and I used to have didn’t result in compassion for one another. They resulted in our increasily frustrated attempts to “win” the battle over who was more tired.
So years ago when I had that epiphany, I took a deep breath, reminded myself that we were both allowed to feel tired, and that there was plenty of exhaustion to go around. Then I said, “Oh my goodness! I’m sorry you’re feeling that way!” with true caring and compassion.
And guess what??
He responded with, “Thanks! How was your day? How are you feeling? I bet you’re tired too!”
That one little statement shifted us from competitors to teammates.
Now that’s not to say that I don’t still struggle with that little voice inside my head that says, “I’m more _________ than you are!” However, since I am aware that that little voice is only going to hurt my team, I am better and better at silencing it. In fact lately when I notice that we are being snippy with each other (unfortunately marriage therapists are not immune to this), I have been taking a breath, giving him a hug, and saying, “Let’s be friends.” That little statement serves as a reminder that we are on the same team, and the team operates better when the teammates aren’t fighting.
So in what areas of your marriage do you see competition seeping in? What step are you going to take this week to stop competing, and start being a team?