Friday, July 17, 2009
In the Doghouse
Ever feel like these guys?
It is a stereotyped joke, but in my husband's case, there are two things that aren't so funny to me. Dual Bag's inability to reflect on what happened, to understand his wife enough to see the situation from her perspective, or to figure out where he went wrong is not an anniversary-only occurrence around here. Exerciser's saying what he thinks the women want to hear with apparent understanding and sympathy when nothing has changed is the way my husband chooses to handle it, too.
Of course, this is a commercial and has a lot of dramatic effect. My husband doesn't excitedly present me with a vacuum as a romantic gift (he's not an idiot!); he draws a blank every time he tries to think of a gift to give (which would require putting himself in my shoes and thinking through what I would like and not like, something he can't do) and then ultimately doesn't give me one when nothing comes to mind. Not because he didn't want to or didn't care, but because he didn't know what to do so that translates to him being unable to do anything. If I want a gift, I have to explicitly say what I want. I have to be careful to make sure it is the right size, color, price, or returnable because otherwise I'll end up with exactly what I asked for, even if it wouldn't work out.
Exerciser's sobs is far more dramatic than my husband's blank stare and three-word expressions of understanding, but the effect is the same. The projected exterior does not reflect what's actually going on in the interior, which hasn't changed and he doesn't understand why it should. This is a difficult thing for me and I unfortunately sometimes react like the catty wives in the commercial, putting him in the metaphorical doghouse because he should have known better. What should I expect him to know, though? When should he be obligated to ask when he doesn't know? Is it a lie, as I interpret it, to project something he doesn't feel if he mistakingly thinks he does feel it? Is it presumptuous or manipulative of me to use my knowledge of him, his nonverbal communication, his actions, and his previous explanations to determine for myself how he appears to feel independent of what he says? How many times do I have to explain myself before I can expect him to know what makes me tick? And is he able to apply my explanation about the anniversary gift this time to the birthday gift next time?
Not knowing the answers makes every day seem unpredictable and I view my husband as apparently irrational and ultimately emotion-driven when he can't provide a logical or historical reason for his decisions. I feel helpless and out of control because no amount of my logic or emotion will change the circumstances. That in turn makes me feel unimportant, unappreciated, replaceable, and invisible even. I vacillate in my response between becoming defiant, hopeful, insistent, logical, determined, energized and angry at times to being sad, dejected, hopeless, emotional, and feeling useless at others. No matter how I respond, nothing seems to change. It is like a game of chance. Always the same odds but the numbers that work this time won't come close on the next.
Let's make up a scenario: Our anniversary is coming up and I want to go to dinner and a show. We talk every day for a month of how nice it will be to have the whole day off together, how we will be able to take our time getting ready instead of rushing around, talk of maybe going window shopping at that store we wanted to visit... It is on the calendar, we both want to do it and are looking forward to it, and all is well. Andrew agrees to take off from work and to purchase the tickets while I agree to have the clothes and babysitting lined up. We run through possible problems like if the show is sold-out, if the boss asks him to work, or if a child gets ill, and all appears to be understood and agreed on.
Then there's a problem: I'm a procrastinator and on my end the likely breakdown would be in putting off my accepted tasks for too long. I might be scrambling the day before our anniversary trying to find another babysitting arrangement when I find out my expected babysitter is booked. Even though procrastination is a perpetual problem for me, I realize at this point that I was wrong, I feel guilt and remorse, I am upset with myself and know I could have done better, I'm sorry for putting my husband in this position especially if I have to recruit his help for the tasks I took on, I'm stressed and anxious trying to get it all done in time and worried that I might have ruined it all, and I feel like a failure. I apologize, I sincerely intend to amend my ways, and I feel miserable for putting us in this position...again. It is slow going, but the trend does slowly improve with time.
Let's assume for the sake of simplicity that I managed to stay on top of my tasks but it is my husband who didn't this time: The boss has him working on a project. It is long term important but not immediately essential. The boss calls him up and asks if he can go to a meeting on the day of our anniversary, but there's no indication that the boss is aware that Andrew has that day off or why. Without ever consulting me, Andrew's thought process is that I have the clothes and kids taken care of, he has the tickets in hand, that we don't have plans on the calendar until the dinner reservations at 6, he can leave work at 5 and go straight to the restaurant, so he agrees. He calls me up and starts the phone conversation with, "The boss just called and asked me to work today..." I casually respond by saying, "Too bad for him! I get you all to myself today!" with a big grin on my face, looking forward to this day we've been talking about for so long. His voice hesitates as he haltingly says, "I told him I'd come in. I didn't think we had anything planned." At this point, my heart sinks into my chest. We now know that we aren't on the same page and someone has to give.
I say, "I was looking forward to spending the day with you like we've been talking about all month. Will you call him back and tell him you did have plans and can't come after all? That it is your anniversary and your wife would kill you?" In his work and with his boss, this would not be a problem. He can't do it, though. He has now made plans with the boss and doesn't see my issue. We didn't have "plans." There was nothing definite. It doesn't matter what I say at this point, he's not going to be home. Even though this throws off all of the discussed plans of him dropping off at the babysitter's while I ironed, of us getting ready at 4... No dice. He feels a little sad that I'm disappointed, but he doesn't see anything else that can be done about it and accepts that this is the way it is. No matter what I suggest, he can't see that there are other options. If I talk long enough, he might suggest that he can stop by home over lunch to say hi as if that makes it all OK. He won't tell the boss that he needs to leave after the meeting or ask if it can be moved to earlier in the day. He'll show up at the restaurant with a smile on his face at 6:15 saying he and a co-worker he doesn't even like got to talking about her new car and he couldn't leave on time, expecting me to have a big smile on my face as if everything were seamlessly going according to plan.
The reshuffling, the chaos of changing the plans on the kids, the time crunch of getting it all in, the emotional disappointment and resentment... none of it will register with him. It won't occur to him to apologize, to be nicer than usual, or even that I am upset. It is a very good thing that I don't like flowers or chocolates because there'd be no chance of my receiving them as a token of his remorse because he has no remorse to express.
If I tell him again how hurt I am, he'll say he is sorry and ask what I want to eat. His thought process is that there's nothing he can do about it now so we might as well move forward. It is almost like he's predestined, like all of life is outside his control. He couldn't tell the boss that it was his anniversary and he wouldn't come in, he couldn't tell the co-worker that he'd love to talk but it was his anniversary and he had to go, he couldn't go back and undo what I was complaining about because it is already done. If I ask him why he couldn't do it, his answer will inevitably be, "I don't know," and there the conversation will end. And if he couldn't have done anything about it, he couldn't have been in the wrong. Life just goes on. If I press him, he'll insist that he's sorry. But he'll also say there was nothing he could do and he wouldn't do it differently again and he doesn't see why I'm upset. He'll acknowledge that I am upset, and he's sorry for that. There's a disconnect, though, in that he doesn't take personal responsibility for it. If I push for hours or days even, using every bit of logic and emotional reserve I can muster, I will usually get small concessions and maybe even large ones where the lightbulb does seem to go off, but nothing will be different the next time around.
This has implications on our faith life as well. How can an orthodox Catholic go through an examination of conscience and give a good sacramental confession, admitting his wrongs, asking for forgiveness, and firmly intending to amend his ways in this situation? How can he seek spiritual direction if he won't tell the spiritual director about the different way he thinks? How can he grow as a husband, father, Christian, or man if there's nothing he can see or do to change?
If you asked my husband the question, "Do you see why your wife was upset?" he would tell you yes. I would mistakingly take this to mean that he understood that he had made a commitment to me for a special and emotionally charged day and then broken it when he had the ability to keep his promise, that he shouldn't have done that, and therefore that I was subsequently disappointed.
If you asked my husband the question, "Why was your wife upset?" he would take a long time in trying to come up with an answer and would repeat verbatim something I had said. "I didn't give her the support she needed." If you asked what that means, he'd eventually say he had no idea.
If you asked my husband what he could have done differently, he might repeat some of my suggested scenarios back of telling the boss he couldn't come in or of telling the co-worker he had to go. One might interpret this as accepting that there were things he could do differently and so he didn't make the best choice.
If you asked what he had the power to do differently, of what was in his sphere of control, he wouldn't be able to come up with an answer. This latter question requires thinking back and imaging himself doing something different and imagining the possible consequences of it, which he can't do.
I struggle with how much I can reasonably expect from him. It isn't his fault that he thinks differently than me, but is it his responsibility to recognize that he does and to accept workarounds that meet both our needs? Is he able to recognize that he thinks differently than I do? Why can't he assign emotional tasks to me like weighing two people's potential emotional reactions and which would be a prudent path, like I happily assign machine repair to him? What can we do to keep this cycle from repeating and how much responsibility does he share in making that a reality? They are answers to questions I haven't yet found.