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The Second Time

<i>Beneath the sunset and over the sea<i/>
Beneath the sunset and over the sea

The second time couples counseling saved my marriage was in the summer of 2008, exactly three years after the most romantic marriage proposal in the history of all marriage proposals, and less than three weeks after the fight that was the biggest fight in the history of all fights.

The recent six-part story I wrote about babies was supposed to be a post about how important counseling can be when a couple stops communicating, but it ended up being a post about babies because that’s just how I roll.  I could sit down to write a story about ketchup going on sale this week and before I know it I’ll be writing a story about babies.  My biological clock has taken over.

Since I never made the point I wanted to make in that post, I’m going to make it now: Couples counseling saved our relationship and then it saved our marriage.  Now I think counseling is a magical elixir for relationships.  (You can read about the first time it saved us here.)

Instead of re-telling you about how not talking about babies nearly ruined my marriage, I’ll just say that Mike and I have learned the hard way.  Twice.  Ignoring our feelings + avoiding communication = disaster. You could try to argue that couples counseling didn’t work the first time, your evidence being that we had to go back a second time, but you’d be incorrect.  The second time we only needed a refresher course.  We lost our way for a minute but we got back on track in a matter of weeks because we had the strong base we’d built in our first round of therapy.  That being said, I have to admit that Mike and I were lucky in that both times we started counseling, we started before we got to the point where we hated each other.  A lot of couples wait too long and by the time they’re in counseling their relationship has been badly damaged, sometimes heartbreakingly, irreversibly so.

A marriage is another person sharing your home.  There’s you, there’s your spouse and there’s your marriage.  Each marriage has its own needs, it’s own peculiarities and it’s own character.  Marriages need to be nurtured, nourished and cared for.  If a marriage is neglected it will not thrive.

I realize I’ve been proselytizing about couples counseling, but far more important than counseling is simply taking care of your couple, however works best for you and your partner.  Counseling was the magical elixir that taught Mike and I how to take care of our relationship.  What is it for you?  What has been the thing that has saved you and your partner, whenever you’ve needed saving?

Inspired by that kid in the red striped t-shirt.

Last night Mike helped me make one of my dreams come true.

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Mike grew up in Michigan so he knows a thing or two about snow.

That’s right.  One of my dreams was to build a monster out of snow.  Call me crazy, I won’t deny it.  I grew up in California, the land of perpetual sunshine.  Before I moved to the City I could count the number of times I’d seen snow on one hand and still have fingers left over.  As a child I was a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes and I always believed that if I had been lucky enough to live in a place with snow, I’d be the kid building wild snow scenes in the yard every day after school.

Then we moved to the City and it was three years before we got enough snow, enough sticky snow, to build anything.  I started small and with the help of three little girls who’d never built a snowman before:

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The abominable snow lump.


A few days later, Adam and I got a little more advanced.  But then, Adam has a lot of snowman-making experience:

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Frosty the snowman and his trusty sidekick, Freezy the snowdog.

Last night I got home from work around five and dragged Michael from his warm nest in front of the computer to the park around the corner.  It was perfect snowman-making weather and I was determined to take advantage of it.

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Snowzilla tramples everything in his wake!


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Snowzilla has trampled a car and the people, mouths agape, run screaming. But ah ha! A tank is on it's way to shoot missiles at the monster!


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Let your imagination run wild...

Warm, still, calm, quiet.  Just Mike and I, mittens full of snow, snow up to our knees, throwing ideas around like snowballs.  “How about a tank?”  “Ah! His tail looks great!  How’d you do that?”  “What if he’s tromping a car under his toes?”  “Here, try this for the arms.”  The sun went down and it started snowing again.  People walking by pointed and exclaimed, snapped photos.  It was a perfectly perfect evening.

Tips for Happy Couples, #2

Cultivate common interests After the passion settles down, it’s common to realize that you have few interests in common. But don’t minimize the importance of activities you can do together that you both enjoy. If common interests are not present, happy couples develop them. At the same time, be sure to cultivate interests of your own; this will make you more interesting to your mate and prevent you from appearing too dependent.

Mark Goulston, Ph.D.

I’ve never liked pink teddy bears

For as long as I can remember, I have been a hopeless romantic.  I cannot tell you how many high school boyfriends crushed my heart into a thousand tiny pieces because they didn’t arrange for Unchained Melodies to play over the loudspeakers during homeroom, or have a hundred roses sent at lunch or at the very least serenade my bedroom window.  I have always had very high expectations.

Michael warned me early on that he was not a Valentines Day guy.  He’s a spur-of-the-moment romantic guy, but he’s not a Valentines Day guy.  If you were to play a word association game with him and you said, “Valentines Day”, his immediate reply would be, “Greeting card profits.”  He says he doesn’t see the point of having a holiday that forces people to buy pink teddy bears and heart-shaped balloons but I think his distaste for the day has something to do with all the awful Valentines Days he spent in Los Angeles, when he worked in a restaurant that was such a hot V-spot you had to book your reservation a year in advance.  All through the winter holidays, as February 14th crept closer, he’d get more and more tense.  To him it wasn’t a holiday, it was The Worst Night Of The Year.  It hung over his head like a guilty sentence hangs on an innocent man.

Needless to say our first couple of Valentines Days were rough.  He’d work and I’d feel neglected.  I’d pout, he’d get defensive.  We’d argue, we’d make up, we’d move on.  It took a few years but I eventually came to agree with Mike: Valentines Day is overrated and why on earth would anyone want to go out to dinner on the very night the entire rest of the country is going out to dinner?  Besides, Mike’s spur-of-the-moment romance is a thousand times hotter than a pink teddy bear.

This year I had zero expectations for Valentines Day.  We went wine tasting with friends the day before and the morning of Michael scrubbed the entire house while insisting that I stay in bed reading, so I was sure I’d had the nicest Valentines weekend a girl could dream of.  Which is why I was surprised when I came home yesterday and found this:

Be My Wiener

Either Michael is more of a Valentines Day guy than he’s willing to admit, or Theo’s been having inappropriate thoughts about his human companions.

Still growing

theacorn

treasured little things

In the last moments of our final couples session before we moved to the City, our therapist gave us a tiny silver acorn.  When we’d started couples counseling we’d been dating for close to two years but didn’t know where the relationship was going.  She gave us the acorn to remind us that we had been like the tiny seed, but we’d worked hard and now were a young green sapling.  She told us that we had the tools, the knowledge and the love that we needed to nurture our relationship so that it could grow into a strong old oak.  I keep that silver acorn, with the boutonniere Mike wore on our wedding day, in a vintage ashtray that belonged to my great Aunt Sue.  Symbols of things worthwhile; treasured memories.

***

After Mike and I had been dating for a year, we started having disagreements that would go on for days at a time.  I wouldn’t call them fights because we never threw any punches or anything, but something would come up and one of us would get upset and then the other one would get upset and then things would be really awkward for a while.  After a week or so we’d meet up for coffee and try to talk about it and things would be ok for a few weeks but then something would come up and we would get all weird again.  After several months of being fine one minute and awkward the next, I started worrying that if we didn’t learn how to communicate effectively our relationship would fall apart.

I knew that I loved Michael and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.  I knew this because we had the same values and the same goals, we made each other laugh, we had common interests, we respected one another.  But I couldn’t spend another week in awkward silence, so I suggested we try counseling.

“I would really like to go to couples counseling with you.”
“Why?”
“I think we need to learn how to communicate better.”
“We don’t need counseling.”

And that was that.  For six months.  Six months of dancing around topics we couldn’t talk about because if we did we’d end up in tears or screaming or breaking up.

Then, one beautiful spring morning, Mike looked at me over coffee and said the three little words I’d been longing to hear: “Let’s start counseling.”

We had our first appointment the following Thursday.  Within a few weeks, Thursday’s had become our favorite day of the week.  They were our day.  A day we devoted to spending quality time together and getting to know one another.  Every Thursday I’d leave work early and drive to Sherman Oaks where Michael would be waiting for me with my favorite Starbucks latte. We’d walk arm-in-arm to our therapist’s office and no matter how the session ended, regardless of if we were weeping or glowing, we’d go to In N’ Out for dinner and talk about what came up during the session.  And every Thursday, even if we’d started dinner in tears, by the time we kissed goodbye we were holding hands again.

Talking honestly about one’s feelings can be very difficult, but it’s a significant and important step towards learning how to communicate.  We soon discovered that the thing we were refusing to talk about, the thing that had become the fat ugly beast hovering in the room, the thing causing all those weeks of awkward silences was Marriage.  Mike had asked me to move in with him every month for the last six months and each time I’d said, “I won’t move in with you unless we’re engaged.”  I wanted to marry him but I didn’t want to give the milk away for free.  Mike fully intended to marry me, but he needed to know that we could live together without killing one another.  His hesitance to propose wasn’t a reflection of his feelings for me and my refusal to move in wasn’t a reflection of my feelings for him.  We both wanted to live together and we both wanted to get married, we’d just been too scared to talk about it.

A few months after our first counseling session Michael asked me to move in with him and I said yes.  Two months later we were sitting at the top of the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier and his hands were shaking as he held out a tiny blue velvet box.  The stars were flung over our heads, the night air was cool and filled with the scent of the sea and somewhere someone was playing a guitar.  It was the most romantic proposal in the history of all marriage proposals.  I blame it on couples counseling.

Kind of a big deal, The End

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Did you know that for the first week of Baby’s life you have to feed it every hour?  You might have a baby who’ll sleep longer stretches and maybe you’ll only have to feed it every two or three hours, but you must feed it at the very least every three hours.

From your boobs.  (Or from a bottle, but still.)

Did you know that babies start learning the minute they make their appearance and that they require stimulation and attention and you have to play with them and focus on them and teach them stuff and they rely on you for everything?  EVERYTHING.

The more I read about the first year of baby’s life, the more nervous I got.  I had this idea that bringing a new baby home would be like a Johnson & Johnson commercial.  I envisioned myself in a filmy white nightgown, sunlight filtering through breezy open windows, Michael across the room at his easel, the dogs curled calmly on either side of me as I suckle the babe at my breast.  But according to this book a more likely scenario is a house that hasn’t been cleaned since before the baby showed up, unwashed hair and stained pajama’s, weeks and weeks and weeks without sleep, the dogs hysterically chewing bald spots into their coats because their lives have been ruined by the screaming alien we brought home from the hospital.  And also?  Every three hours?  From my boobs?

It’s not that I want a baby any less than I did that first day my switch flipped.  It’s just that now I’m absolutely terrified.  For the first time in our marriage, we are genuinely happy with our life.  We are happy and working towards goals we believe in and building a life we’re excited about.  That’s a big deal.  It’s why we thought now might be a good time to add to our family.  I read up to what to expect in Baby’s second month before I shut the book, stuffed it behind a row of trashy novels and told Mike that maybe now would be a good time to savor our life a little bit.  Maybe now is the time to be enjoying these happy, blissful, quiet moments alone together, I said.  He stared at me for a moment and then he demanded I tell him what I’d done with his wife.  But he agreed.  So we are treasuring nights spent curled on the couch in front of the TV with nothing between us but air.  We will delight in late Saturday mornings and whispering over pillows well past bedtime.  We will relish sleeping for ten hours at a stretch, candlelit dinners alone just because, and dogs who have full coats of fur.  It’s not that we aren’t eager to start a family, because we are.  We just want a little more time to appreciate the adventure we’re on before we jump into the next one.

Fin.

Kind of a big deal, Part 5

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

In the summer of 2008, with my clock ticking like crazy and both of us trying really hard to avoid each other in an apartment twelve footsteps from the front door to the back wall, we had a fight unlike any fight in the history of all fights.

Mike and I are not violent people.  He accuses me of being a yeller, but I point out that in fact I grew up with three older siblings and the only way to ever be heard was to talk loudly.  I am a passionate speaker, I argue, not a yeller.  So while I may speak passionately on occasion, Mike and I had always lived a life of quiet harmony.  Until the morning of The Fight.

We were living in a tiny, crummy, roaches-in-the-walls Hells Kitchen tenement.  It was July.  If you’ve never been to New York in July, imagine a swamp of impenetrable stinking, moist, greasy tar. That is New York City in July.  It was seven o’clock in the morning.  I was awake because I hadn’t been to sleep and Mike was awake because I’d woken him up, hysterical.  I was screaming and sobbing and accusing while he held up his hands, don’t shoot.  It was all very dramatic and very frightening and for months afterward I wondered what our neighbors must think.  I said I was angry about one thing but it turned out I was angry about something else entirely.  When I left that morning he thought I was leaving for good.  He told me that, later, when we were curled on the sofa with tea.  It made me cry.  No, I said, his face in my hands and my tears on his cheeks.  Till death do us part.

A few weeks later we were sitting on a therapists couch and I don’t remember how we got to it but she looked at us in shock as she realized we’d never really talked about having children.  It turns out it’s a very big deal to not talk about something.  It turns out the Fight of all Fights could have been avoided entirely if only we’d talked about the one thing we were afraid to talk about. There is a lesson to be learned here: TALK.  COMMUNICATE.  LISTEN.  TALK SOME MORE.  Take it from me.  I almost learned the heartbreaking way.

We still argue when we talk about babies.  Mike argues that babies are clusters of cells that start out very much like tumors and later become small aliens with ideas and theories and philosophies all their own while I argue that babies are lovely little pink giggling things who’s cheeks I want to eat and who’s pants might need changing but oh my goodness did you see that dimple?  We still argue but thanks to a nice stint in marriage counseling we now argue about whether or not babies are made of biological material or angel dust and the arguing is something that happens over dinner and wine and handholding.  And do you know what we did on a date the other weekend?

WE BOUGHT A BOOK ABOUT BABIES.

Then we started reading it.

To be continued….  (For the last time all ready…)

Kind of a big deal, Part 3

Click here for part 1
Click here for part 2

Mike has absolutely no idea what it’s like to walk into a super market at eight years old, praying that all the other shoppers think the baby doll clutched in his arms is his real baby.  I do.  Growing up all of my favorite toys were baby dolls and my favorite childhood play-pretend was Single Mother.

While little boys make forts with their blankets, I turned my bedroom into a multi-room apartment.  Hanging sheets for walls, I made bedroom, kitchen, living room.  Each of my dolls was given a name and an age and after getting everyone dressed and ready for their day, I would kiss them goodbye, warn them to behave, “lock them in” and be off to work.  From there I’d walk the exhausting distance to my mother’s kitchen, take all of the canned goods out of the cupboard, pile them onto the kitchen table, “scan” them, bag them up, and put them all back in the pantry.  I killed two birds with one stone by playing “grocery store clerk” and “tired mom buying groceries on her way home from a ten-hour shift” at the same time.  At the “end of my day” I’d go home to my seven children and inevitably someone would have gotten into trouble, someone else would need grounding and I would lay in bed and wonder how I would ever be able to take care of all these damn kids.

Lord only knows where I came up with this stuff.  When I wasn’t playing Single Mother I was wrapping white towels around my head and practicing my walk down the aisle.  In a real life twist of irony, there was no aisle to walk down on my wedding day.  Instead we said our vows on the exact spot in my parents living room where I practiced my vows to imaginary Prince Charmings as a child.

If I said that Mike and I had never talked about children, I wasn’t being entirely truthful.  While the subject of money and finances has never been a sore spot for us, the subject of children has caused a lot of tears, a lot of slammed doors and one particularly painful evening in a beautiful hotel room overlooking the ocean on Maui, which I spent sobbing on the floor of a bathroom.  It’s not that we never talked about children, it’s just that when we talked about it we fought about it and so we made a mutually-subconscious agreement to completely ignore it.

To be continued…

Bury a cold nose in the crook of his shoulder

I am kind of a snob when it comes to my marriage, I just want to admit that right now. I am convinced that my marriage is the best marriage in the world. I’m pretty sure that the way I feel about my marriage is similar to the way I’ll one day feel about my children and the way I currently feel about my dogs. The only reason you don’t hate me is because no matter what I think, I know as well as you do that my marriage is not perfect. No one’s marriage is ever perfect.

Mike and I have worked really hard to be happy. We’ve spent four out of the six years we’ve been together in couples counseling. In college I made the mistake of dating someone I didn’t really like for an entire year because I thought that at some point I was going to have to grow up and pick someone to marry and it might as well be him. I misunderstood “working to keep a relationship happy” for “working to force two people who do not belong together to act like they’re happy”. I know better now. Mike and I went into couples counseling because we saw in each other people with similar values and similar goals; we had a lot in common and we were crazy about each other but we’d stopped communicating without fighting and we didn’t want to be that couple that fights all the time.

See how proud I am of my marriage? All of that up there? Those run-on sentences? That was bragging.

In the last four days I have worked forty hours. Mike, who is still looking for EMT work, has taken sole responsibility for the dogs, the cats, my meals, the laundry, the groceries and everything else it takes to run a household. When I leave for work in the morning my belly is full and there’s a packed lunch in my backpack. When I come home at night there’s hot tea and a bowlful of soup ready and waiting, all of the chores have been done and I am free to spend the rest of my evening doing whatever I want. I curl up with my tea and I write and I write and even though I worked for ten hours I can write for three or four more before collapsing in bed.

All week I have gushed and sighed and squeezed Mike’s hands and kissed his nose and thanked him for taking such magnificent care of me. But it wasn’t until right before dinner tonight, the fourth day of the week, the fourth day of Michael rubbing my feet and pouring more coffee and closing the window so I don’t catch a chill, when he suddenly stood up from painting and wrapped his arms around my waist, that I realized we hadn’t hugged all week. Not once.

See? Even we screw up. We work so hard all week to show each other we care; he cooks, I eat, he cleans, I compliment, but we don’t even hug until Thursday. And all that other stuff is incredible, I get that, I am not complaining, I am absolutely thrilled. But there’s something about a good bear hug, an everything is going to be wonderful hug, a you’re my best friend in the world hug, that just makes a girl feel heavenly.

Hug each other as soon as you see each other after work Our skin has a memory of “good touch” (loved), “bad touch” (abused) and “no touch” (neglected). Couples who say hello with a hug keep their skin bathed in the “good touch,” which can inoculate your spirit against anonymity in the world. –Mark Goulston, PhD How To Be A Happy Couple

We just made a pact to hug every day after work. I need the hugs and he deserves them.

We Deserve An Award

Today is the thirty-second day of my moon cycle. I am grumpy. I’m wearing an entire pants-size larger than I wear the rest of the month because my body is that bloated. I worked all day, the longest day I’ve worked in weeks, and when I came home the only thing I could focus on was a small wad of Valentine’s hair sitting on the floor next to the lumber pile. Now, neither of those things is unusual. Valentine sheds like a m*ther f*cker. I could probably make a million dollars selling Chihuahua-mutt pillows if I thought people would buy them, she sheds that much. And the lumber pile is a collection of wood that Mike’s salvaged from the street, which he keeps in a neat stack in a corner of our living room so that it’s easily accessible when he has time to build something. And let me tell you, some beautiful hand-crafted furniture has come from that lumber pile. However, it being the thirty-second day of my moon cycle, I didn’t care that the lumber pile was right where it belongs or that Valentine had simply shed her usual daily pound of fur. My eyes crossed and I began to froth at the mouth.

That’s when Michael walked into the room holding a mop and a broom. “I’ll do the floors if you’ll vacuum.”
“Seriously?”
“Dinner’s in the oven and I’ve all ready cleaned out the litter box.”
“Really?”
“And I just finished putting away all the laundry.”
“You did the laundry?”
“Yes.”
“I would definitely marry you if we weren’t all ready married.”

My dear, sweet, wonderful husband has made great use of a little tool I call the Moon Cycle Chart, and he is a safer man for it. He knows exactly when to expect mood swings and cravings and crazy. He knows exactly what day the stack of mail on the coffee table is going to make me cry. I created the chart to help me figure out when my hormones do what, but Mike’s paid attention and learned how to help me circumvent the worst symptoms of my moon time.

Not too long ago, the lumber pile and the dog hair would have ruined our night. It wouldn’t have mattered that dinner was ready or that the laundry was done because I’d pour every ounce of my energy into what was wrong instead of seeing what was right. It’s easy to do when you’re all ready tired and grumpy. But Mike’s learned how to anticipate my hormones and I’ve learned how to redirect my focus and we’re much happier for it. Instead of spending the night in cold, angry silence, we enjoyed a wonderful meal and then curled up with an episode of Law & Order while we rubbed each other’s feet.

A few months ago my dad sent me a list of Ten Habits of Happy Couples. He found it on the blog Usable Insight, written by Mark Goulston, M.D. Dr. Goulston is a clinical psychiatrist who honed his communication skills while working as an FBI/police hostage negotiation trainer. Now he teaches people how to get through to each other. He even has a book out. This is number five on that list:

Focus on what your partner does right rather than on what he or she does wrong. If you look for things your partner does wrong, you can always find something. If you look for what he or she does right, you can always find something. It all depends on what you want to look for. Happy couples accentuate the positive.