Expecting Too Much
Being that my last blog entry could easily be seen as an indictment of John (see Two to Tango), I think it only fair for me to paint at least part of the other side of the story. Namely, how did I, Kirsten Joy Cronlund, contribute to the inner crumbling of my marriage to John.
I just finished reading the book Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I highly recommend. It chronicles the soul-searching and research, both academic and informal interviewing, that the author undertook during the time leading up to her “shotgun” wedding.
One segment in Gilbert’s book really got me thinking about myself and relationships:
Maybe it would be useful for me to at least acknowledge to myself now, on the eve of my second marriage, that I, too, ask for an awful lot. Of course I do. It’s the emblem of our times. I have been allowed to expect great things in life. I have been permitted to expect far more out of the experience of love and living than most other women in history were ever permitted to ask. When it comes to questions of intimacy, I want many things from any man, and I want them all simultaneously. It reminds me of a story my sister once told me, about an Englishwoman who visited the United States in the winter of 1919 and who, scandalized, reported back home in a letter that there were people in this curious country of America who actually lived with the expectation that every part of their bodies should be warm at the same time! My afternoon spent discussing marriage with the Hmong made me wonder if I, in matters of the heart, had also become such a person – a woman who believed that my lover should magically be able to keep every part of my emotional being warm at the same time.
This passage sums up the way that I feel that I most profoundly failed John in our marriage. I expected him to be my best friend, to be a successful businessman, to be a patient, devoted father, and to do it all on my time schedule. And worst of all – I took meticulous notes about all the ways in which he fell short of the mark. And I’d remind him of those “failings” at such opportune times as when we were fighting about something completely unrelated.
Put simply, I was mean to John. This point was driven home to me like a smack in the face about halfway through my one year Positive Psychology masters program at Penn. I’ll never forget the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I learned of an amazing research finding by psychologist Shelly Gable about an important way that really healthy couples interact with one another.
In short, Gable outlines a pattern of interaction that she calls Active Constructive Responding. This involves a genuinely positive (i.e. interested, curious, supportive – not necessarily cheerleaderish) response by one partner when the other shares good news.
Contrast the active constructive response to the active destructive (“Oh, honey – that idea you have for curing cancer is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”); the passive destructive (“That’s nice that you lost 5 pounds, but guess how much Susie’s husband lost?”); and the passive constructive (“That’s nice, dear.”) An active constructive response would look more like this: “Wow, Sweetie. I know you’ve been working really hard for this promotion! I’m so happy for you that your boss saw what you have to offer. What’s the most meaningful part about this for you?”
Not surprisingly, Gable’s studies show that active destructive and passive destructive styles of interaction are not healthy for relationships. But what’s less intuitive is that the passive constructive style is negligibly better than the two destructive styles. In other words, the only style that contributes to the health of a relationship is active constructive.
Now, that’s worth noting.
If I were being really generous I would console myself with the fact that while I was married I didn’t know anything about positive psychology, let alone the work of Shelly Gable. But I can’t let myself off the hook that easily. Honestly, I can remember the deflated look on John’s face many times over when he tried to share something fun or exciting with me and I ignored him or stomped on his ideas. If I had taken just a moment to put myself in his place I would have seen that what he really needed and wanted from me was enjoyment and support.
The slap in the face of Active Constructive Responding still makes me squirm a little (even as I’m typing this), but the part that makes me downright sad is the fact that not only was I not able to share in John’s joys and dreams, but – perhaps more importantly – I had cut off many of the parts of myself that included unabashed joy and celebration.
To me, life was serious business, and if I behaved irresponsibly on my watch by dancing and celebrating then all hell might break loose. I was a rule follower and a responsible citizen, and as a result people knew they could count on me… but I sure could be a drag. And the way this played out in my marriage is that – I suspect – John learned through experience that I was not the one to turn to in good times. And that’s a problem.
And, going back to the recognition of my too high expectations and my internal spreadsheet of John’s successes and failures at meeting those demands, perhaps living with me became no-win situation, in which there were few fun respites.
The reason why I write all this is not to chastise myself or to suggest that I was a horrible wife and that I deserved the end of my marriage. That’s not really my style. I write it, instead, for two main reasons: 1) It is a reminder to me that I choose who I am in every relationship I’m in, and if I want to be miserable then I can dwell in negativity and seriousness at all times. Or, if I want to have joyful, playful relationships, then I can choose to celebrate what goes right in them and to focus my attention primarily there. 2) I also want to send a message to everyone who reads this blog that your words and actions in your relationships are vitally important to the people you love. I think I really didn’t understand this for many, many years, and through conversations with people in the last 6 years, I notice that there are lots of other people in my same situation. Choose your words carefully; they matter.
So now I’m a little better than I used to be - in my relationships with my kids, in my friendships, in my relationship with John, in my work relationships, and in romantic relationships I pursue. I try now, when I feel that I have been wronged, to take a step back and to analyze my feelings to figure out why I’m feeling that way. Then I remind myself of all the wonderful parts of my relationship with that person. And then, if I decide it’s important enough for me to communicate my feelings to the other person, I think carefully about how I will say what I want to say. I remind myself that the other person is not trying to hurt me, and that my words have the power to either inspire or to deflate them, depending on how I phrase things.
Living fully in the moment, open to what’s good in that moment, remaining curious about what might unfold. That’s the stance I wish I could have taken in my marriage. Who knows if it would have meant that John and I would still be together, but I sure would feel better about how I had showed up there. And, either way, I have the opportunity moving forward to act on the insights I have gained through my mistakes.