Keep Coming Back to It

A reader writes:

I read your post about the mother with only one child, and there was a line it it that hit WAY too close to home, and I was wondering if you could give me some practical advice for overcoming this in my own marriage:

“My husband didn’t know how to help me. I didn’t know how to ask for help. My husband had become a father, and I adored him for it. My husband got to leave the house every day, and sleep every night. He got to go to the bathroom alone. I hated him for it.”

The reader listed all the spiritual and practical things she does to foster a loving and generous relationship with her husband—all the things I was going to suggest to her, to be honest—but she says that she still struggles with resentment.

About two minutes after I received this email, I got another one from my husband at work, saying, “Okay, leaving now - home in about an hour!  I love you.”  Nice husband, eh?  This is why people write to me for advice:  my husband I have everything figured out.

The only catch was, I had just told the kids gleefully that he’d be home any minute, not in an hour.  Because that morning, he had left the house saying, “I’ll be home for supper!” and I was looking forward to it all day.  Yeah, I was kind of ticked off.

The thing was, he meant, “I’ll be home in time to reheat dinner and eat it after the kids go to bed, rather than staggering in the door near midnight and zapping a frozen pizza.”

So much for what my reader referred to as my “many years of marriage and wisdom!”  And yet, the way it played out was not so terrible:  when he got home, he could see that I was a little ruffled, so he asked plainly, in a concerned voice, what was wrong.  I answered frankly that I had misunderstood him, and that I wasn’t angry, but was upset and disappointed, because dinner had gotten dried out, and I was really tired because of a few things that had gone wrong during the day.  He apologized for the misunderstanding and did what he could to make it up to me, and I did what I could to show him that I knew it wasn’t his fault, and that I knew he was tired, too.  I made him know I was glad that he was home, and he acted like he enjoyed being there.

Big deal, right?  For us, yes, it is a big deal.  Ten years ago, he wouldn’t have sent the “on my way home” email in the first place; and I would have set myself up for disappointment by hoping irrationally that he’d be home early.  I would have assumed that he could somehow easily come home early, but chose not to because he doesn’t care about my feelings; and he would have made no effort to arrange things to be home as soon as possible, because it didn’t occur to him that my feelings were legitimate.  I would have worn myself out making things spic and span as a statement about how hard I work; and he would have either not noticed, or else deliberately not mentioned it, because cleaning is, after all, my job.

Worst of all, neither one of us would even admitted that we were mad.  But little tentacles of anger would be curling around every word and action for the rest of the evening.

So, as the reader asked, what has changed?  Nothing, and everything.  Here is what the reader said that she currently does, to try to get over her resentment of her husband, which she says is due to her unreasonable expectations:

I pray for him daily, we pray together daily, I confess this resentment towards him every time I go to confession, we’ve recently implemented weekly “date night” where we turn off the TV and cell phones and just spend time together after the kids are in bed.

Whether or not her expectations truly are unreasonable (and maybe they’re not!  Husbands and wives both have a lot to learn when their families are young), these are absolutely the right things to do.  But they don’t work right away.  They chip away and chip away at our selfishness.  They give us, bit by bit, more insight into what our spouses are dealing with.  They add, grain by grain, to our stores of generosity, sympathy, and concern.  And they make our lives, day by day, more united so that my problems are his problems, and his problems are mine:  there is no such thing as being happy because I get what I want, even if it makes him unhappy; and vice versa.  They aren’t magic in themselves, but they help other things to happen. Date night won’t fix resentment; but learning to be close can make it easier to talk about problems, and wanting to be close can motivate you to try to solve the problems, bit by bit by bit.

A few years ago, I told a priest that I’d been making my first real effort at praying faithfully every single day.  But, I confessed, these prayers were often so dry, they felt pointless—I might as well have been saying “bah bah bah” instead of “full of grace.”  He smiled like someone who’s heard that line before, and said, “When you notice you’re not paying attention, just keep coming back to it.  Keep coming back to it.”

That’s it?  That’s the great advice from the voice of experience?

Yep.  We tend to think that doing the right thing should work right away.  But prayer, and love (which are much the same, and which can both be hard work) don’t usually work that way.  Do the right thing, and keep coming back to it.  You’ll see!