Empathy In Marriage

My husband and I have been together for almost 12 years. We started dating at the age of 16 and for the first seven years of our relationship we didn’t live together. This was more due to financial reasons than anything else, but we moved in together when we bought our house after our wedding.

We’ve now been married for four and a half years and although they haven’t all been fairy tales and bliss, we’ve done pretty well. Especially considering all of the times people have told us that our relationship is doomed because of how young we are and all of that. People love to tell you how stupid you are, don’t they?

There was a time when we fought — well, I fought and he listened. As a teenager I had terrible problems with anger and an inability to control it. Something would happen and I would blow up. Then one day after a particularly vicious tirade on my part he turned around and yelled back at me. That’s all it took. That hurt me so bad and made me stop to realize that I was hurting him every time I flew off the handle. From that point on our disagreements went from fights to discussions.

I know that 12 years is nothing compared to some relationships (his grandparents just celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary!), but between our relationship and watching the couples around me, including my parents, his parents and others, I’ve learned a lot about what makes and breaks a relationship. One thing I’ve learned is that empathy goes a long way.

My husband and I don’t disagree on a lot, but disagreements do come up in our day to day lives. This is unavoidable when you plop two people in the same home for an extended period of time. For instance:

  • I have to have the ceiling fan on in the bedroom at all times, even when it’s cold out. He hates this and makes his frustration known when going to bed on cold nights.
  • I like to have the bed made, or at least the covers spread out correctly and not bunched up at the bottom of the bed, every night before we go to bed. He doesn’t understand this and thinks it’s futile.
  • He likes for us to eat immediately after the food is made; or if he is picking up food, he likes for the drinks to be made when he gets home. I think this is reasonable, as he took the time to go get the food and I can take the time to make a drink, but it’s a difficult one for me to make a habit.
  • Oh my sweet baby Jesus, the temperature of the house. I like it cold, he wants it hot. This is a constant battle in which there is no winner.
  • He hates tripping over my shoes, which I leave in every walkway of our house. I do this constantly without thinking. Dunno why.
  • I hate when he makes himself a snack and leaves all of the perishable items out for hours. I just…don’t understand it.

I’m sure that there are other things that we disagree on, but for now I think that is a pretty good list. The major difference that I have seen between us and other couples is not that we don’t have disagreements, but that they are only disagreements and they do not turn into knock-down, drag out fights and name calling. I have heard people tell their spouses to “f*ck off and die”, and call them every name in the book. Whatever words cut the deepest, those are the words they use. Said in a fit of anger, words linger in the air for the rest of the relationship. I would never be able to forget that my husband told me to “f*ck off and die”, no matter how many times he apologized.

We not only love each other, but we respect each other, too. This allows us to deal with disagreements calmly, not yelling and saying hurtful things to each other. We put ourselves in each other’s shoes before saying anything, and we always bring up a problem right away instead of letting it fester until it turns into a monster, slicing our relationship into pieces. (Lack of communication is the number one cause of disputes, in my opinion.)

This is even more important if there are kids around. I know that kids bring a whole new aspect of stress to a relationship and this can turn into taking that stress out on each other. However, children learn how to deal with conflict by watching their parents. My husband’s parents rarely fought in front of him and if they did, they never yelled or insulted each other. Mine fought constantly and often the fights turned physical (when they divorced when I was 12 I was actually relieved). This is why, when we first started out, I would yell and he wouldn’t. These behaviors are learned.

I think that it is very easy for people to be selfish, myself included. When you start living with someone else, it can be very difficult to go from thinking only about yourself to thinking about you and that person. It is difficult to understand that we are all human and we all have wants and needs, and to empathize with others. But, how I see it, when you either decide to live together, or exchange vows, you are making a commitment to that person, and a responsibility to love and care for them.

Empathy does not come easy for everyone, but it is a necessary trait to have if you choose to spend your life with another person (or when dealing with anyone, really). Once you decide to share your life with someone you have to understand that it is not about just you anymore, it’s about them, too.

The first time my husband got upset with me for not having the drinks ready when he got home with take-out, my knee-jerk reaction was to get mad.

“He cannot be serious! This is ridiculous! Is he really that upset about such a non-substantial issue?” I thought to myself as I walked away from him to calm down. However, instead of saying any of that out loud to him, which would further escalate the issue, I thought about it and realized that it doesn’t matter if I don’t think it’s a big deal, it matters that he does. It doesn’t hurt me to do it, so why should it be such an issue for me?

This is exactly like the bed; he doesn’t understand why I need the bed made before we go to sleep. “Why are you making it up when we’re just going to mess it up again?” He asks, incredulous. It’s because, for some reason, I associate a made bed with comfort and a good life. It makes no sense, and probably stems from my dysfunctional childhood, but it is important to me. How would I feel if, when I brought it up, he was a jerk about it and made me feel stupid? I would hate that! So why would I do that to him about something he thinks is important?

Instead of telling him that I didn’t care what he wanted (which is exactly what he would have heard had I said the first thing that came to mind), I simply let him know that I didn’t realize that it was so important to him and that I would try to work on it. I then brought up the bed and pointed out to him how similar the situations were. He thought for a moment and let me know that he heard me and would keep it in mind the next time he was annoyed by it. And just like that, a fight was avoided and the subject dropped. It was dropped not because we were putting it on a back shelf to fight about later, but because we had resolved it right then and there. No longer was it an unspoken point of contention for us.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I don’t pretend that our relationship is perfect because it isn’t; we have struggles just like every other couple. Neither of us are angels. I also understand that every relationship is different and that one of the major reasons that we are able to do this is because we’re on the same page. Sometimes one person wants to be reasonable and the other doesn’t, and in that case rational discussion is nearly impossible.

That being said, I have learned in the last 12 years that yelling and fighting gets us nowhere. Well, technically it gets us somewhere, but that somewhere is a place of hurt, anger and sadness. Discussion solves problems better than slamming doors does.

When issues comes up, we handle them with empathy, respect and love, and we’re happier for it.