Sometimes the only way to have a truly happy marriage is to courageously feel and uncomfortably examine unhappiness, through a brain-based conversation.
It felt worse than losing my identity.
“Our son ever asked me, ‘Why do you look so happy with your friends but when you are with us, you are not?’ and you know what. When we go outside, I have to try to put on a happy face because you are a happiness coach and I don’t want people to see that I’m unhappy because I want to keep the reputation for you,” my husband made a statement as heavy as the weight of the giant Colgate clock overlooking the Hudson River where we sat on a recent Sunday afternoon.
We had been warned…
Long before we even finally purchased our dream home in the winter of the pandemic year, I had heard from a few mother friends that house renovation could wreak havoc on a marriage, and shared with my husband the same. However, knowing in advance could only prepare our brains that much.
That Sunday, we had been set out to join a friend’s family at a local park to view cherry blossoms. However, we ended up staying at home, trying to talk things through just for me to find him fidgeting with Lego and myself feeling not understood, blank and numb. The heavy air between us from the previous afternoon was not only lingering but thickened with each minute passing by.
The day before, we had a call with a contractor who surprised us with a proposal way beyond our budget and with a timeline that required us to extend our current lease for at least a month, which translated into over USD 4,000 payment. The most crucial thing that we had been concerned about for a while since starting to engage with them was we couldn’t intervene once they took on the work as it’d be for a reveal. This whole scheme meant we paid a huge amount of money just possibly for another chunk of cost poured into demolishing and fixing our home again. Leaving the call, we were asked to make the decision over the weekend.
It turned out we didn’t have to wait for 48 hours before some kind of decision had been made. When I was cooking dinner, my husband lashed out, his face turning as red as the watermelon he was juicing, “I had anxiety disorder after this call! You will take care of this project. I won’t involve in it anymore!”
With everything going on with work and life, I felt overwhelmed myself, and well, he said that. Anxiety disorder. Since when has my software husband become a mental health expert? His enunciation of those two words brought me some amusement but most of all, a huge sense of relief. After these past few years when his lack of “communication skill”, a therapist would call it, had strained our relationship, he finally learnt to express his thoughts and feelings. It was weird as weird could be but while I was unhappy, I also felt happy. Hopeful to be exact.
Such feelings helped keep my heart cool and make my head believe that he was just saying this in the heat of the moment and when he came to his sense, he would be him. We agreed earlier that he would take care of the purchase and I the renovation anyway. A bit later when he had been done with the juice, I asked, “If I want to see stuff, can you drive me?” His “yes” was soft but carried comfort.
However, some fear was still lurking in some corners of my mind. I was afraid he would be depressed, but part of me was reminded of how far we had come to understand each other and how much we had trained our own brains in the past two years, and how he was trying to respond this time instead of withdrawing like before. At night, I reaffirmed, “I will take care of this. Our mental health is important.” And learning to unlearn my pattern of not paying attention to emotions, I had been forcing myself to form the habit of checking in with him about his feelings.
“Do you feel better?” I added.
OK was vague and could mean either way, just like the way “interesting” could be understood. Therefore, the next day, during lunch, I checked in with him again, “Do you feel better?” He said, “I’m OK,” but I sensed his quietly brewing resentment in the air. I felt he wanted to blame me that I could have started this renovation project earlier. Luckily, the kids were self-entertaining with their renewed passion in the Rubik’s Cubes, so we talked.
Back in late December, we closed the house and I started to search for a designer in February. His expectation was we would have the renovation done by the time we move in by June. But this was so unrealistic. Even when I started the project in January, right after the closure, then it would still take about seven months if we were to do it properly, let alone the delay of supplies and lack of labor due to the pandemic. I guessed the extra one-month rental mentioned by the contractor cut his nerve but when I asked, he said it was not. And this was not the first time.
The pattern was kept being repeated. He would have unrealistic expectations of me and when he saw I didn’t meet such, he was resented, burying his feelings, stonewalling me, depriving us of a chance to problem solve, and feeling really unhappy and helpless himself.
“Do you regret marrying me?” I asked, letting all of my angst and resentment surface. Whenever we had our time together, I often asked him to list the good things he saw in me, while he never failed to turn the conversation into another direction, avoiding the answer altogether. It was only the bad things that he saw in me, I concluded.
“I don’t have the mood to go to the park and see anyone today,” I said. I wanted us to let it all out.
By then, the kids were hungry so we went to a local restaurant downstairs for some quick bite. The chickens, to our surprise, turned out to be so tasty. What delighted me even further was when I was eyeing the collection on the bookshelf, the store manager pointed me to the two graphic novels right in the middle and said, “The author of these books lives in your building and she gave us the books.” I thanked him and checked out the books right away. One was on Time magazine’s list, I learnt. After nearly four years living here and shortly before we left, did I know about such a neighbor. Even this nice surprise however didn’t make the discomfort in me dissipate.
Back home, I asked him the question again, “Do you regret marrying me?” and he just didn’t answer. The stretch of time waiting and hoping for a thread of insight that could have soothed the feeling of being unloved in me seemed endless. We stopped talking. And I felt boiling inside.
The silence went on till I couldn’t bear it anymore and finally told him, “Can you please go for a walk with me and we could talk? I am still waiting for the answer to my question.” Deeply I knew he didn’t but the fact that he always complained about me made me unsettled, especially after the renovation conversation.
“The thing is not about my answer but about why you ask such a question in the first place?” he tossed back, agreeing to my proposal.
As we strolled along the boardwalk, no words were exchanged. We were two strangers till we reached the stretch of flat rocks by the river.
“Shall we sit here?” I asked.
“Let’s go further so we can have the view of the city.”
Hearing him say this melted the ice in me a bit. He mustn’t have hated me so much that he was still cool enough to propose a nice place for both of us to sit down. Walking further along the river led us to the Colgate clock that was enjoying its companions, a few fishermen, catching a huge bass in a sunny and breezy afternoon.
Before we entered the verbalized exchange of the two very different brains that could become very messy, chaotic and most of all, defensive, I laid a vision. My coaching skill came in handy.
“Life is short, so if we are to live with each other, we should feel happy. If we feel heavy and have unnecessary feelings of hate or stress, it’s not worth it. So I want to have this talk because I have a vision for us to live happily together. A lot of divorce happens due to communication problems between couples and a lot of that has to do with different expectations and approaches to problem solving. If we want to have a strong marriage together, we should talk. I am willing to listen and learn. I know we have differences in the way we think and do, and let’s talk about how we can improve,” I said. “Else, if we don’t try to solve our resentments, we may have to face with the brutal option that none of us really want.”
The hibernating thoughts in his brain were given a welcome, making their way into the air with that heavy statement “… because you are a happiness coach”. Ouch!
“Well, that’s not what I want. And indeed, if you really think about it, it’s unfair for me and our kids. As a happiness coach, happiness to me has to be authentic. It can’t be fake and that’s not how I approach my work, and happiness isn’t about being happy all the time. If you do that then you are not helpful. I’d want us not to meet others and to talk things through instead so we really feel happy about each other, and when we do meet people, you wear truly happy smiles. Today is a great example. We didn’t go to the park to meet others and we are here to talk.”
“We had this conversation many times before and now we’re having it again,” he remarked.
“That’s the whole point of having this conversation. And as long as we still live with each other and want a happy family, we need to have conversations like this. Change, especially unlearning our patterns, takes time and efforts. And as life evolves, we will need continuous realignment with each other too.”
He told me I could actually have started the project in October 2020, two months before we closed our home. I didn’t want to find a designer when we hadn’t actually got the house yet, and when we still had millions of things to care while trying to stay afloat in the middle of the pandemic.
“You tried your best and it didn’t work out the way we want, so then let’s move forward. I now don’t care when it’s done,” he said.
“I think we really need to reflect on all of the things that undermine our relationship,” I stated. “I realize that I have a few areas to develop which I haven’t really improved. And this created a strain on our relationship. Shall we start with my list first?”
He didn’t say yes but he seemed to agree, so I continued with the hope to peel off layer after layer of his resentment toward me.
“I shared with you that I was aware of my own pattern and I’ve been working on it. Yes, I am often late for our family outings and cause you frustration. But the root cause is I aim for too many things. I hired a business coach and she helped me realize that I should pace myself. Indeed, one of my goals is to have no goals at all. I want to slow down and spend time for a few things I would otherwise not have time to pay attention to,” I said. “This is something I am very aware of and please know that it takes time for me to make the adjustment.”
“Oh yeah, I kind of see that.”
“And the 2nd thing I am aware from our previous chat is you think I should be on top of family governance. This is very generic and not helpful for my improvement, so can you please help me understand what specifically I should be more mindful of?”
“It’s hard for me to explain. You just need to be aware of anything that has to do with running the house.”
“I can’t, so I’m willing to listen. I need to know what they are. Else, I can never improve. Maybe you can tell me about anything that is very disturbing first?”
“You never check the monthly bank statement. I know you only mostly spend on weekly grocery orders from Amazon but it’s important that you check the statement every month to see if there are any items wrongly charged and to have a sense of our spending in general.”
“I agree. This is obviously something that I have to do. And well, it’s just not me but women tend to leave family finance work to their husbands and that’s why there’re now emerging courses to educate women on this. Having said that, I will create a recurring reminder in my calendar each month to check it.”
“And for the emails from the apartment building, you never check them. I was so mad that day when I had to spend half an hour to find the way to park the car. They had sent the email about the new system two months earlier and I had no idea about it. You didn’t tell me.”
“For the emails from the building, honestly speaking, they never get my attention as nothing would make to my importance and emergency list. Those that are, they are already taken care of. Says delivery. We check with the doorman every day so I pass the emails. Says contract renewal, we get from the office directly. And if there is an actual emergency, they will put it on the loudspeakers. And since you are the one who logs maintenance requests and in charge of the car, let’s have you own the log-in details for the portal access and receive the emails. We don’t want to create extra work by going through me then to you while we have too much work already.”
“By the way, I always brag about what a wonderful husband I have as you are involved in house work. You are a true partner,” I added.
“Well, because you don’t do it so I have to pick things up,” he explained.
A concerned husband, he was. When I was entertaining the thoughts relating to his confession, he pulled me back to the conversation, “I think I do more than 50% of the house chores.”
“Well, there are a few things you do that does take time but they’re just the one-time things like purchasing our home. Or you may take care of more items but when we measure our involvement in terms of time, I may spend more time or we spend equally. For example, cooking costs me two hours each day for the two meals. But I don’t want to go into the debate who does more. I know both of us have tried our best and the goal should be how to optimize chores and help each other. Since you talk about running a family, we can’t work without a lack of clarity and on the basis of assumption. So what I am willing to do is to create an inventory of chores and then we can see with data who is doing more work, how we can adjust it, and what work the kids can help out. That way, it’s easier for all of us. Indeed, there’s a book called Fair Play. The author has already created the chore items for us with cards and we can play them. I wanted to do it but was afraid you wouldn’t support. Now as we talked about this, our next step is to play that card game. Agree?”
He was in. Family governance topic was now out, but stay-at-home dad was in.
“Indeed, if you can work and earn as much as I do, then I am willing to be a stay-at-home dad. I don’t mind doing that.”
“I don’t want for you to stop working either. Now you say it but when you actually stop working, you will feel unsettled. I want both of us to have the opportunity to use our talents and embrace our passion. We just need to keep dancing with each other in this journey.”
“You know that I always support you right? Just like the plant-based diet you decided to have last year. It took me a lot of time to learn new recipes and cook new dishes and as much as I tried to position it as a hobby for me to relax and create, it did cause me some level of anxiety as I had a lot of things to handle already. Having said that, I felt happy to see that you became more health conscious, something I had been wishing for so long.”
“And about the plant-based diet, it’s my initiative. Of course, you supported me but I also helped myself by sharing the load. And talking of meals, even when we order, I still have to clean up. And when I took care of the kids over some weekends when you wrote, I went home and I still had to clean up the dishes. You didn’t bother helping out.”
“Well, do you know why? It’s not that I don’t want to help. Indeed, I love us supporting each other and me supporting you as well. But remember that time when I went to the city to attend an event? I arrived home after 10pm and I knew you looked after the kids during the evening so even when I was so tired, I still tried to clean them up. And I felt good about doing that. But the next morning, I shared with you and you were like stone. You didn’t respond at all.”
“I was unhappy at that time and that’s why. Now it’s different.”
“OK, so it’s good for me to know that so next time, if I can help out, I will.”
Just as I thought the layers of resentment had been peeled, it turned out there was another. This one was big.
“I have no idea why you outsourced the pick-up of our daughter last time. Which parent does that? Picking up our kids is a privilege and you see it as a burden. So that’s why I had to try to get home a bit earlier and pick her up myself,” he said. “And you even shared on Instagram and tagged me. Well, on social media, it always sounds so good!”
I had no idea what he talked about because people told me they followed my stories as they were so real and authentic and they saw themselves in there. There was no cover-up.
“Well, you see, the mother who lives in the apartments opposite and to the right of our apartment are stay-at-home moms and they already have to hire people to help cook and clean. I do both and I have a business and I have to pick up and drop off both kids three times a day. There was too much on me and when you said you couldn’t pick her up just two times a week for me, I had to find a way out. Not picking up our daughter two times a week doesn’t mean I love her less. I was so overwhelmed with everything and if I tried more, I would have a break down. If I do have a break down or when I am overly stressed, I can’t be present and spend quality time with our children. And cooking healthy meals is my non-negotiable for our family so we stay healthy, so I have to get help with the other things.”
As I talked, he continued to search for that post on Instagram. I told him that he didn’t have to but he finally found it. When he did and showed me, I felt glad because by reading the post again, he realized he misunderstood what I said. In the post, I said that I trained my brain and empathized with him that his plate was full too so I didn’t demand him to pick up our daughter but found a solution, instead of fighting with him or blaming him for not helping out or compromising on my very own health. And he thought I was bragging about the victory over the fight for domestic equality.
“Oh well, at that time, I thought differently,” he confessed.
Feeling the majority of his unhappiness about me had been given a good cleanse, I tried moving our conversation to another direction so it would feel complete: his development areas. Hardly had I made the attempt to ask him what he could improve on his end so we would enjoy a happier family atmosphere when he dropped another statement as heavy as the one that kickstarted our lengthy chat. “I’ve tried my best and I don’t see where I have to improve.”
He thought he was perfect. However, secretly, I believed he should really lower his expectation and be flexible in life instead of having everything programmed like he did with his software work. As he didn’t realize it himself, I had to bring it into his awareness. “You are Enneagram type 9 wing 1. As a reformer, you always want to plan things and things to go through a certain process. I think you should “dance” with life as well as you can’t plan everything. Of course, on my end, I’m type 3 wing 2 and I’m a quick starter who doesn’t love too much planning, hate overengineering, and love conceptualizing and winging things, it doesn’t mean I don’t learn to plan better. It’s a balance.”
“I’ll lower my expectations. Indeed, I will have zero expectations and that way, there’ll be no more conflicts,” he decided.
“And if I could plan better, be decisive about when to stand up from my desk, and get out of the house by the time we agree with each other, what reward would you give me?”
“Anything! I’d be so glad,” he smiled.
“Now do you feel you hate me less?”
“And do you feel you love me more.”
“I remember someone said that when we talk to each other, we may not even understand each other, let alone not talking at all. So I’m glad that we talked!”
“Well, you are an extrovert and I am an introvert and you want me to speak?” he said.
“Yes, if you are an introvert then you need to learn to speak when needed. Don’t you agree?”
“When we were courting, we had so much to talk about. And now we have almost nothing to say,” he said.
“Well, according to research, during the first two years in our relationship, we only see the positive things in each other. We are over the moon. After that, we often scan for the negative things in each other and therefore, we start to hate each other. When we hate each other, how can we talk? So from now on, each day before you go to bed, think of at least three great things about me,” I grinned.
“Apart from all those that are not nice about you, the rest are nice,” he said, throwing a mischievous gaze at me, and in his eyes, I saw resentment evaporate and understanding conquer.
As we walked back home, and as I could fully feel the fresh spring air on my face, I told him a few stories that I had never told him, warning him not to laugh. About my deep fears that he would be hooked by another woman (caused by seeing my own father abandoning my mother, my sister and me to be after another woman, and worked on quite significantly with lots of brain training). Also about how much I cared for him when he said he was overwhelmed three years ago when we no longer had a full time domestic helper like we had in Singapore. And a few other episodes in the movie of my mind.
The next day, when arriving home after dropping off our daughter at school, I knocked at the door and said, “Hello there! The person you hate less and love more has been back home.” The signal of my presence was returned with a kiss, “I have one minute before my meeting and I want to kiss the person I hate less and love more before I join.” We burst laughing. And when I was preparing for our lunch at noon, he came over and informed me he had replaced my email with his as the log-in for our apartment building portal and mailing list. Together with his resentment, my fear and jealousy were all gone.
Ready for the view of cherry blossom with friends this weekend? I believe we’re.
*Amy Nguyen is working on a book about her journey of training her mom’s brain to have her all from more peaceful parenting to more solid relationships to successful career pivot and entrepreneurship. Subscribe to her weekly Happier YOU Letter for weekly happiness-fuelled stories and brain-based tips to uplevel your happiness in both work and life.