It’s that time of year again. Before the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer hit, we’ve got to go through it. And even if it doesn’t affect you directly, someone you know will be affected and the results can range anywhere from devastation to delight. I’m talking about – final exam season!
That’s right. It’s the time of year when the student sits down in front of some torture device created to measure just how much she’s been paying attention. It may be a tricky true-false test. It may be multiple guess. It may include those dreaded words, “show your work.” Or it may be the Mother of all tests – the essay. Whatever it is, the student’s job is to demonstrate that she actually learned something and can apply it in some functional way.
These exams can leave an imprint on both the final grade and the psyche of the student. How many times have you had the “test dream?” Regardless of the full context of the dream and whether you were wearing pants or not, the dream usually goes something like this. It’s the last days of school. For some reason, you’ve never been to your locker before and you can’t get it open to save your life. Then you finally make it to class only to realize that you’ve never been in this room before. The teacher obviously isn’t paying attention because she tells you to sit in your seat and hands you a test. While everyone around you is buzzing through the exam like Einstein doing times tables, you look at your test and you’ve never even heard of these words. Is this Greek? Do you need glasses? Perhaps you should be institutionalized for some period of time because you’re obviously losing it! You run screaming out of the classroom where you finally clue into the pants situation and you wake up in a cold sweat swearing to God if you get another chance you’ll pay attention.
Whew! Just reliving the dream was enough to get your heart rate up. It’s a scary place to be though, isn’t it? To be tested over something that you never really learned. It makes us feel inadequate, small, and incompetent. And yet it happens all the time in marriages everywhere. When the test comes and we didn’t learn the material we want to run screaming or blow up because of the injustice or blame our partners for testing us in the first place.
Don’t believe me? Let me give you an example. It’s the end of the workday and everyone is finally home for the evening. Husband and wife are catching up on the day while their attention is being divided between making dinner, reading the mail, breaking up a fight among the kids, and listening to the latest scandal on the evening news.
In their conversation, it’s the wife’s turn to discuss the trials and tribulations of her day at work and even though the husband is very interested and attentive, this conversation is about to go sideways. She starts the familiar refrain of late about Karen from accounting and how horrible she is at her job and how she sends these emails that say one thing but “really mean” something else. Just as she’s getting a head of steam in this conversation, the husband interrupts, “Did you do what we talked about last time?” She shakes her head and continues, but he interrupts again this time with a little more edge, “We came up with a plan for how to fix this just last week, but you didn’t do it?”
“No, I didn’t do it! It’s just not that easy!”
“I really think that if you’d just do what we talked about your Karen problem would go away,” he says while changing channels.
“Do you realize how frustrating it is to hear you say that,” she scowls.
“Why, because I suggest something, you ignore it, and now YOU’RE frustrated? I should be the one who gets to be frustrated!”
“You just don’t understand. Forget it,” she turns back to the stove to stir something a little more violently than was required.
And the test was failed.
Here’s the problem. This husband has been studying the wrong material all along. From a very early age, he’s been taught that when there’s a problem it’s his job to fix it. That’s what he does at work all day. See the problem. Solve the problem. Move on to the next problem.
No one ever told him that this conversation about Karen was never even about Karen. It was what John Gottman calls a “bid for connection.” Gottman says, “A bid is any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection.” It can come in a million different forms every day, but Gottman says couples that make it the distance are those that “turn toward” one another more often than not when a bid is made.
Each bid like the one above is a small test. Will you show up for me? Do you understand me? Can you feel what I feel with me for just a second? And yet, we teach our sons to study different material. “Don’t be so sensitive. Toughen up. Rub some dirt on it. Quit whining!” Most men that I work with really don’t want to fail these tests, but they can’t find any study material to help them pass so they fill in the blanks with the only answers they have – distance, grandiosity, defensiveness, or frustration.
Today’s marriages are facing a crisis that many don’t even see coming. We are at a moment in history where we require more from our marriages than ever before. We expect our partner to be our best friend, our business partner, our co-parent, our security, and our passionate lover. As Esther Perel states, “The human imagination has conjured up a new Olympus: that love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh-so-exciting, for the long haul, with one person.” And we’re living longer than ever before!
That, in and of itself, is a lot of pressure, but when you take half of that population and train them, intentionally or not, to never show weakness or how to do empathy or vulnerability, you’ve got a recipe for crisis. Men have to learn, understand, and synthesize the material, and women have to stand firm in having their voice heard in order for their needs to be met and for the test to be passed with flying colors.
Finding the right resources is always a good first step. Call or send me an email so I can help coach you into a better relationship.