Moving in together is tough. The author explores her urge to nag.
Bride when Kimberly William's Annie Banks calls off the wedding because her fiancé buys her a blender for her birthday—and she's positive that means he now sees her as the little wife in the kitchen. (Everything is a bit more fraught with meaning these days, it's true.) I latch on to books like the very excellent Emotionally Engaged: A Bride's Guide to Surviving the “Happiest” Time of Her Life by Boston-area therapist Allison Moir-Smith, a self-described "renegade wedding-industry person."
The book will be available this February (www.emotionallyengaged.com for details), and I think it's a must-read for every single bride. "Most brides-to-be tell me that during their engagements, they fight more, have less sex, feel less close, and spend a lot of time evaluating and analyzing their relationship," Moir-Smith writes. In fact, she asked each of the 25 brides she interviewed for the book to complete this sentence:
Since your engagement, your relationship with your fiancé has:
A. Flourished. We feel more connected and more deeply in love every day. Wedding planning has been a breeze, and this is one of the happiest times of our lives thus far.
B. Had its ups and downs. Being engaged has been more challenging than we expected and we're hitting some bumps in the road, but overall we're dealing with it pretty well.
C. Been really challenging. We're feeling less connected to each other, and there's much more tension between us. The state of our relationship concerns us both.
Get this: Only 20 percent chose A. Fifty percent chose B, and 30 percent chose C. I love this book so much I want to marry it.
Naturally, it's born of the author's own experience with being a bride, much like another book, this one about fighting and nothing else. In 52 Fights: A Newlywed's Confession, Jennifer Jeanne Patterson gives a week-by-week account of their spat-by-spat progress to their first anniversary.
"Oh, we fought all the time when we were engaged," Patterson told me when I called her up to talk about her book. "For us, the engagement period was the very first time we had to work toward a goal together. Before that, you're basically just living your lives in parallel. And all of a sudden you have to bend."
The wedding wasn't the end of it for Patterson and her husband. The fighting really started freaking her out about three months into her marriage, and she responded by writing about it: "I first started to write the column when we were right in the heat of it and I wasn't sure our marriage was going to make it," she said. "I knew we were going to hang in there, but what kind of a marriage is that just to hang in there? I didn’t want to float around for ten years being unhappy."
She told me that when she let her husband read her pieces, she often found that she had misinterpreted his position. "I always assumed that Matt was seeing the issue the same way I was," she said. "But he'd say 'I don’t think like that,' and it would come as a big shock to know that he thought different than me, and that he expresses himself differently than I do."
She told me this back before Jonathan and I moved in together, and at the time I thought it was a fairly simpleminded comment. A 'big shock'? Of course he thinks differently, communicates differently—you're not conjoined twins.
And wouldn't chronic fighting stem from something more complex, more insidious, than the immutable fact that the two halves of a couple, by definition, occupy separate brains and bodies?
Not too long after that interview, those boxes entered my life.
And it wasn't too long after my chuck-them-in-the-East River comment that Jonathan and I went to the first of three marriage education courses. This class was called "Relationship Enhancement," and it consisted of two days in a shabby, overheated basement office in Bethesda, Maryland with three other couples and two sweet, grandmotherly facilitators who taught us communication skills, specifically empathic listening.
Empathic listening is not merely "active" listening, or parroting back what your partner says to make sure that you heard them correctly. It"s becoming a giant, empty ear; listening with your whole body, brain, and intuition so you become a vessel into which your partner's thoughts—and, more importantly, feelings—can flow. You try to have empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another (Webster's). When you think you’ve got it, you repeat it back to them, and they either say "Yes, that's it," or "No, that's not quite it, it's more like this," and then you try again and it keeps going back and forth until your partner is confident that you understand the essence of his or her feelings about a particular matter. The beauty of the process is that the listener helps the speaker to gradually clarify his or her own point of view, so both parties begin to understand that behind someone's vehement position there might be a feeling, and maybe then an important or particularly painful memory, and then, perhaps, another feeling, and another, and another still.
Like peeling an onion.
With practice, you can engage your intuition more fully, making small leaps to try to tease out the feelings behind your partner's words more quickly. With each success, your partner trusts you more, and, as a result gives you more information about him or herself, stuff you didn't even know you didn’t know. It's a virtuous cycle.
You can get startlingly raw startlingly fast, but though there's risk there, it feels controlled, safe. That's partly because "dialoguing"—the "Relationship Enhancement" name and process for employing the empathic listening technique—is very specific and measured and you have to take turns. And you can't interrupt. As a result, it’s a great way to address a point of contention without either partner hitting the roof or getting distracted by other issues.
So after a good amount of practicing on various nit-picky things in that overheated basement, we were sent off to lunch with the goal of doing a dialogue about a more loaded issue in our relationship.
At the Original Pancake House, over a gooey apple pancake and crisp, salty hash browns, amid noisy tables full of suburban teenagers in Juicy Couture sweatpants, I learned what was in the boxes. Up to that point, somehow, I’d never asked about their contents. And Jonathan had never told me that they contained several thousand dollars worth of CDs; copies of a record by a favorite band from college, the only album ever released on an independent record label he had started with some friends. The CDs are all that's left from the venture; they're the joint property of Jonathan, his two partners, and the artists; and while the financial aspects of it are quite complex, the bottom line is simple: the inventory didn't move, and everyone lost a lot of money.
With the help of the "dialogue," Jonathan supplied those facts, and then he filled in the feelings: Getting rid of those boxes meant acknowledging a failure, and saying goodbye to a dream.
And I had threatened to throw them away. The realization left me speechless. I had been callous, careless, selfish, and, worst of all, ignorant: I didn't even know what I didn't know.
The boxes didn't mean anything to me, so of course they didn't mean anything to him, either; he knew there was no room for them in our apartment or our life as well as I did, and therefore he was being lazy, aggravating, and downright rude to me by not doing anything about it.
After a lot of blinking and staring and, finally, on my part, apologizing, we kept going in the dialogue, and had another breakthrough: I was able to clearly articulate to him, for the first time, that clutter makes me anxious in general, and that in this particular instance his reluctance to make space in our newly shared dwelling was holding me back from relaxing and feeling like I was home. I felt petty expressing such feelings in light of what I had just learned, but Jonathan acknowledged and validated my concerns, and said he wanted to address the problem.
Plus, he told me, he knew the record label was over, and that it was time to say goodbye, to make space for other things.
We didn't work out a plan for what to do about the boxes right away, but we understood each other a lot better immediately, and quite powerfully. And when we got back home from that weekend, the sight of those boxes didn't make me grit my teeth anymore. I didn't begrudge them their cubic footage. Now there were two of us invested in making sure that they were safely delivered to the proper place, no matter how long it took.
And in the weird way that life takes care of things when you stop trying to control them, the boxes disappeared in a matter of weeks—not in time for the brunch, but sooner than I'd ever hoped to imagine they would. Jonathan got in touch with a guy in the Bloomington music scene, who, coincidentally, was having a festival at which this band was going to perform. The record hadn't been available for purchase in three years, but with our help a new shipment could arrive just in time to sell at the show. I printed the UPS labels myself, and stayed home from work that morning to wait for the pickup.
Now, we laugh about the boxes. It's remarkable: Because the resolution to the problem came when we both acted out of love and care for the other person, we feel really good about something we used to bicker about. It's a mark in the "win-win" column, a relationship success, and that's a confidence booster.
And guess what: Jennifer Patterson ended up in the same place. Eventually, the fighting that once freaked her out came to seem important, cathartic, bonding—in short, vital and good. One thing that's "nice about fighting during your first year of marriage," she told me, "is that you realize that your marriage isn't going to end because you don’t agree." And it helped her reach another wise conclusion: "I don’t think you can change your partner," Patterson continued. "I think you need a partner who's willing to change for you. I try to be in tune with Matt's needs, and if there's something in his life or in our marriage that he needs, I don't think that can go unanswered. But it took a lot of fighting for me to realize, 'Why am I defending this position so vehemently? Does it really matter? If it's this important to him, can I change?'"
Some experts, including my pal Barry McCarthy, actually count an "engagement year" as the first year of marriage, especially if you're living together. It kind of feels that way, at times—like we're already married. The nagging, the sulking, the fighting—they're all there, and for all our attempts to use our new skills to fight well, and to gainful ends, we still blow it from time to time. I know we always will. I suppose the goal is to keep more marks in the "win-win" column than the "win-lose" column—which, where a marriage is concerned, is probably the same as the "lose-lose" column.
But no matter the outcome, we two combatants share a prize: With every skirmish, we learn more and more about each other, get more and more intimate. The fighting is helping us become, as I realized the other day, with shock, then delight, a family.
Just like Jennifer and Matt, who, for the record, are still together, still happy, still sparring—and now raising an 11-month-old son, Max, who, Jennifer told me with a laugh, is providing all kinds of new things to fight about.