Changing Your Focus
Sometimes our focus in marriage, if not centered on the right things, will only display the negative. But a quick shift in perspective can help alleviate the not-so-great effects of miscommunication.
Because I married a man, and because my husband grew up in a different family from my own, some pretty interesting miscommunications have made their way into our marriage.
I accept my share of the responsibility, harboring my own expectations. But with diligent communication, and a change of focus on my part, we’ve been able to make it through the rocky parts.
One assumption I learned I needed to let go of was the way I gauged my husband’s love for me or his ability to read my mind. I blame romantic movies for this, at least in part.
Have you seen the movie Only You? It’s about a girl who is convinced her soul mate is a man with a certain name that she heard from a fortune teller. She flies to Italy to find him and another guy falls in love with her, but sees that she is determined to play this soul-mate thing out. So he agrees to help her find the man. They track him down at a hotel, and she sets up a date, and the guy who loves her (her true soul mate) buys her a gift for the date. It’s a pair of shoes. They are the right size. They are the right color. They are the right style. They are exactly the perfect shoes for the outfit she is planning to wear. Cinderella herself could not have possessed a more ideal shoe.
What man in the world can do this?
This is why those movies are so popular, by the way—because we all want to believe there is someone out there who could discern our every need, sometimes fulfilling needs we didn’t even know we had. And so we fall into the trap of “If I have to ask, it doesn’t count.”
The sort of ridiculous behavior this translates to in real life is, for example, me stacking up empty soup cans and cereal boxes until they perch precariously two or three feet above the brim of the kitchen waste can, waiting for my husband to take it out to the trash. Because, you see, if he really loved me, he’d do it without having to be asked.
After nearly three decades of marriage, I have learned that my husband would do just about anything for me. He runs hard and fast, like a train on a track, and the only problem is that if the track doesn’t happen to go past the garbage can, he genuinely doesn’t see the trash piling up. Now I say, “Honey, could you take out the garbage?” and he says, “Sure,” and does it. It’s a miracle!
The Science of Gifts
The place where all this really breaks down in our household is in the giving of gifts. My husband is one of ten children, and in his growing-up years, a gift-giving occasion such as Christmas or a birthday meant a chance for you to get something you’d had your eye on all year. If you could go to the store with Mom and Dad to pick it out personally, so much the better.
By contrast, I grew up in a family of four children, and my mother was the kind of person who kept track of things in a little notebook. If you admired something in a store in July, it would likely be under the tree for you in December. So Christmas was always a time of wonderful surprises, and I love being surprised.
I imagined that, after I was married, my husband would demonstrate his intimate understanding of and love for me by the gifts he chose. This was my soul mate, after all, the one I had chosen to spend eternity with. He, more than anyone, would be able to plumb the depths of my heart. I could hardly wait to see what he would choose for me—and I could hardly wait for him to see what I would get for him.
When my husband found out that I intended to surprise him with a Christmas present, he was horrified. The thought that I might spend money from our limited resources on something he might not actually want threw him into a panic. Even worse was his dawning realization that I also expected to be surprised. The expectations imposed by this belief system were so overwhelming that we had more than one fairly miserable Christmas.
Finally, after several years of hissing, we achieved an accommodation that serves us to this day. The rule is (and we have this in a contract), he may pick out his own Christmas present, but he may not have it until Christmas. The latter clause had to be added after he began ordering things in October. And he has to submit to being surprised with one small item, valued at $20 or less, to fulfill my need to surprise someone. On the other end of the deal, I will go with him to pick out my main Christmas present, but then he has to surprise me with something in the $20 range, just to prove that he’s trying to be my soul mate. This compromise works for both of us.
In one of the uneasy years before we reached this agreement, it was getting close to Mother’s Day and my husband came to me early in the week and said, “Honey, they’ve just called me out of town for work and I won’t be back until late Saturday night. I’m going to have to get your Mother’s Day present while I’m gone. Please, please, can’t you just tell me what to get?”
I had to think about this for a minute. He was going to Elko, Nevada. I had not ever envisioned Elko as the shopping capital of Nevada, but surely there would be something there that would suit. Then it dawned on me—silver country! Of course! So I said, “I could really use a pair of silver earrings.” His face brightened, and I thought, I have made it so easy for this man. He won’t even have to set foot outside the hotel; he can get a pair of earrings in the gift shop. This was great: I would get a nice gift, and he would still have to do a little picking out, so it would be really personal as well.
That Saturday night when he returned home, it was clear from the look on his face that he had fulfilled his mission. You know how you feel when you’ve got just the right present for someone, and you can hardly wait to give it to the person? That’s how he looked. So I was pretty excited for the next morning.
Sunday dawned, and the kids came in with the traditional breakfast in bed—soggy Cheerios and slightly burnt toast. Burnt toast is actually fairly symbolic of motherhood, as far as I’m concerned. If you’re the one who burned the toast, you scrape it off and eat it yourself so the kids won’t have to. If they burned it, you eat it because they burned it especially for you. However you look at it, you’re going to end up consuming a fair amount of burnt toast—and loving it.
So we had the breakfast, and then it was time for the gift. Out came the little package, and the excitement was just dancing in my husband’s eyes. I unwrapped the box and opened it carefully. Inside were two pairs of sterling silver earrings.
In the shape of—dinosaurs.
To give credit to my husband’s fashion sense, the pairs were actually quite different. There were little brontosauruses in a kind of flat, hammered, two-dimensional treatment, and little stegosauruses that were three-dimensional and, well, spiky. I looked at those earrings, and then I looked up at my family, and I said, “Thank you!” My husband was grinning from here to Tuesday, and he said, “I thought the kids would get a kick out of those!” What I thought, though I didn’t say it out loud, was, Yes, well I don’t normally put on sterling silver earrings for the kids, sweetheart. I was sort of thinking church, the symphony, a nice occasion. But he was so happy, and the kids really were getting a kick out of the earrings, so I decided that if nothing else I could be the hit of the preschool carpool.
Do a freeze-frame here and let’s take a moment to think about this little incident. Picture a scale, and put those silly little stegosauruses on one side of it. Now, on the other side, put a husband who honors his priesthood, who loves and serves the Lord, who works every day at a stressful and demanding job so that I can be home taking care of our kids, who loves me enough to want to buy me a Mother’s Day present, and who values my role as a mother so much that, when he’s picking a gift for me, he believes the thing that will please me most is something that the kids will get a kick out of. Put all those things on the other side of the scale, and you tell me, do you think, in fact, that this might be my soul mate after all?
What I’ve learned is that part of “I’ll go where you want me to go” is “I’ll see what you want me to see.” In most relationships, there’s a whole lot of good along with a pretty stiff dose of not-so-good. When we choose to focus on the good, it becomes much easier to see each other as I believe our Father in Heaven sees us. And that’s a much happier way to live.
The great thing about seeing the world and each other this way is that it doesn’t take any more time. It doesn’t take an ounce more energy. You don’t have to engage more personal resources. You just have to focus in a different way.