Michael woke up on Monday, and without rolling over to touch Joan or say good morning, he headed off to the bathroom. This had become his usual practice. If he thought about it at all, he just thought that it was easier – morning greetings had been turning into arguments lately, and it wasn’t the way he preferred to start his day.
As Michael thought back over the past few days and weeks and months and years, he realized that this situation had been developing slowly but steadily. It scared him to think that the tortoise of discontent and frustration was going to win this race.
Michael loved Joan. He had loved her almost from the first time they met, over twenty-five years before. Of course, they were babies then, and didn’t have babies of their own. And they had all the time in the world. And they both knew how things were supposed to work and that they were going to make them work that way.
Times had sure changed! Michael remembered a time when he and Joan would smile and kiss each other good night every night. They had made a pact, early on, to never go to sleep angry. In the morning, they’d start their day with a hug and… Well, that was then. These days, there seemed to be far too many nights that one or the other went to sleep upset, and far too many mornings begun with a grunted greeting. Michael felt close to despair on some days, longing for the relationship they had once had.
Joan lay in bed, listening to Michael moving around, getting ready for work. She could remember, as if it were yesterday, laying in bed and listening to Michael in the early days of their marriage. Then, she remembered, he would stroke her brow or her arm, give her a gentle kiss to say good morning, offer a warm smile, then reluctantly climb out of their bed to start his day. The sounds of him moving around, preparing were reassuring. They made her feel warm and loved. Now they just reminded her of how different things were.
She tried to figure it out – what had happened between them? She knew that Michael still loved her. Well, she was pretty sure that he did. She wasn’t sure that he liked her, and she wasn’t sure that he wanted to be with her. He said he did, of course. What else could he say?
It just seemed like he was always criticizing her and challenging her. He always wanted to do things his way, and seemed to have a knack for making her feel small, stupid, or useless. Why did he do that? Couldn’t he see how he was hurting her.
Joan lay there and struggled with her feelings. She so often felt like crying, at the start of her day. But that would just start a “discussion”, which would end up with her crying and Michael acting frustrated and disgusted. Better to just push it down and deal with it on her own. They didn’t really communicate well any more, anyway, so why bother?
Michael could feel Joan. He knew she was awake, and knew that she was avoiding talking to him. He didn’t know what was bothering her, and was frustrated that she wouldn’t talk to him and wouldn’t let him help. That’s what we do for each other, he thought, isn’t it? Help? But Joan seemed to have shut him out. He didn’t understand, and the whole thing was making him both scared and frustrated. And sometimes angry.
Michael tried not to let it turn into anger, but it just kept building up. He’d never yelled at Joan, nor hit her, nor abused her in any way. He just wanted to figure out what was going on. But nothing he tried worked.
Joan knew that Michael wanted “to help” – what he didn’t realize was that his “helping” was part of the problem. Why couldn’t he just understand that she needed his sympathy and empathy and support? Why did he always have to try to change things, to “fix” things? Joan didn’t need fixing, she just needed his support.
There was that time that she was so upset about the broken chair. For no reason, a chair that was only weeks old had just fallen apart. Joan was indignant! This was shoddy workmanship and she felt ripped off. She was determined to get the store and the manufacturer to set things right. But when she called, she got the run around. She was determined to get justice! When she told Michael about it, he just smiled one of his incredibly frustrating, condescending, “there, there, sweetheart” smiles and told her to call the credit card company and they’d refund the money.
He just didn’t understand! Sure, she wanted the money back, but more than that she wanted justice! This wasn’t right, and it wasn’t just about money. It was about her feeling violated and cheated and wanting that to be set right. She wanted an apology. Michael didn’t get it – he just wanted to “fix it” and make it go away. That made her so angry!
Michael knew he was missing something. He’d try to help when Joan was upset about something, and not only didn’t he seem to be able to help, he seemed to make things worse. Like the time that Joan was all upset about that broken chair. “Just call the credit card company,” he’d said. She looked at him like he was crazy and left the room. That one had taken days to calm down. He still didn’t understand it.
And there was the time that Joan was gone visiting her folks, and he cleaned and reorganized the kitchen cabinets. He was so proud of how logical and clever the arrangement was – pots near the stove, glasses near to hand, cooking utensils arranged near the stove and oven! He thought, all the time he was doing it, how excited and pleased Joan would be when she saw what he’d done.
Then she came home. He was excited, and showed her what he’d done, and explained how logical and efficient it all was. She just stood there with tears running down her cheeks. Why? What was wrong? Why hadn’t she loved it? Didn’t she know that he’d done it for her?
Joan had just about given up. Yes, she still loved Michael. And she thought he still loved her. But they just didn’t seem to be able to communicate. If she tried to tell him that she disagreed with him, he’d get all defensive and then turn it all back on her. And he was always criticizing and questioning and making her feel like she couldn’t do anything right.
Michael had just about given up. Yes, he still loved Joan. And he thought that she still loved him. But they just didn’t seem to be able to communicate. If he tried to tell her that he disagreed with her, she’d attack him, telling him that he wasn’t perfect and that she was doing her best and somehow she always ended up crying. And she was always making him feel like she didn’t need or want his help.
On this particular Monday, they had a date to visit Grannie. Grannie was not actually related to either of them. They’d both known her most of their adult lives, having met Grannie when they were first dating. She seemed ancient then, and that was twenty-five years ago! If they thought about it, they could remember her real name, but they’d been calling her “Grannie” for so long, well, that was who she was.
Both Michael and Joan were looking forward to seeing Grannie. As difficult as things were for them these days, they particularly enjoyed the time they spent with Grannie. She had such a lovely outlook on life – generally everything was simple and Grannie just listened and seemed to enjoy their company. She mostly didn’t put up with any “nonsense”, and had a habit of exposing the simple truths at the heart of things. Sometimes that could be hard for Michael and Joan, since Grannie didn’t allow them to hide things behind “polite lies” to protect their own feelings.
But on this night, both Michael and Joan were feeling both anticipation and fear. Each knew that Grannie would see through their public faces to what was in their hearts, and they were afraid of hearing her say it out loud. And yet, there was something in each of them that hoped…
Grannie is no fool. She’s lived a long life, surrounded herself with people she cares about, and paid attention to those people. As she gets older, her tolerance for “pussyfooting” and “shilly-shallying” goes down. So it’s no surprise to Joan or Michael when Grannie, early in their visit, asks “What’s wrong with you two?”
Naturally, they both leap to denial. Wouldn’t you? This is difficult stuff, and Joan and Michael haven’t been able to deal with it themselves. How can they talk about it with Grannie? But Grannie is not easily put off. With love and care, she draws them out.
You can imagine the discussion and the stories and how each describes the other’s behavior. Lots of sentences begin with…
“He/she makes me feel…”
Grannie lets it go on for a while and finally says “Hold on! Joan and Michael, you keep telling me that the other ‘makes you feel’ some way or other. Now I don’t doubt that Michael wants to ‘fix’ things, and Joan wants ‘support’ and that you two have come to be at odds somehow. That’s making me sad. I’ve known you two for a long time, and there’s no doubt in my mind that you truly love each other. So let me ask you a few questions, okay?”
Michael and Joan, as couples do, look at each other. Each gives a small, shy grin, and they both say “Sure, Grannie, go ahead.” And then they look at each other again and grin nervously. They know that Grannie won’t pull any punches, and are sort of nervous about what’s coming, but they also sort of hope that Grannie can cut through to the heart of the matter.
Grannie starts with a clean shot – “First of all, I don’t think that either of you ‘makes’ the other feel any way. I think each of you feels the way you feel because that’s the way you feel. Sure, the other person’s behavior is what triggers those feelings. But they don’t ‘make’ you feel, now do they?”
This is a tough one, and both Michael and Joan take a minute before answering. There’s a bit of flailing before they both accept that their feelings are their own, and not under someone else’s control.
“So then,” Grannie continues, “if your feelings are your own, and you are responsible for them, why are you finding yourself upset with and about the other so often?”
This isn’t getting any easier. Michael and Joan look at each other sideways. Grannie has, as always, started to cut through the distractions and into the heart. But both Michael and Joan have been struggling with this, and neither has an answer. And they each say so. Grannie watches them. Joan looks at Michael before answering, as though hoping for help. Michael looks at Joan before answering, as though looking for support. The bond that Grannie knew was always there is obviously still there.
“Joan, let me ask you a few questions directly, okay? Michael, you just listen for a minute.”
“Joan, do you love Michael?”
“And do you like Michael?”
A moment for thought, then “Yes, most of the time.”
“And, Joan, do you believe that Michael loves you?”
Without hesitation, Joan says “Yes, I do.” And smiles, almost wistfully.
“And, Joan, do you believe that Michael likes you?”
And now Joan stops, and thinks, and looks under her eyelashes at Michael, and thinks some more. And says “I’m not sure any more. I think so some of the time, but some of the time I think he just doesn’t like me.”
“But you believe that he loves you and you know that you love him?”
“Okay,” Grannie says, “Michael, now it’s your turn. Joan, you sit and listen.”
And Grannie proceeds to ask Michael the same questions. And much to Joan’s surprise, the answers are almost identical!
Since Joan and Michael are paying attention, they grin a bit and look at each other, maybe even a bit quizzically.
Grannie continues. “Now here’s my dilemma. You both tell me that you love the other. You also both tell me that you believe the other loves you. And you both tell me that you like the other most of the time, but that you aren’t sure that the other likes you. And there’s the dilemma.”
Grannie pauses, smiling beatifically at them, one eyebrow arched as she says “What I don’t understand is this: if you both feel and believe as you say you do, why doesn’t the belief that the other loves you deeply outweigh anything and everything else?”
Joan and Michael get a thoughtful look in their eyes. Joan looks at Michael and asks “You like me?” Michael, with a nervous grin says “Most of the time.” Joan smiles and says “Me, too!”
Michael and Joan are in love. Everyone that knows them has always known this. But their family and friends saw their difficulties. Being cautious of interfering in someone else’s relationship, and being careful of their own relationships with Michael and Joan, most of their family and friends had been treading carefully. And now?
Now everyone notices that Joan and Michael are acting like they’re in love, again. And when someone asks Joan what’s going on, Joan just says “He likes me!”
And when someone asks Michael what’s going on, he says “She likes me!”
And they smile at each other.
I wrote this around 2002 or 2003. I hadn’t read it for a long time, and just reread it today. I’m reminded that these lessons apply to far more than the marital relationship. It’s valuable to remember that our feelings are our own.