The quality of a marriage is not so much the result of what our spouses do as how we see it.
Imagine you’re married. A few nights ago, when your wife asked you about your favorite childhood gifts, you could remember none of them. What you remembered was the delicious pancake breakfast on the morning of every one of your birthdays. Those were special, you told your wife, a professional dancer who has been practicing before school or work every morning since she was just five years old.
And now it’s your birthday. Your wife has invited you to the table for a pancake breakfast. It’s her first time making pancakes, and they are uneven in size, in color, and in lumpiness. But she’s made you a stack of them. And she’s dusted the top one with powdered sugar.
Maybe your mother died when you were seventeen, and it doesn’t matter that this breakfast is nothing like the ones you remember. You are touched that a woman who has never stopped for breakfast or eaten a pancake and whose every movement is so carefully crafted that the imperfections of her first try at making pancakes must be pure torture has made you birthday pancakes for the first time since that horrible loss. Tears come to your eyes, and you feel so much love for this woman in your life.
Or maybe not. There is no melting pat of butter. No protein on the side. No maple syrup. No fresh berries or whipped heavy cream with a hint of vanilla. No orange juice. Just pancakes and coffee. You learned to make better pancakes than this before you were six. So did all your cousins. Your mother and your aunts competed to make the most incredible meals as you were growing up. This breakfast mocks the ones you remember so fondly. Why didn’t she ask you for advice? Why does she do such a bad job at communicating? Your birthday is ruined. And your relationship is on thin ice as you try to pretend to appreciate these dry, tasteless flapjacks.
Same pancakes. Same wife. Very different experience. And we never notice. I didn’t, not until my first husband dropped dead and I was picking up the pieces of our life together. My stories kept unraveling. He saved this? He wrote that? How did I have no idea how much work it was to take care of what he’s no longer taking care of?
This morning, I noticed my second husband had spilled some coffee grounds into the bottom of our kitchen trash can. He’d left it open and set the new bag alongside it. I cleaned it up. I have no problem with clutter, and it can sit for days, but I get great satisfaction from cleaning up messes. It took me less than ten minutes. When it was dry, I put the bag in and headed for the living room, feeling good about life.
My husband entered the kitchen and asked whether I had noticed the spilled coffee grounds. It was easier to ask me than to lift the bag out to check. I said I had, and I had cleaned the can. He said, “I was letting them dry, so they’d come out easily.”
And I recognized the story he had likely told himself, one in which he had simply walked away from a mess he made and I had cleaned up after him in anger or disgust. After twenty four years together, why would he tell himself such a story? Because it’s what he grew up with, and he doesn’t want me upset with him; that’s scary when you love someone.
So I gave him my version of the story, because I want him to enjoy being married as much as I do. Want a better marriage? Tell yourself—and your spouse—a better story.