Marriage 101: What Husbands Are Good for

Husbands can teach us a thing or two about relationship management, if we'd only stop and listen.
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I have known my husband 14 years. In that time I have discovered more than a few things I did not perceive going into the relationship.

He cannot, for example, get through a conversation without saying "to the extent to which." He will not follow directions of any kind, whether they're instructions on how to use the vacuum or how to operate a 400hp wood chipper. (It goes without saying he will never ask for directions.) He can't see the point of putting things away, unless he can't remember where he's left something, and then it's my fault for not having put it away for him or at least observed where he last had it.

But forget the incredibly annoying things I have learned about my husband. I have actually learned some incredibly important things from him -- skills that just aren't part of my XX chromosomal heritage. Through pregnancy, job loss, colicky babies, fearsome in-laws, two moves, and a failing septic system, he has taught me communication skills I never knew I lacked. They've probably saved my marriage. Let me inventory the most important:

1. I have learned to fight fair. My husband might disagree with me here -- I am a work in progress, he'd argue -- but I really have come a long way, considering my handicaps.

I used to fight like a girl. Girls, as a rule, don't come out swinging when they're ticked, preferring to mope and pout until asked, "What's the matter?" at which point they answer, choking back tears, "Nothing." They never just open fire; they wait, like a sniper, for a clear shot. They don't explode in anger; they smolder for months.

Never mind that I am a girl. With a great deal of patience and forbearing, my husband has shown me that life is way too short -- and our bed way too narrow -- for me to persist in my gender-wired ways. I must say, after years of watching him explode, I am finally getting the hang of it myself. It's no fun, but then it's over -- like yanking out a deep splinter. The trick is to vent feelings rather than spew accusations. Accusations only prolong the argument and the agony. Which brings me to my next point:

2. I have learned to blurt out what I'm feeling and ask plainly for what I want. For years, if something hurt or bothered me, I believed it was a test of our intimacy to see if my husband could figure it out. When he didn't, or couldn't, I'd condemn him -- inwardly, of course -- for his lack of empathy and support. Then I'd punish him with the cold shoulder, convinced he would hear, in the deafening silence, what I refused to say.

Helluva strategy, huh?

Fortunately, my husband models a different and ever-so-more-effective tactic: He speaks his mind. He does not expect me to divine the content of his cranium. He sees that as his responsibility, one he's infinitely better suited to carry out. He understands that intimacy doesn't thrive when one partner tests to see if it's there -- much as a plant doesn't grow if you keep ripping it up to check for roots. Rather, it's got to be fed and watered regularly with heart-felt contributions from both parties. It withers if one of us holds back.

3. I learned I don't need to nag. Nagging as a means of getting a husband to do something doesn't work. If anything, it promotes the growth of what I call "attentional scar tissue," a dense mental shield men form in response to repeated verbal jabs. Yet it's our propensity, as wives, to not only continue saying the same ineffective things, but also to crank up the frequency in hopes of getting through. I have pleaded with my husband, to cite a teensy example, to sort darks from whites when he does laundry and refrain from the urge to "sanitize" the load with Clorox. This has resulted in his never doing laundry. A far better tactic would have been to say not a word but to have removed from his wardrobe all but the bleach-pocked polo shirts and white-streaked khakis. Men, you surely must have noticed, respond best to visual stimuli.

4. I have learned to listen. Sharing what's on my mind is but half of the conjugal pact; the other half is to pay careful, patient attention while he shares what's on his. This means resisting the temptation -- and oh! is it hard -- to finish his sentences and jump to conclusions for him.

I'm chagrined to think of all the conversations I terminated simply because I couldn't wait to render my own insightful analysis and brilliant solution. It's an occupational hazard, I think: We moms are very quick to apply Band-Aids whenever someone comes to us bleeding. But mates don't come to us for quick fixes. They want a sounding board. They actually have no problem expressing their innermost thoughts and feelings -- provided we don't keep interrupting with our own. (Not to suggest that we girls should alter our communication style with each other. We're multitaskers; of course we finish each other's sentences and rush to conclusions -- it's so much more efficient.)

What it means to be partners

My education boils down to a study of Give and Take. Familiar as it is, I'm still wrestling with it -- the sharing part, in particular. As I age, I grow less and less inclined to explain things I feel should be understood. I'm also more inclined to take the intimacy of marriage for granted, because I have less and less time and energy to nurture it.

But this is where my husband plays his critical role: He will not allow the partnership to devolve into a passive "understanding." He does not assume that because two people share chores and a home and a bed they will remain intimates. On the contrary, he figures, if we don't keep up the dialogue -- as in two people taking turns talking and listening -- one of us will wind up consumed by our job, our obligations to family, friends or community -- to the neglect of the other.

But to be fair to myself and other women: This whole course in marital communication works because we're such apt pupils. We're the gender wired to accept instruction. We not only listen to directions, we ask for them. If it weren't for us, half of all Americans would still be circling the Washington-Baltimore beltway. And if it weren't for us -- let's face it -- no one would wake up to find clean, folded underwear in their bureau drawer. Not on a consistent basis. And not without bleach stains. --Melinda Marshall


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