I was standing at the stove in a frenzy of multitasking family dinner, emptying lunch boxes, math homework, a Go Fish game, and feeding the dog when he walked in fifteen minutes later than usual. I barely glanced up as I mumbled hello. I seethed as we sat down with the kids, that familiar pressure rising in my chest. As the kids ran off to play after dessert, I let it all out on him. And not in a beneficial-to-the-relationship sort of way, but more along the lines of I-work-full-time-too and how-can-I-be-expected-to-take-on-all-this-stuff-myself kind of accusatory way.
We've been married for ten years. A disagreement like this is expected and normal. Yet, I've come to a realization only recently that this is The Relationship Through Which All Other Relationships Flow. A small crack in this connection quickly spreads out to other aspects of my life. I become short and impatient with our kids. I'm suddenly incapable of making progress on tough projects at work. I won't call my mom to check in on her and I shy away from reaching out to friends. Slowly, I'm building walls to protect myself from further injury.
I realized that I need to make stronger efforts to foster this relationship, to elevate it to the topmost priority above mostly everything else. Those little cracks need to be filled in before they can spread far and wide. It's not enough to simply get over it after the feeling of being flooded by emotion recedes or to move on and allow that seed to stay planted in my head.
"We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same." - Carlos CastanedaTweet It!
Oh, but how to do this? It takes extra energy and lots of thought and brings me back to my mom's favorite refrain from growing up: "Marriage is work." It is not about date nights, fancy gifts or vacations. It is about pulling myself away from the stove to greet him as he walks in the door after my long day of work, bus stop, kid snacks, arguing about super heroes and screen time, even when I just want to get dinner on the table. It's about looking him in the eye, smiling, saying hello, a hug and kiss, even when he is late. It's about plopping myself on the couch next to him as he pulls out the laptop when all I really want to do is head downstairs by myself to crawl up with a blanket and HBO's Togetherness. It's finding the teeny tiniest of small gestures to let him know that I am his strongest, most steadfast support. And it is hard.
John Gottman, known in psychology circles as The Einstein of Love, describes these small actions as Turning Towards your partner. Dr. Gottman's research has shown that newlyweds still married after six years turned towards their partners 86% of the time while those couples who divorced in the first six years turned toward each other 33% of the time. There is data to support that these baby steps matter.
I have to resolve to fill in the cracks again and again. My partner gets shoved to the bottom of the to do list. Until the next disagreement reminds me to bring him up to that prominent place where I need him to be and I remember to start filling in the cracks. If I keep this up, it will become a daily habit to nurture our relationship in this way.
I'm not arguing that the partner relationship is the most important for everyone or that we should neglect ourselves while said partner gets put on a pedestal. But I do know that today, in this season of my life, I'm determining to turn towards my husband. Who supports you and makes you feel alive in this world? Decide to make this person a priority, even when it isn't easy. Or maybe you need to turn towards yourself. Work every day at filling the cracks, no matter how small the action might be. You will find that fostering this relationship will sustain you and will provide an energy that shines its light onto other parts of your life, too.
Rachel Nusbaum is a partner, mom, daughter and sister who is starting to step out of the world of scientific writing and into the world of writing for herself. Find her fledging work here.
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