Almost one year ago exactly, I picked an epic fight with my husband about an article on APW. The post was written by a woman I love and admire (you know her as Manya), and on the surface was a deeply poetic ode to the little things she and her husband do each day to show they care. At its core, Manya’s piece was really about the way we grow into love over a long period of time, but I was too distracted by the minutia to see that (they bring coffee to each other in bed?! WTF?). Allowing the parts to substitute for the whole, I saw the article as proof of the shortcomings in my relationship, in the same way that I see Pinterest as proof of my shortcomings as a home decorator. Filled with insecurity and dread, I wrote a rebuttal to Manya’s post that reminded everyone not to compare your insides to someone else’s outsides, and that we should be careful not to try and keep up with the Joneses. When I was done, I felt better.
That wasn’t the end of it by a long shot, though. While my post tied itself up neatly at the end, the article in question actually broke open my relationship in a very real way, exposing a problem that had been festering for some time: Michael and I just weren’t being very nice to each other. To be clear, we weren’t being mean. But over the course of a decade of being together, we’d fallen into a lazy kind of familiarity, and started to take each other for granted. We’d replaced generosity with petty selfishness, and had officially become “that bickering couple.” I remember leaving dinner with APW editor Kate and her husband one night last year and exasperatedly asking Michael why we just couldn’t be nice to each other like them.
So Michael and I talked. And I cried. And we fought for months. Over who was going to buy groceries. Over snuggle etiquette. Over hanging out with each other’s friends. And ultimately, over who would make coffee on Saturday morning. (Why I hinged the well-being of my relationship to the part of Manya’s post about bringing each other coffee in bed is beyond me. But there you have it.)
We didn’t resolve to do anything except to try to be nicer to each other. Which is about as easy and as hard as it gets.
But then there was a cup of coffee. Sitting on the counter top, one Saturday morning, a 12oz white flag, waiting for me to ruin it with Coffee-mate and sugar. You know how sometimes you talk and talk and just assume your partner isn’t hearing anything you’re saying? And then one day they surprise you with how easily they can recite your words back to you without error? This was that, in coffee form. So I made breakfast. Then one night Michael made dinner. Soon, I stopped complaining about going out to drinks with his friends. And he agreed to help me finally decorate our kitchen wall. Before I knew it, I began cherishing our new routines, and that tiny act of making coffee before I get up in the morning on Saturdays was the act that finally broke me of my habit of overworking myself and not putting enough time into my marriage (which, it turns out, was the crux of the problem all along).
Lately I’ve been reading a bit about the Christian principle of serving your partner in marriage. I’m not religious outside of being a recovering Catholic, but I’ll take good advice when I see it. I used to think that serving meant sacrificing. And that when people said marriage was work, they probably had crappy marriages. But as we cross the halfway point on the fifth year of our marriage and approach twelve years of our relationship, I’m starting to see things a little differently. Loving Michael has always been effortless, but a loving marriage isn’t always. It’s in my nature to be self-sufficient, but self-sufficiency has a way of turning into not caring about anyone’s needs but my own.
Getting up an extra fifteen minutes early on Saturdays and making my coffee takes work. Dedication. It’s hardly an impossible task, but if it were effortless we wouldn’t have been bickering about to begin with. Had it been up to me, I might never have been the one to make the first move (I told you Michael was the best). But I can reciprocate. I can take the extra minute inside my head to act with generosity. I’ve been surprised at how effortless the cycle now feels when we’re both taking tiny steps toward fixing a bigger problem.
After five long years of struggling uphill in our marriage (sick dog, crappy jobs, move after move, and working way too much), I feel like I finally understand how this marriage thing works.
A few weeks ago, Michael and I went camping for the first time since our wedding. (To give you an idea of what a success that was: “camping items” were number one on our registry… five years ago. We “wanted to go camping a lot in our marriage.”) As I woke up from a chilly and restless night in our tent, I found the sleeping bag next to me empty, and Michael outside attempting to master the ratio of coffee grounds to water in our questionable camp percolator. So I made breakfast. And on it goes.
So tell me, what are the small, but significant everyday things you do to show each other you care? What are the things you need to work on as a couple to be kinder to each other?