“What do you think?” – I offer bravely as I point at a sofa in one of the catalogs that has just shown up in our mailbox. An extended pause is followed by the best of all husbands’ response of “it is not to my liking.” Couples therapy must really be paying off. I’m certain that just a few months ago, I would have gotten an even longer pause, a scowl and “that’s hideous.” I, of course, would translate that as “the fact that you like this piece of crap makes me reconsider my marriage vows. How can you even consider ruining my carefully designed plan for the living room? Do I know you at all?” The only reasons that I don’t hear “I should have listened to my mother” is that I know that Jeff’s mom always thought I was a good catch. Altogether this is a classic example of how quickly a conversation can go off the rails.
When we first started going to therapy, I was sure what the issue was. When a perfectly reasonable person can’t get along with his husband, the issue is clearly early childhood trauma of the spouse. Since I’m a husband of the new millennium, I know that people can change even if they need a little help. My approach to couple’s therapy was a bit like bringing my car to the shop for a tune-up. “It runs fine. Just have a look at the whining noise it sometimes makes.” As there is the word “couple” in couple’s therapy, I was happy to come along and be supportive, while Jeff was getting his tune-up. Imagine my surprise when, after a few months of weekly sessions, it came out that that was exactly Jeff’s motivation to go see someone. And there was that recurring question that our therapist kept asking me: “Why do you privilege your wishes over Jeff’s?” That brought me up short. You mean I do? I thought I was simply doing what made sense. I was being practical and reasonable. Jeff had to see that.
I try a different tack. “Honey, I really don’t know what you like in a sofa. I have been playing ‘bring me a rock’ with you for some time and I have a long list of what you don’t like, but I don’t know what you do like. Perhaps you can show me a few that might work for you?” Even a short while ago that approach would not have worked, but by now Jeff knows that I’m not actually asking him to pick a sofa that we will order within the hour and we then will have to live with for the next 30 years. What I really want is to play house, pretend we are redoing the living room, pick anything we can imagine and just try it on for size. Since this is a pretend game, it doesn’t cost anything and we can change everything in the blink of an eye. I just want to play.
By now, I also know that not everyone plays the same way. Many little boys love playing catch, tossing a ball, or just want to see how far they can throw. I must have been out sick when hand-eye-coordination was handed out at school. A ball thrown towards me fills me with terror and makes me want to turn around or cover my head. I simply never assume that a projectile heading my way is a friendly invitation to play. I used to be told that I throw “like a girl.” I wish that had been true, knowing now how good girls can be at this. So I get – no, I have to remind myself, that Jeff doesn’t feel the same about pretend games as I do. He used to see my offer to play as a challenge to guess the right answer. He thought I had already picked the one I liked, and his job was to guess which one. That wouldn’t make me want to play either.
This time Jeff reacts differently. He starts to leaf through the catalog, points out a couple of sofas and talks about what he likes or doesn’t like about them. Entire billboards of understanding light up in my brain. Oh, now this makes sense. Yeah, I could like that too. Now I’m totally excited and want to push on. Jeff looks at me and says “you know that isn’t easy for me.” – “Yeah, I know. But I’m glad you try.” So I put down my metaphorical ball for the moment and give it a rest. That’s a new one for me too. After all, isn’t that what building a life together is really all about? Trying out new games, even if you think you aren’t very good at it.
This article was first published at Frontiers LA.