When we were living in Albuquerque and the kids were six and nine years old, I went away for a few days to take a writing class. When I returned, I found my family at the table eating pancakes for dinner with mounds of powdered sugar. Before I had even finished giving hugs I said, “Now the kids are going to be wired and won’t go to bed.”
I remember the sting of my husband’s response, “It was more fun before you came home.” I felt the knife of truth.
I completely understand why he said it. In that lovely moment of pancakes for dinner, I was a killjoy. And I regret to admit that I was often a killjoy in those years. But they were hard years for me.
As you might imagine, I have replayed that moment many times in my brain, embarrassed to be so harsh and wanting to find a way to take it back. I also replayed it many times to try and understand what was the source of that harsh tone?
What were my expectations before I entered that room?
- As a friend of my husband’s, I hoped to be missed. I had hope that they would hold dinner for me. When they didn’t, I felt left out of the fun breakfast-for-dinner moment. Why hadn’t they wanted to wait until I came home to include me in the party?
- As a partner, I wanted my husband to do some of the heavy lifting of parenting with me. It’s important to me that our children are healthy. I hoped to be able to take a break and not feel like the goal of healthy children is sacrificed. It’s easy to parent when you are offering a party at the meal. But truly raising healthy children requires making discipline as attractive as whimsy.
- As a lover, I hoped for a romantic evening together before we started the rat race all over again in the morning. There were so many chores every day with a family. When bedtime came, I had no energy for attraction. But now, I’d gotten a break and I felt myself lusting after him. It had been a while since I felt that, and I longed to show him.
With all these expectations about connection, why then did I begin the interaction with my family in a harsh tone telling my husband how he’d gotten it wrong?
This is the frustrating truth about expectations: when they are dashed, we rarely behave elegantly. It would have been lovely if I could have wrapped my arms around my husband, planted a wet and lingering kiss on him and said, “This is what I wanted, but now we will be parenting instead of kissing.” Undoubtedly that would have delivered a different message.
When we want something, anything, we feel vulnerable.
Let’s look at the vulnerability my husband felt that weekend. He was in the second year of his medical residency. By this point in his education he was on his fifth year of working or studying more than 80 hours each week. He was scared and overwhelmed most of the time. He desperately needed a safe zone. When he finally had a break, his wife left because she needed to tap out and he wanted the first weekend he was alone with his children to be filled with fun and empty of responsibility.
What were his expectations before I got home?
- As a partner, my husband wanted me to thank him. He knew that his career choices were taking a toll on me and he wanted me to tap out and go take a writing class for the weekend. He was hurt when, instead of gratitude, he felt me criticizing.
- As a friend, he wanted me to see him as a good father who loved our children. He was lonely, empty and exhausted from the way he was stretched at work. He would have preferred the rest I provide so he could join the fun of our family, rather than being the leader of the fun.
- As a lover, he probably didn’t have a single thought of lusting after me. Kids kill lust. That’s just the fact. They are wonderful in a million different ways, but let’s be honest, he began the weekend tired, then spent the weekend getting more than his fill of snuggling, wrestling and hugging. He wanted to be able to be alone for more than two minutes.
So here we are. Two people wanting to connect, but missing each other on all three fronts.
You can desperately want to connect with your mate and fail to send signals that draw you closer. In fact, the desperation is often what gets in the way of connection because when we want so keenly, our vulnerability rises.
Merriam-Webster defines vulnerability this way: “Open to attack or damage.” Vulnerability isn’t patient or kind. It is demanding, because our lizard brain wants to protect us from attack and damage. That’s a good thing.
What would have happened if I had walked in the house that night able to see the vulnerable needs of my husband? I could have quietly sat down to join the pancake brigade, and, after eating a pancake myself, I could have thanked him for creating a party for our children.
Thanking him and asking my children to tell me stories of their weekend would have been all the leadership he needed to slip into the backseat and feel the rest of having two parents. His loneliness would abate and, instead, he would be flooded with brain chemicals that remind him he loves me.
What would have happened if my husband was able to see my vulnerable needs? When I walked in he could acknowledge my contribution by saying, “I know it’s not chicken and veggies, but this was all I was able to pull off right now.” That would have softened my heart and reminded me that he sees the writer I’m longing to be and wants to support me while I left town to focus on something all my own.
With those basic needs acknowledged, both of us would surrender to relaxation of wanting each other. Maybe I’d have gotten the good sex I’d fantasized about while I was gone.
I could recount numerous moments like this one where we missed each other. It’s not a fair expectation to think – with two people needing at cross purposes – that we will connect all the time. The key, I think, is being able to see both perspectives, to learn to care for yourself and to ask clearly for what you need.
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