A couple of weeks ago, we reflected on a chance encounter with a local restaurant owner while we were grabbing coffee. He and his wife had just had their first baby and were in shock as new parents. It led us to reflect on the reality that anything in life worth having requires investment, be it work, fitness, children or our marriage.
As luck would have it, we dropped in for a quick meal the other evening, and the owner came over to our table in his usual friendly manner. “Getting any sleep?” was our curious enquiry, picking up on our last conversation. “Oh, things are much better” he beamed, clearly having had at least two good night’s sleep in a row. The impact sleep can make! It was a different conversation with a different person.
As parents, we know how hard it can be when we are both exhausted and there is no respite in sight. We are watching it play out with our own daughter and son-in-law. But then, as for our local restaurateur, things do eventually settle down, a routine starts to emerge, and the joys start to outweigh the pain.
It occurred to us that there is an interesting parallel between the trials to which our children subject us and the trials we put each other through as husband and wife.
Of course, the nature of the trials are different – rarely do we disturb each other’s sleep by crying uncontrollably at the top of our lungs at night! – but the outcomes of our equally harmful interactions with each other are not wildly dissimilar – feelings of frustration, helplessness and hopelessness.
Unfortunately, the dynamic between ourselves as a couple does not seem to spontaneously reset as it does for parents when the baby settles down. More often, we seem to get stuck. Really stuck.
So, why do we rebound from one challenge so quickly, but not the other?
On the Rebound
At one level, it’s obvious: the challenges posed by a young child are not the fault of the child. They are just babies, after all, and so there is no blame or resentment. No matter how hard it is in the moment, there is no malintent from the child towards us.
How very different this is from what happens between us as husband and wife!
Firstly, we are adults and so have more self-control, and secondly, as husband and wife, we are supposed to be loving and generous towards each other. Both these statements are true and so it’s perhaps only natural that when we experience the opposite, there is a more lasting resentment because we expected more from the other.
For this reason, we are quick to ascribe ill intent to a sharp word, a neglected responsibility, a look of indifference. Because our expectations are so much higher, and at one level rightly so, we are more easily disappointed and hurt in a way not typical in response to the trying times to which we are subject by our children.
However, it is worth pausing here for a moment and reflecting. Do we really believe our husband and wife are working to intentionally hurt us? Do we really think they are that uncaring or indifferent?
Do we let each other down? Certainly. But it’s rarely, if ever, intentional.
We need to ask ourselves: maybe, just perhaps, they weren’t being intentionally uncaring or disrespectful. Maybe they are having a bad day, are struggling with life in ways they have not been able to tell us (or perhaps even know themselves), or are acting from a place of pain and disappointment previously caused by me or some other person.
The reality of married life is that the hurts and disappointments are more often simple accidents of collateral damage than uncaring disregard for us personally. Let’s not forget we are imperfect people trying to make a go of something that is complex and uncharted – our marriage.
And if we are not careful, we slowly sink into a downward spiral. As the years roll on, we unwittingly find ourselves carrying two increasingly heavy saddle bags: one, the accumulation of our unresolved past hurts and disappointment, and the other, our understandable, but often misplaced, unrealistic expectations of near perfection from each other.
This is much the journey of our marriage as it is the journey of many everyday couples who are living an everyday married life.
Disappointment and hurt are, at some level, an everyday occurrence in even the best marriages. When the effects of these start to accumulate, we often feel helpless, unable to break out of the negative cycle. It can feel too overwhelming to tackle it head on and so we stay where we are, and the cycle continues.
So, what to do? Are we condemned to a life of perpetual disappointment?
Bids for Connection
One answer comes from observing the interactions between couples who seem to be more positive and joyful in their marriage. They are big users of a technique called ‘Bids for Connection’.
Bids for Connection are what psychologists call those small gestures we make to try and break the ice, to attempt to reconnect in small ways. Unlike the grand gesture we might make to repair a wounded relationship, Bids for Connection are more functional because they are easy to deploy and have an immediate positive effect.
A Bid for Connection might be as simple as asking, “How was your day?”, offering to go for a walk, or “Can I make you a tea or coffee?” when there is that uncomfortable silence between us. Bids for Connection can include doing a task the other will appreciate but not expect, a word of affirmation or appreciation. They are simple gestures that are an invitation to move forward together.
A common one for us is to rub the other’s hand or knee, and say: hey, you know that I love you. When faced with a wall of mutual silence and resentment between us, Bids for Connection provide a stepladder to climb that wall.
Small, simple steps to reconnect.
Bids of Connection are something we all do and instinctively know how to do. The trick is to understand how effective they are and then be very intentional in using them to keep our relationship on a steady course. It’s a simple technique used by smart-lovers!
Originally published at SmartLoving. Photo by Katerina Holmes.