My husband Aaron and I fought about our Halloween costumes this year.
Not a disagreement, mind you. A fight. An ugly cry fight. We were Steve and Blue from Blue’s Clues (a perfect costume for us by the way, because I do the best Blue impersonation you have ever heard). I thought of this idea last Halloween and we decided to do it this year. He had the perfect Steve shirt, the green striped long sleeve polo. I bought the face paint, the blue hair spray and we had the handy dandy *ding* notebook.
Aaron told me at 5:00 p.m. on Halloween that he couldn’t find his Steve shirt.
– I’m sorry, what?
– It’s a stupid costume, Erin. Don’t get upset about it.
And I wasn’t. Until he suggested that he not dress up at all.
– I’m sorry, what?
We’ve had this planned for a year. You already had everything you needed. And you wait until the day of to look for your shirt … TWO HOURS before we go to our Halloween party?!?!
I was feeling about two inches tall for having a such a dumb fight, when I got a call from Whitney (co-creator of this blog), reminding me that Aaron and I aren’t the only ones. She had the same story, different verse. And what was her knock-down-drag-out with her husband Tony about? Five minutes. They were at her parents’ house and he said he wanted to leave at 9:00. When Whitney thought of 9:00, she was just thinking 9:00ish (i.e. 9:05). Tony didn’t agree. Because he was thinking exactly 9:00, he got up and left at 9:05 when Whitney was still talking to her parents. Whitney did not agree, and there was a fight. And lots and lots of hurt over five stupid minutes.
I knew things like this would happen, but I just never thought it would feel like this. I knew there would be stupid misunderstandings, but I didn’t know that they would make me hurt, would make me cry, would make me feel so isolated. I heard sex and money. That’s what you fight about. I never heard Halloween costumes and five minutes. No one ever told me we’d fight about that stuff. And no one ever told me how bad it would hurt when we did.
But it’s not really about the five minutes. It’s not about Blue’s Clues. It’s not about the dirty dishes or the ice cube trays or the restaurant he picked or whatever it is you and your significant other fight about.
I’ve got a feeling those “dumb things” that we fight about aren’t really that dumb. The issue is almost never the issue. Because for rational people, both men and women, what I say has an emotion attached to it and what I hear is already filtered by what I feel and what I believe deep down.
Wanna know what my fight with Aaron was actually about? Value. Because deep down, we both fear being under-valued. I felt like he didn’t value me or my plan enough to stick with it and put work into it (even if it was a stupid Halloween costume). I felt dumb and unimportant. He felt like my plans were more valuable to me than he was.
What was Whitney and Tony’s fight over? Respect. Tony viewed Whitney’s not leaving at 9:00 sharp as disrespecting his ideas. Whitney viewed Tony’s leaving as disrespecting her and her family.
And these feelings don’t show up overnight. At least for me they didn’t. They’ve been growing, beneath the surface, unbeknownst to anyone, until I finally thought, “Hey wait. He always does this to me. THIS ISN’T FAIR!”
And do you think I calmly and rationally explained the depths of my feelings to him? The fear of being under valued? Did I explain how when he disregarded my plans it felt like a dagger in my stomach? Nope. I shot the daggers right back. I shot back, “You never” and “I always” and “You make me so mad.” That was my way of expressing hurt. That was my way of asking for help. I expected him to somehow perceive that. He didn’t.
I was talking through my pink microphone expressing hurt; he was listening through his blue headphones hearing complaints. The more I tried to say “I’m hurting” the more he heard complaints. The more he heard complaints, the more he hurt me. And round and round it went.*
It simply has to stop. We have to learn how to communicate. How to say what is actually bothering us instead of shouting the million things that aren’t. How to hear the other say “I’m hurting” when all they’re actually doing is hurting us. How to assume the best of this person who we committed to for life instead of just writing it off as “they’re making a big deal about nothing.”
But how? Good question.
I’m still working through that. I can say that I’ve learned a few things out of this. Like how so much of it is up to me. How I can escalate and shout and leave wounds that will take years to heal, or I can be humble, admit my weaknesses and forgive.
I’ve learned that we’ve somehow got to reveal those emotions that are lurking behind the “dumb things”. We have to say, “I feel alone, unloved, under appreciated” instead of, “I always” and “You never” and “You make me so mad.”
Being honest is just hard. You find out terrible things that you actually believe about your spouse deep down. That they don’t actually love you, respect you and value you. You find out terrible things they actually believe about you deep down. That you don’t actually cherish them, trust them and honor them.
Depressed yet? Don’t be. There’s an upside to honesty. When you’re honest, most of the time you find out you’re wrong. That what you heard was not what he said, but that the real message got lost somewhere in the translation. When I do (rarely) chose to humble myself, admit where I’m hurt, admit what I’m hearing from what he’s saying, I usually find his forgetting to look for a shirt does not equal indifference toward me. I’m never so happy to be wrong as when my wrongness proves that my husband actually values me more than I thought he did.
I know that most times what he hears is not actually what I said. I know that I value him more than he thinks I do. I’ve just got to believe the same thing about him. We’ve just got to learn to be honest, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and when all else fails, have grace. It’s either that — or keep fighting about Blue’s Clues.
* For more on this, I highly recommend the book Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerich. Chapter two especially deals with this topic.