Let's Fight: A Conflict Observed

We have 5 children, ages 1, 4, 6, 7, and 8, which means that bedtime is an exercise in personal restraint and emotional security on the best of nights, and a crucible of pain, panic, and punishment the rest of the time. Our routine includes a bedtime story which is tricky in our case because the four oldest (all boys) are split into two bedrooms. This means I have to sit in the hall and do my best to be heard by everyone.

Should I fail to be heard, it is inevitable that a question will emerge from the darkness of one of the rooms. This question must be answered over and amid the bombardment of other questions about the first question coming from the second room and, without fail, if more than two people try to speak at once, the four year old takes the chaos as a sign that bedtime is over and sets off on a quest for a drink or snack. This is all further complicated by the fact that our 1 year-old daughter sleeps in another room off of the same hallway and is not a heavy sleeper.

Sanity, for Dad, stands on the edge of a knife as any disruption could unhinge the entire process. This is not truly a problem on the nights that I am operating within my own freedom from shame and my heart abounds with patience (a topic for other posts), but the night before last just wasn’t one of those nights.

About halfway through the story, the baby began crying. Now, in this particular season, my wife takes the lead with putting the baby down and I take charge of the other four. So I pressed on with the story allowing my frustration to build with the volume of my voice, annoyed that she was taking longer than usual to make it up the stairs (probably doing something selfish like making lunches or cleaning something).

At long last she makes it to the hall, steps over me, and opens the door to the baby’s room spilling the full fury of the crying, the white noise machine, and the sound of her own voice into the hallway bringing our story to a full stop. AND. SHE. LEAVES. THE. DOOR. OPEN.

This is where my training and experience as a therapist gives me superhuman insight and understanding; she is trying to piss me off. She must be mad that she had to stop whatever she was doing and come up the stairs when I was sitting right outside the baby’s room and could have handled it myself. She is sending a message loud and clear that she sees herself as an adult but I just don’t matter at all. Such brazen disregard and lack of respect for what I’m trying to do can only be explained as a deliberate, petty, and personal act of cruelty.

After the bedtime story was finished, I came down stairs, blood pressure through the roof, breathing through my nose and hovered over my wife like a Harry Potter Dementor while she sat on the couch and I said, “So when you, um, left the door open, were you trying to ruin my life?”, with a bit of a chuckle toward the end.

Now, before you judge me, you need to know that this approach actually represents 10 years worth of progress in conflict resolution in our marriage. I know in my head that I’m reacting to stuff that isn’t in the room. I know that this is really about my history and I have learned enough self awareness through the years to know that I’m feeling the way I’m feeling because I’m struggling with my own demons and triangles (another post). But a sentence that half accuses and half allows space for the possibility that I’m way off base is still the best I can muster.

A few years ago I would have started the conversation with guns blazing, my wife would have zeroed in on the accusation and attacked in turn through her own hurt as the two of us spiraled out of control. With each turn of the interaction we would have escalated the heat and ugliness of the attacks in response to the deepening of our own pain until we couldn’t speak to each other.

We are learning a new dance. We are learning to lean into vulnerability instead of accusation. When I asked her if she was trying to ruin my life I chuckled because even as I formed the words I was wrestling with feeling it was true and knowing it was ridiculous. That’s perhaps a childish way to get it all out, but it was the best I could do in the moment. I was, in effect saying, “I’m hurt!! I wish I could blame it on you because that would be easiest, but I know I can’t.”

She smiled, half in amusement and half in appreciation for the way I was struggling, and explained that she left the door open because she thought she was only going to be in there long enough to pick up a passy. Her response graciously ignored the tone of attack in my voice and moved us yet another step toward understanding. In this instance, the whole conflict lasted only about 20 seconds because we each exercised, imperfectly, as much security and courage as we could. With each turn of the exchange we were de-escalating rather than escalating the hurt. When we are hurt, the least intuitive thing in the world is to take a step toward the person who hurt us and drop our guard. It’s so much easier to push back, put up our guard, and move toward isolation.

Healthy marriages don’t have an absence of conflict. We are going to hurt each other. The two feet of bed space between the backs of a hurt couple can feel like an unbridgeable chasm. Every marriage experiences the pain of conflict. I am often amazed at how quickly and easily my own heart can turn from fondness and admiration for my wife to frustration, accusation, and even contempt. But here’s the crazy thing, when we use conflict to move us toward vulnerability instead of isolation, conflict becomes an instrument of intimacy in our marriage rather than a vessel of destruction.