Exposure is something most of us are familiar with. The meaning is highly contextual. We try to limit exposure in our investments. We seek exposure, however, when it means a new opportunity. Politicians are often exposed for past behavior they hoped would never come to light. Yet good athletes need to be exposed to scouts to make it to the next level.
What about exposure in our relationships? Is that positive or negative?
I want to talk about what happens to a marriage when life rears its ugly head, like when you receive life-altering news about your child’s health. It gets exposed.
Suddenly everything that you’ve been “tolerating” about your spouse, his or her habits, tendencies, or behavior, comes to a head. Like an overflowing pot of pasta that sneakily reaches a boiling point and stains your stove top.
And maybe that’s to be expected, right? Stress causes many people to behave differently. Fuses shorten rather than lengthen. The snowball effect is in full force. Those little personal quirks that we all have, that our spouses have found it in themselves to over look for all these years, or perhaps even find endearing, are suddenly annoying. It’s everything. You find yourself bickering in the most irrational way over things that neither of you really care about. Your guard, which is typically on the floor, goes up like a Chinese wall.
What is more, you don’t develop new problems in your marriage when something like this happens. You exasserbate old ones. It’s as if you managed to hide behind the all-consuming nature of your kids or some self-inflicted busy schedule before. Suddenly that’s no longer an option. The mask is ripped off like a cheap bandaid, and the gloves come with it.
To be sure, I’m not writing this as a cry for help. It’s quite the opposite. While we have undoubtedly struggled through everything I’ve just described, we’re somewhat encouraged by the spotlight that Willa’s situation has shined on our relationship. We are putting this out there for a couple of reasons: 1) to define a common problem in marriages that is not so easily solved; and 2) because we believe Willa is teaching us something.
This is the point in the conversation where I feel compelled to mention, for any new readers out there, see Re-Evaluate Everything, Talking about an Early Exit, and Broken Expectations to get brought up to speed on Willa’s Story.
In our view, it’s bigger and more complex than this blog can tackle in a single episode. But this is a start. As we start to peel back the layers, there are a few things that bubble to the surface.
First, we work all day, five, six, sometimes seven days a week. The last thing any of us wants to do at the end of the day is work on our relationships. Someone along the way told us a lie. That good relationships are supposed to come natural. To be, well, easy. That’s false. So we’re lulled into that mindset, believing a lie, from day one. That’s like Steph Curry (or to use a 1990s reference, Michael Jordan) deciding he doesn’t need to practice his jump shot now that he’s in the NBA. Relationships don’t need reps. What? I somehow doubt it. Yet we live our lives like that.
Second, we don’t touch each other enough. And that’s not a politically correct way of saying more sex. It’s much broader than that. I literally mean we don’t engage in physical touch often enough. I have a hypothesis that human touch is a gateway drug for all kinds of relational extacies. Like meaningful communication, unselfishness, awareness, and yes, more sex. This is not a theory. It’s a hypothesis. Perhaps an experiment is warranted. Start with a meaningful embrace when you come home. See what happens.
Third, we don’t have a faith or a belief system that we practice together. Whether you are Christain, Bhuddist, Jewish, or Muslim, our belief systems are becoming increasingly personal or individualistic. Our faith wreaks of “you stay out of my space and I’ll stay out of yours”. And this attitude lives in our closest relationships, particularly our marriages. Let me clarify something. I’m not talking about whether you share the same values or believe in the same God as your spouse. I’m trying to get at how you practice those beliefs, if at all, individually rather than together. This issue deserves a much larger discussion, but my point is, it’s a roadblock to growth, both for the individual and the partnership. I know this to be true because I’m a repeat offender.
So we could peel back layers all day, right? And yet, these things are nothing more than drivers, indicators, or symptoms to a larger problem. Is it fair to say that each of these layers leads us to one real issue–unmet expectations? By that I mean the real problem is that we fail to meet our partner’s expectations over time because we don’t know what they are, we don’t know how to meet them, or meeting them is just further down on the list than we care to admit.
I don’t have one, and I think Sarah would agree. Let me say that again. We don’t have a solution to this problem. Sarah and I have been married for nearly 10 years and admittedly know very little about how to be great at it. If I were to go into full blown confessional mode, it would get extremely ugly. So let’s be clear about what this is and what it’s not. It’s not an advise-giving session. At best, it’s a “hey, we know what you’re going through and have a few scars to prove it.”
That said, Willa has begun to teach us something. Our new reality with her is teaching us how to see beyond our emotions. To feel our way through the fog of irrationality. We’re often blinded by our emotions, which is what brings about those feelings of intolerance towards those we love. It’s what I’ll call misdirected grief. It’s working through something that lands you right in the pit of grief. And while you try to find a way to work through those very real feelings, and not shun them, you simultaneously have to somehow avoid dumping them on someone else. Your spouse is an easy target.
So Willa is teaching us to turn on our emotional fog lights. It’s quite interesting. What I’ve learned is that we have this little muscle in our brains. It’s the muscle that allows you to be more present, to be more engaged, to zoom out of each moment and watch it unfold with complete gratitude because the fragility of life is suddenly very real. This is the same muscle that helps us identify our misdirected grief and course correct. To be sure, this muscle is very weak, but it nevertheless exists. But exercising it can have a profound effect on how we interact with our spouses, how we receive their emotions, and how we direct our own.
There are so many questions that come to mind as I develop a better understanding of the underlying problem and the litany of drivers that lead us down such an undesirable path within our relationships. For example, are expectations ever aligned to begin with? In any marriage? What does it really take to continue meeting them and having yours met in return? Where does compromise fit into this equation? How does God view it?
For today, however, I am simply grateful for the lesson and perspective Willa’s life provides.
These Genes Fit Just Right
In my last post These Genes Fit Just Right, I shared some of the challenges of learning to rely on others. If you haven’t done so already, check out our GoFundMe campaign for Willa and ADSL. For those that have given, your compassion and generosity are extraordinary. Thank you is not enough.