Valentine's Day is all about roses, chocolates and thou, and that's all good, but this year do something different for your spouse. Cut worry out of your relationship -- that unmistakable yet invisible interloper that trespasses on the sacred space you call home. Let's see how.
What kills romance? A burst water pipe? A vomiting child?
No, no. The aphrodisiacal properties of finding the shelter in each other after such mishaps have long been documented. And coveted. What kills romance is when you're out to dinner, and that story-teller voice in your head is regaling you with all the times you've kissed those adorable little wrinkles in the corner of your spouse's eyes. You know, the ones that appear as if from heaven, when he smiles, and all of the stresses of the day seem to fall away and you are in that beatific state of appreciation and love, that you know from experience signals that certain highly desirable sequelae are inevitable. And then it happens.
That precious wrinkle-sporting spouse, whom you wanted to, um, well, have those highly desirable sequelae with not two seconds earlier, starts talking about how the tuition bill is due, and that we could do the four-payment or six-payment plan, and the six is better, but we'll be paying for summer camp at the same time, so maybe better to do the four, we better look at the bills when we get home and decide and suddenly instead of seeing those irresistible kissing points, waves of un-charitableness rise within you as you notice just how loudly said kissable guy is chewing, and maybe even the little bits of food sticking in his teeth. End of scene.
Or, consider scenes from a marriage take two and three: Maybe your spouse is amorously whispering sweet nothings in your ear while you are doing dishes, but in your other ear you're hearing, not so sweet "Nothing's right in my life, does our child have ADHD, I didn't do the laundry and no one has clean underwear, could that tingle in my tooth be a cavity?" Or you climb in bed together, early, and this somehow sparks in your spouse the need to remind you that she noticed a mold spot in the basement wall, which, oh right, did she mention, is crumbling in parts and needs to be patched, and maybe the mold is already infiltrating the air quality in your house and triggering asthma, or worse?! Cut!
Whether worry is renting space in your head or in your spouse's, it doesn't really matter. Fact is, you're in a love triangle and you need to get out.
How do you preserve the space in your marriage, which, to hatchet away at William Blake's words, allows you to appreciate each day the moments that the devil (in this case, worry) cannot find, when the devil seems to have your private cell phone number and an unlimited calling plan? Here are some ideas to do just that.
Strategy One: Worry is the Problem, Not You or Your Spouse
First things first, don't shoot the messenger. Your spouse doesn't want to be worrying any more than you want to be listening to her worry. But the eagle has landed and the talons are digging in. Ouch. Instead of reacting with anger -- and saying, "Why does this matter?!" or "How could you talk about that at a time like this?" -- see those talons; your spouse is stuck. Help her extricate herself from the worry and remove the talons gently: "Worry could really ruin this evening for us. I don't think this is what we want to have happen now. How can I help?"
Strategy Two: Give Worry a Time and Place
Backing it up a step, we need to talk about the bounced checks, the tyrannical boss, the (growing) leak in the hallway ceiling, but if we want to prevent the inopportune appearance of these topics in the first place we should do a pre-emptive strike. Don't hold a business meeting in the middle of a date. If you don't want worry walking in on your marriage, schedule a specific meeting time to run through the stressful items on your agenda. If it has to be late, meet away from the bedroom and put a time limit on it: 15 minutes could do just as well as 45. And what will help keep the meeting shorter is curbing the "What if's?" -- or the far-flung catastrophes your imagination has rustled up for you -- and sticking with "what is," or the known facts or givens of a situation. Remember, reality is much more manageable than worry would have us believe.
Strategy Three: Don't Take it Personally When Your Spouse Forgets about the Whole Time and Place Thing in Strategy Two...
Practice makes perfect. When your well-meaning spouse, in an effort to be more organized, reminds you during a quiet moment about the plumber or the bounced check -- take a breath and instead of ranting about what time it is and how this is going to ruin the evening, and if you really cared about me or us, you would have remembered the business meeting idea! pause, breathe in and out slowly and then -- do something radical. Think about how you would react to an alien who was just learning the customs here on earth. Would you really expect an alien to know about or retain the concept of marital business hours without several reminders? Of course you wouldn't! Would you really treat an alien better than your beloved? I didn't think so. Walk it back, and kindly say, "Wait: aren't normal business hours over?" And in fact, since we can all be aliens at times -- go ahead and post your business hours on your fridge or bathroom mirror till the schedule sticks.
Strategy Four: Write It Down, Instead
As my husband often says to me, "Do you have to tell me everything that's on your mind?" Well, gee, it never occurred to me to do otherwise. But okay, maybe he's got a point there. Do put off til tomorrow what would ruin your evening tonight. Rather than putting your worry stream of consciousness on speakerphone, press mute and write it down. Keep a list of stress-generating topics to discuss during your next business meeting. They don't really need to be resolved right now -- and probably can't be acted on at 10:00 at night anyway, so it will serve everybody well to approach them tomorrow at your next meeting.
Strategy Five: Empathize, Don't Criticize
Maybe you disagree with what is bugging your spouse. To you, finishing the tree house he's building for the kids is small potatoes; to him, it's everything and it's not working. Do you really want to pitch a fight and prove your spouse wrong? Think like a team, using "we" and "us" instead of "you" -- this decreases conflict in couples. You are one, not courtroom contestants. Picture that overlapping space in your marital Venn diagrams, that's the sweet spot. What would you want to hear? If you're telling your spouse exactly what no one would want to hear, then, pray tell, why are you saying it? Instead, try: "This situation is really getting to you, but we've got this, we can figure it out." Instead of assuming that your spouse is wrong for worrying about the things s/he is, find the good in why the worry is happening -- is your spouse responsible, a planner, a giver? Focus on the reason, not the timing. Watch sweetness re-enter the scene, stage right.
Strategy Six: Where Is the Love? Right There.
You may be asking yourself during a stressful period (in other words, any time from the birth of your child forward): How can you think about romance at a time like this? Well, even in war-torn countries, the life-affirming act of love is an important piece of the resilience puzzle. Maybe it's not with dinner and a movie. Maybe it's not even with sex. The key is, don't be strangers to each other. Connect. In the small moments that in that web of intimacy are yours and yours alone. This is the space of your marriage, the more you see it -- the more it's there. Oh, and don't keep it to yourself. If you're feeling love or gratitude, say it. Just because your spouse already knows you love her or that you're grateful for her, these are things that human beings never get tired of hearing. Ever. Really.
So this Valentine's Day go back to the roses and chocolates and thou, but for a gift that carries your love through the year, commit to holding safe the space between you, guard it with your life. Keep worry out, or at least make it wait; you've got more important things to do.
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