I'd like to tell you a story about a couple — we'll call them Jan and Rob. In this scenario, they’re a married couple that has long struggled to communicate effectively. Theirs is not an unusual problem, but it is a particularly difficult one to overcome. As you read this story, I want you to consider — are you Jan or Rob? Are you doing and feeling these things? If so, I have some suggestions that can help. Alright, let's begin.
Just an Ordinary Day
Jan decides to make a really nice family dinner for that night. She spends hours making a hearty main dish complemented with a special sauce and multiple side dishes. She even takes the extra time to set the table nicely. Her husband, Rob, comes home just in time for dinner.
As the family gathers to the table, Rob says, “I have some work to do before I can eat. Go ahead and start without me.” So the family prays and starts eating, while he goes into the next room to make some phone calls.
Jan once again finds herself wishing the whole family could be eating together, but she understands that sometimes Rob needs to sacrifice family time to make sure he gets his work done well. The family finishes eating and the children start clearing the dishes just as he returns to the table to eat.
Jan watches with anticipation to see Rob's delight as he eats the entrée she prepared especially because she knew how much he liked it. Much to her disappointment, however, he only takes a tiny scoop of the dish — a much smaller portion than normal. She assumes it's because he doesn't find the food appealing.
“Did you already stop somewhere for dinner?” Jan asks, feeling a little deflated.
"No," Rob replies between bites.
“Are you on a special diet?” she continues, her voice starting to reflect the hurt and judgment that's boiling up inside of her.
“No,” he repeats.
“Why aren’t you eating anything then? You haven’t touched any of the side dishes, and you’re only eating a small bit.”
Rob doesn’t look up, but is obviously debating what he should say. After a pause, he replies, “I had a big lunch at work today. It was a late lunch. I ate two huge hamburgers.”
“Oh,” says Jan, as she steps away brusquely from the table. Everyone knows she’s mad because she’s not saying much. She furiously starts scrubbing everything in sight. After a few tense minutes, she says to her husband, “How about if you do the dishes? I’ve cooked and cleaned in here forever. I need to do some other things.”
“How about the kids do something?" Rob answers with a dismissive wave. "I don’t see them working. And I have paperwork to do.”
“The kids have been doing work all day. They do more work around here than you realize,” Jan replies, her voice getting louder as her anger increases. She’s starting to feel completely unappreciated. She thinks to herself, "I can’t believe he won’t even help out after dinner.” Finally she said aloud, “You think you do so much — and you do. But we all work hard all day long too. You aren’t here to see how much we do. And now you won’t even help out for a few minutes.”
At this point she realizes she sounds like the griping wife she vowed she would never become. She decides the only thing to do is not talk about it anymore — she must keep the anger from coming out in ways that she’ll regret later. So she goes back to work. She does the dishes herself, believing that this will somehow teach him a lesson, showing him what a child he was for not helping out with such an easy chore.
A few minutes later, Rob comes to the fridge, pulls out a package of lunchmeat and eats a handful of it. Jan bites back a hurtful comment, instead thinking to herself, “How can he be so rude? He really didn’t like his dinner. He was just making up that story about the big lunch.”
What she doesn't know is that Rob is thinking, “I just need to taste something salty. Yes, this lunch meat will do the trick.” At this point, he finally notices that Jan is acting weird. She’s clearly edgy. “I hate it when she’s like this,” he thinks to himself. “I'll show her who does more around here.”
At this point, while Jan starts deep cleaning the badly soiled carpets, he starts doing laundry. He makes it through a couple baskets before Jan comes back into the room. As she walks in, instead of feeling grateful for his contribution, she thinks to herself, “Oh, sure he had paperwork. Now he’s cleaning. He’s such a neat freak.” Overcome by the negative emotions, Jan sits down heavily on the couch, wishing away all the bad feelings that threatened to overcome her.
Two of the children walk into the living room arguing about whose turn it is to take out the garbage.
“Great,” wife thinks. “Now the feeling has infected the whole family. Why does this always happen?” she wonders.
Battles like this one happen in homes around the world every day. Who’s at fault?
One person could argue that the husband is at fault because he was so inconsiderate to his wife and the family when he came home from work.
Another could see the wife as the culprit of the argument because she chose to become offended.
How do you see it? Do you see yourself in it?
Both parties were thinking selfishly, even though they were in the process of acting selflessly. Jan was serving her husband and children by making a nice dinner. She was hoping for the spirit of love and connection to be present as a result. Rob was serving the family by being dedicated to his work. He was trying to get things done in order to spend time with the family. He sacrifices every day to meet their needs and knows sometimes this means he has to miss out on some of the important family activities, like family dinner.
Each had feelings that they chose to express with passive aggressiveness instead of through open communication. Jan’s reaction was particularly volatile. When she began to feel resentment for her unmet expectations, she attributed to Rob all sorts of negative motivations that simply weren’t there, mentally turning him into the villain of the story.
There was a time in my married life when I used to do this all the time. I turned my husband into my enemy in my own mind oftentimes before he would even walk in the door. I set him up to fail by assuming I knew what he was thinking. Without fail, this attitude always ruined evenings that could have been spent joyfully had we learned how to communicate effectively.
During this time, I eventually fooled myself into thinking that life was actually better when he wasn’t home. And I’m pretty sure he would say that he didn’t feel wanted at home either.
This type of selfishness, judgment and sabotage chases away the spirit of love and it ruins the potential for becoming a happy, united family.
Take Away my Stony Heart
After sabotaging our relationship for quite a while, I started recognizing that is something was going to change, it needed to come from me. I noticed the ripple effect of frustration spread through my family each time I became angry at my husband.
Once I realized what I was doing, I set a plan in motion to help me relearn how to deal with my frustration. First, I committed to myself that whenever I could feel my anger and resentment starting to build, I would excuse myself calmly from the room. I would take a few minutes to think things over by myself. Then I would beg God to forgive my selfish heart and to give me true charity, that I would know how to act when I returned to the room. Then I would try to express my needs calmly and without judgment to my husband.
Once I began doing this, I found my heart more open to new ways to approach this problem. For example, I got the impression to think purposefully good thoughts every time I heard the garage door opening, mentally preparing myself with positivity for when my husband would walk through the door.
You can’t force spouses, or anyone really, to do what you want. You can ask them kindly, but whether they will respond is up to them. But it was my experience that as I truly humbled my heart, became willing to ask for forgiveness when I responded in anger, when I praised him and showed my gratitude for his sacrifices, he felt my love and his heart was also softened. My attempts at charity and gratitude encouraged him to be gracious, too, and my children likewise became more kind and optimistic.
You as a parent, spouse or family member have great capacity for improving the feeling of love and unity in your home. If you struggle with these things, I encourage you to consider your own plan and to make a change today.
Find out how to strengthen your couple relationship on the Teaching Self-Government Implementation Course.