The morning routine
If you're married (or in any serious relationship), you've likely heard how important it is to "keep communication flowing." They say a marriage only works by making sure there's a consistently open and honest dialogue, where each party feels comfortable sharing their insights and feelings. Healthy communication equals a healthy marriage.
Allow me to disagree. I've learned over the last several months that a healthy marriage comes from knowing when to talk, but (more importantly) knowing when to seal your lips shut with carpenter's glue.
For the last eight years or so, I've been one of the population of Westport commuters who spends more time in the office and on the train than with my immediate family. There's really no surprise there, simple math dictates that a typical work day and a long commute simply adds up to more time away than present.
We've had a solid marriage through it all, and have felt fairly comfortable airing our occasional grievances. As a result, we've had a bi-annual fight about the time I spend away and my lack of connection with the day-to-day life of the house. The hours-long argument can be adequately condensed and summarized like this:
Her: "You work too much, and are away from home too often."
Me: "I make money to pay for our lives."
Her: "Fine, but I want you more engaged with our lives."
Me: "What do you mean?"
Her: "Did you even notice that I changed our shrubs two months ago, or that we have a new dog?"
Me: "I love you."
Her: "Stop changing the subject."
Me: "Who is that reading over there?"
Her: "That's your daughter. She's 9 now."
Me: "OK, I'll try harder."
Those of you who are married may sense some familiarity with the dialogue above. There's usually a cruel quip offered during the fight, and a tear or two is occasionally shed. But things normally end up in a good place, at least temporarily; I'm more likely to do the dishes and comment about haircuts and landscaping, while she ends up smiling more and hating me less. There's a balance to achieve, and ultimately most of us find it (or are exhausted trying).
But the daily equation changed dramatically several months ago. Instead of spending the majority of my time away, I've been working from home and virtually commute-free. I've been absolutely and utterly present.
That's a good thing, right? What a blessing for my family and our marital relationship!
That's what I thought. Until I decided to "share my feelings."
Before this transformation, I would rise and leave our house before sunrise, on the train to New York before my family even awoke. I never saw my kids in the morning, only heard the occasional stirring as the stairs creaked on my way out the door. I always missed the idea of spending a nice morning together, sharing a few laughs and our plans for the day over eggs, orange juice and smiles. I truly looked forward to the mornings together in this new world order.
On one of my first weekday mornings home after eight years of commuting, I awoke in bed to the sound of screaming. Hair had apparently been pulled, and revenge had already been taken.
I shook the morning sleep out of my head and walked down to our kitchen, pouring a cup of caffeine to begin the day before getting the kids ready. But the screams continued upstairs, alternating between adult ("Get your clothes on already!" "Stop touching your sister!" "I'm going to count to three...!!!!") and children ("I don't want to wear pants!" "Get out of my room!" "She slammed my finger in the drawer again!"). It was like a heavy metal chorale, punctuated by rhythmic thuds of rage on the floors and the occasional crash of thrown objects. As far as I could tell from downstairs, there could have been blood on the walls. I changed my plans and decided to stay within the relative safety of the kitchen.
But the battle came to me downstairs. It's not really fair for me to specify what the arguments were about, as they bounced happily between anything and everything. I tried to intervene to bring calm to the proceedings, but the participants would have nothing of it. It was a seething cauldron of anger, my wife at the center, bravely deflecting the cruel words hurled among the kids while managing to artfully prepare bagged lunches. I silently made their breakfast, hoping to avoid being dragged into the contest. In the end, I consider the fact that the kids got on the bus with all limbs intact to be a major triumph.
After the kids left for the bus and my wife collapsed into a kitchen chair, I decided to share my feelings in the spirit of marital openness.
"Honey," I said matter-of-factly, "I don't think your morning routine is working."
Big, big mistake. In hindsight an obvious one, but it was far too late.
My wife's head rose, and began to glow with a radioactive fire straight out of Chernobyl. Smoke burned out of her eyes and the skin on top of her forehead began to melt. The dog hid under the living room sofa (even though he's bigger than the living room sofa). As music from The Exorcist began to play from the stereo speakers, she spoke.
"After eight years away, you've been home 15 minutes and you have the nerve to tell me that my routine isn't working???"
"Well", I said calmly, "you have to admit..."
"Well then, if you know better, why don't you take over? Let's see you play referee while they're at each other's throats and make breakfast at the same time? Better yet, why don't you just take over all the responsibilities around here, seeing as I'm doing it wrong?!"
"No, I was just saying..."
"Let's see you keep this house in order and stay sane while your disinterested spouse is away for, oh, a decade! This is great!! We'll start now, you idiot!!!"
She then stormed out the room and into her car, returning home six hours later to a contrite husband. I recognized the error of my ways, complimented her on her amazing ability to keep the trains running, and promised to help out in a more productive way.
I know it's important to make sure your spouse knows how you're feeling. You need to be comfortable expressing an opinion and finding an emotional partner to build a productive relationship.
But don't be an idiot. There's a time to share what you're thinking, and a time to swallow it down hard so that it never enters the atmosphere. I learned this the hard way, but it's a lesson I've taken to heart.
And the mornings got better anyway, thanks to her patience. With me.
Michael Wolfe is a Westport resident with two kids and a very forgiving wife whose tolerance is severely tested by this monthly column.