Marriage is wild. I mean, life is wild really, but marriage in reality is not at all what I envisioned it would be in my 20s. I viewed it through rose colored lenses, expecting it to be this experience that was full of sunshine and rainbows. I thought that love was enough to sustain a marriage–to truly make it last a lifetime I figured you just needed to know how to love really hard. And when my wife and I got married at age 26, I was so certain we’d nailed the love part and it would be smooth sailing from there.
To our credit, we did totally nail the love part. Our relationship is and has always been full of love. We worked really hard in the early years of our relationship to create a shared vision for what we wanted our love to look and feel like, and were brutally honest with each other about the distorted iterations of love we’d witnessed growing up as well as those that we wandered our own way into in our teenage and earlier adulthood years. We waited until we each individually expressed that we were ready to be married before having serious talks about getting engaged (though, in true lesbian form, she definitely had her dream wedding ring picked out just a few months into our relationship, lol).
One thing I did not expect to have to experience in marriage is doubt. Sure, I expected to disagree sometimes. We disagreed many times before we were married and resolved issues without major issue. They were more like slight inconveniences. But throw the stresses of work, homeownership, the unprecedented times of COVID-19, and toddler twins into the mix, and you have the perfect recipe for drama.
As soon as our twins turned 3–I’m talking down to the minute–they morphed into these adorable little time bombs of emotion. They will be perfectly fine one minute, and rolling around on the floor in a full-blown meltdown in the next. The tantrums can be triggered by almost anything: someone initiating an undesired duet to the Paw Patrol theme song, bumping into a wall that was clearly there the whole time, fruit snacks that are not quite fruity or snacky enough, the sun slipping behind a cloud without providing advance notice. Literally. Anything.
One weekday morning not so long ago, our morning routine was thrown off by one of our girls waking up in a serious funk. Thankfully, I was able to use the strategies I learned from a book I read over the summer about toddlerhood and tantrums. I helped her get ready, while my wife helped our other child. Like some kind of miracle, we were walking to the car on time–in fact, early enough that my wife would be able to drop the kids off at daycare and treat herself to a coffee on her drive to work!
That was, until Funky Cold Medina decided she was not going to let anyone put her in her car seat. She was going to do it herself, thank you very much.
After a moment of grace, I started to help her. She began to fuss. She proceeded to move at the speed of a sloth, and the Treat Yo’Self coffee window was beginning to close. I tapped out. My wife then tried, but she screeched. We both let it breathe for another moment of grace. She. Moved. Slower. I tapped back in. She magically transformed into a screaming, flopping fish (good morning neighbors, who are surely staring at this scene from their bedroom windows!). By this time, both my wife and I were heated. Of the two of us, I had more patience, but I was growing more impatient. I decided to carry her out of the car for a reset. I was ready to let her watch the car pull off with her sister (who was peacefully sitting in her car seat the whole time, staring on with a look of delight because she wasn’t the one bringing the drama). I was prepared to drive her separately to school after she calmed down and returned to compliance.
The problem is, I made that decision entirely on my own. I was so focused on not wanting my wife to miss the opportunity to indulge herself with a coffee stop and also trying to maintain control, despite my rising blood pressure, that I acted in a way that unintentionally contributed to the static. I had a whole flowchart in my mind about which strategy I was trying and which logical consequences would be appropriate/possible to carry out, but managed to communicate NONE OF THIS. So when I lifted FunkyScreamFish out of the car, my wife was left with zero information and a whole world of space for assumptions. Did I mention she was also upset and completely out of patience?
Funkmaster Fish, equally perplexed by my choice of actions, immediately calmed down. My wife then angrily swooped G-Funk back into the car and clicked the safety belt in one motion. I felt undermined by her stepping back in unannounced. She was just plain heated about not only missing the chance for coffee, but now being late for work.
Going back over this, it isn’t a HUGE thing, but it felt huge at the time. Having to make behavior-addressing calls when you’re both stressed and have a literal kicking and screaming child at the center of it all is HARD. Everyone is in Fight, Flight, or Freeze mode where your brain is doing everything it can to rationalize your actions to preserve your sense of control.
It was barely past 7:00am and already the day was a wash. We both had to quickly shift gears to focus on our work lives, leaving the flaming pile of What The Funk in the driveway. The problem with that is, I walked away from the situation with a perceived narrative. Because things were left unresolved, my brain replayed the events and my narrative was wet concrete becoming more and more rigid as the hours passed by. By the time we sat down alone that night, we had both been stewing in our own ugly feelings about the ordeal. Funkadelic Flounder on the other hand had gone blissfully off to bed, having forgotten the whole tantrum and likely charged it to the game as another day in the life of a three-year-old.
I was angry, hurt, and exhausted. I spent the day wondering how in the world we had gotten to the point where we couldn’t even agree on how to get a kid into a car seat. I worried about what that meant for our marriage and doubted whether all that energy was even worth spending. I thought, wow…is this the feeling people have before they get divorced? I was terrified that the D-word had even entered my thoughts. What happened to being the two lovebirds who maybe fussed about socks being left all over the floor of the apartment (guilty!), but always resolved issues with levity? That night, we barely made it through the first 5 minutes of revisiting the morning drama before we ended up in separate rooms. Where was the love in all of this?
I sat alone at the kitchen table, chewing a slice of pizza like an android carrying out a pre-programmed sequence. Then something snagged inside me and I felt myself touching the surface of the issue. I considered that maybe we were reacting to this stage of parenthood normally. Toddler tantrums are excruciating, and when they happen unexpectedly and/or while you’re in a rush, it creates hell for all parties involved.
I realized I was reacting normally and so was she, but we stopped communicating with each other when our patience was waning. When I’m stressed, I get quiet. It’s a coping mechanism that helps me focus under pressure, but it doesn’t serve me well when communication is actually the key to disarming the crisis.
As a couple, we hadn’t yet developed a way to resolve issues when we were both escalated because, well, we had never in our lives been in such high-demand situations on a regular basis. And worst of all, I realized I spent the day feeling hurt and resentful about something that I wasn’t even providing my wife with: communication. Yes, she didn’t talk to me before she swooped our kid back in the car, but I hadn’t spoke to her when I took the kid out the car to begin with. We were throwing the problem back and forth like a hot potato rather than problem-solving in partnership.
Sometimes you’ve got to divide-and-conquer, but if that’s the only approach you have as a couple and you try tackling a relative crisis without at least doing a shift change debrief, sh*t is gonna hit the fan.
We returned to the table and it became clear that we both had come to similar conclusions. The love hadn’t disappeared. Our marriage was not unravelling, though perhaps it had frayed a bit at the edges. But it was nothing that couldn’t be mended by staying at that table, being honest with each other (and ourselves) about our needs, and returning to our commitment to meet each other’s needs so long as all roots emerged from seeds of wellness.
We agreed that we would do well to make arguing a less intimidating thing. I don’t enjoy confrontation (who does? Lawyers?), but I do appreciate the fine art of arguing. Being able to argue is essential for any relationship. We thought about how to bring the levity we used to have about smelly forgotten socks back into our arguments. As cheesy as it sounded, we also decided we wanted a gimmick: a signal to future-us that past-us had been to the edge and just like them, had doubted the vitality of our marriage.
An episode of The Office came to my mind. It’s from the last season of the series and (spoiler alert) every character’s world and the workplace altogether starts to fall apart. The Sweethearts, Pam and Jim, are married parents of two children under the age of 5. Jim is trying desperately to start a business 2.5 hours away with his college friends (without Pam’s consent), and Pam is left to hold things down at home while still working full-time and desperately trying to legitimize herself as an artist. The perfect storm of events happen and Pam and Jim find themselves fighting on Valentine’s Day, of all days. They begin to walk away from each other at the climax of their argument, but both pause after a moment. They come back together and propose the argument not be dropped. They decide that yes, it’s Valentine’s Day and Jim was intending on skipping town to go to his new business, but that they’d both rather just crack open a bottle of wine and finish the argument.
I know it’s just a show, but I understand those feelings of pressure now. I get how hard it is to be in a place in your life where you want to continue to grow as an individual and want the support of your spouse, but your family life is so stressful and demanding and heck, so is your work life for that matter. I understand the moment when your marriage feels like a rubber band that’s about to snap. But I also deeply understand that hitch; a momentary pause, followed by a release of the tension that pulls you both back into the center.
We talked about this episode and agreed that an “In Case of Emergency Break Glass” totem would be great. So now, a very fancy bottle of wine lives in our kitchen. It is there for when we will need it, not if but when. It’s also there as a reminder that we’re both still in this, as hard as it is. A symbol that we have never stopped loving each other fiercely.
I am accepting that in order to spend a lifetime together, I’m going to have to step out of my own narrative more frequently and check myself when I find myself longing for something that I’ve either not asked for or aren’t offering freely myself. It might sound ridiculous, but it’s easy to lose sight of those things, even if you’re madly in love with someone, because things immediately in front of you like work and a screaming toddler can overtake your focus and sense of control. As much as I wish we would never disagree again, a part of me is excited to try that wine and try to flex our newly forming fight muscles.