The other night on the way home from the office, I stopped to pick up some dog food and milk. While there I thought, “I’ll get some bacon and cinnamon rolls and surprise the girls with breakfast tomorrow.”
So the next morning, a week day, I got downstairs a few minutes earlier and started to whip up something more substantial than the fruit bar hastily snatched on the way out the door. I had the bacon going in the pan, the cinnamon rolls baking in the oven, and the cappuccino machine ready to roll – when my wife opens the refrigerator, sighs with great annoyance, and says in a world-weary tone, “Would you PLEASE not buy 2% milk anymore?”
I could feel the steam building inside my head, about to blow out through my ears. “Are you kidding?” I mean, after all, here I am in the midst of a magnanimous gesture, preparing a morning meal, and you’re going to complain about what kind of milk I bought? Give me a break!
“What’s the difference?” I asked, as gently as I could muster, which probably wasn’t gently at all.
“Two-percent milk is not considered low fat. I’ve asked you several times to get 1% or skim.”
And there we were, annoyed, feelings hurt, an emotional black cloud about to rain on our delicious breakfast I had gone out of my way to plan. As is the case in the majority of our arguments, we were able to rein in the conflict and eat a stiff, mostly silent meal with the girls. But both of us were stewing internally.
It wasn’t until later in the day, after the hustle and bustle of a high school guidance office had subsided, that I had a chance to just sit at my desk and reflect on what had happened that morning. Like some dim childhood memory, misty visions of Dawn asking me to buy skim or 1% milk began to come back to me. She probably had asked me three or four times, and yet I kept buying whatever I pulled out of the rack at the store. I mean, what the hell, is there a big deal about 1% of fat in milk? Who cares?
Well, Dawn cares. We don’t eat the healthiest foods all the time, but she does try to look after our nutritional needs as a family. And beneath that maternal concern, I knew that her biggest underlying issue from childhood, where step-dad often blustered through home and hearth in a volatile stew of rage and booze, was feeling unheard, invisible, as if her needs and wants didn’t matter to anyone. So when she opened that fridge and saw, once again, a gallon of the wrong kind of milk, it hurt. How many times does she have to ask me?
As for me, a childhood perception of being a major disappointment to my dad, who balanced criticism and praise at about a 20 to 1 ratio, I heard, “Hey dumbass, can’t you get anything right?” Having my actions and choices criticized, particularly when I’m making efforts to be kind and do the right thing, is like dropping a torch into my internal pool of emotional gasoline.
So we weren’t arguing about the milk, we were pushing each other’s deepest buttons once again. If we were to catalog every argument we’ve ever had, from the real barnburners down to the most trivial disagreements, I bet 95% of them would touch on these two issues – Dawn’s need to be heard and my need to be validated when I do things well. And these are the types of conflicts that cause many couples to throw in the towel, break up, and most likely find someone else with whom to re-enact these childhood scenarios that continue to fester and boil over into the same arguments, over and over and over again.
Or, we have the opportunity to shed just another watt or two of light down into the dark corners of our unconscious, where all the hurt feelings of childhood dwell like murky bogeymen, waiting to jump out and grab us when we enter the dangerous alleys of relationship. As soon as I recognized the familiar patterns that Dawn and I have uncovered many times before, compassion instantly rose up and began to replace the anger and resentment. Of course she’d be angry that I didn’t listen, that her words, repeated over and over, had no perceptible bearing on my actions. Here is an opportunity for healing, to go back home and tell her, “Hey, I know you’ve told me several times that it’s important to you to have low-fat milk in our diet, and I forgot that when I was at the store. I will remember next time.”
And she replied, “It wasn’t even that big of a deal. I really appreciated the fact that you made breakfast for us this morning.”
There are simple but profound tools for clear communication that can empower couples to get below the content of their recurring arguments and discover the emotional wounds beneath the surface. When we learn to drop our defenses, listen to our mates, validate their feelings, and let them know they’ve been heard, we begin to understand WHY the seemingly inconsequential actions we take disturb them so much. And in this growing awareness, we can literally heal these pools of emotional pain that motivate most of our behaviors, whether we know it or not.