This is my third and final post about our situation with the dishes. You can read about the problem here and the solution here. And now I share another realization that came out of this. One that can make a much bigger impact on our relationship than our new division of labor.
Though Mike was simply saying he wanted help with the dishes, my reaction was really strong. Strangely strong. I could tell I was uncomfortable–my chest started to get tight and I was feeling very tense. I didn’t realize how upset I was until I started telling my friend and office-mate David about the conversation. I was mad. A mini-rant just came right out of me.
Something like: Mike says he feels like he always does the dishes. And I do things. I always clean the bathroom and I’m the one that vacuums the floors. I’m sorry I have other things on my plate and the dishes aren’t my first priority.
It felt good to get it out but I was still upset and feeling tense about it.
As I went through my day, I realized why I was reacting so strongly. While our conversation was about the dishes, I was reacting to something completely different. What I heard was “you’re not pulling your weight” which in my book is the same as “you’re not a good wife.” So of course I was devastated. I felt attacked. I love my husband and want to be a good wife to him. And I was reacting to that.
The strength of my reaction matched what I heard. Of course if my husband thought I was a bad wife that would hurt. I would feel offended and attacked and I would get defensive and try to fire back with all of the reasons I’m a good wife. Which is exactly what I did in my head (and in my mini-rant at work).
Luckily our pre-work conversation was interrupted because Mike had to go to work and I had time to process my feelings and reaction before the conversation continued.
I had the time and space to think “did Mike say I was a bad wife?” No. He said I don’t dishes. Ok. That’s a very different statement. We can focus on that. And when the conversation continued later, it went very smoothly and was productive instead of destructive.
I think this happens a lot in marriages (and other relationships). A spouse will say something and the other will hear something completely different–perhaps something much more hurtful–and react to what they heard not what was said. That strong reaction can lead to a very heated, defensive argument.
If we can take a step back and ask ourselves “am I reacting to what I heard instead of what was actually said?” we can prevent a lot of fights and the embarrassment of acting irrationally and communicate better. We can also get clarity about ourselves, our beliefs, and our values.
I’m definitely going to do this going forward when I feel an unusually intense reaction to someone, my husband or otherwise.