offer ibuprofen not your sacrifice

Pay Attention: When Your Partner Says They Are Not Happy

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“I am unhappy,” my wife said. “Pay attention.”

The Inside Job of Happiness

Somewhere along the path to becoming mature parents, my then-wife began expressing her disappointment and anger on a regular basis. She was seeing her own therapist, so there was not much I could contribute there, except I didn’t think much of her therapist. Not my business, I know. Still, she was angry and seemed to think that I was the cause of her unhappiness.

There was a litany of complaints she used to explain why we weren’t having more sex. The same complaints, I guess, justify her anger. The list looked something like this:

  • money
  • housework
  • trust
  • happiness
  • kid duty

Even as I methodically attacked each of the problems, I was unable to alleviate her suffering. Her anger. Her idea was that I was the reason she was unhappy.

I was not the reason she was unhappy, nor the reason she was not finding more magic in her life. 12 years later, I’m still not the reason she is unhappy.

Kids Require Reassessments

When you get married, even with the expressed intention of having kids when they arrive everything changes. There’s no book (What To Expect When You’re Expecting, for example) that really prepares you for THE CHANGE.

And in my experience, 22 years ago, when my son was born, there are two types of parents:

  1. The parent that reorients their entire life around being a loving support for their children.
  2. The parent that resents the impact of the child and tries to contain their role and maintain their pre-kid priorities and goals.

Both my ex-wife and I were type 1 parents. Everything changed the minute our son arrived. And for 5 or 6 years (our daughter arrived two years later, post 9-11) everything was focused on the magic of our emerging children. We shared our roles equally. We adapted to the new requirements and responsibilities. Our entire lives were oriented around the fascination of watching these tiny humans, that looked a bit like us.

Initially, both my wife and I incorporated our art into our parenting. My music and writing became about love, and kids, and spiritual aspiration. My wife began painting and drawing again. Even writing poems about her new “mom life.” And then something changed.

I continued to stretch as an artist during the late evening hours when work and parenting had wrapped up. I wrote symphonies at 2 am to my warm and cuddly kids and lovely wife. I was stressed with so much work. (I commuted 45 minutes each way for the big job, that kept us in the nice neighborhood while my wife volunteered at school and worked a few freelance projects.) And while felt everything was worth it, including my exhaustion and recovery on Saturday and Sunday, my wife seemed to slip into something less comfortable.

What Are You Doing?

My naps on the weekend irritated my wife to no end. She could not, or would not allow herself to nap. “There’s so much shit that needs to get done, how can you fking nap?”

We disagreed on some of the priorities. The same way we prepared for parties at our house in very different ways. She stressed big-time and pressed for a full-house deep cleaning. Seems that women feel the cleanliness of their houses reflects importantly in their self-esteem and the opinion of others. Men, not so much.

While I learned to let my wife get mad, freak out, and stress battle with the house, I also learned that I did not have to make her happy. Actually, as I now understand, I cannot make her happy. But, in the wrestling match of marriage, it seemed to her that I was the cause of most of her unhappiness. I’m pretty sure inner contentment is much more critical to one’s own enjoyment. She was unhappy about a lot of things, and the cleanliness of the house was a minor irritation. It built on the total number of disappointments but was just part of the litany of complaints.

I Am Disappointing You

“I understand I have disappointed you. And that’s okay. You are disappointed. Let’s talk about what we’re going to do next.”

It has taken me over ten years to let go of my wife, now ex-wife’s disappointment in me. In the marriage, I simply got mad, fought back, and contradicted her. But you can’t contradict someone’s feelings. At the same time, you can’t control them. That investigation was between my wife and her therapist. However, if you’re therapy is not helping you moderate and refocus your life, perhaps you have a “you’re doing great” therapist rather than a working therapist. I was not the keeper of my wife’s therapy or psychiatry.

Today, I am clear that your disappointment is yours. I will be happy to discuss and negotiate our independent goals, but I can’t take on your happiness or lack of happiness as part of my daily burden. Your disappointment is your choice.

I know a lot more about disappointment now that I’ve been a life coach for five years. So much of what partners stress about is disappointments, both their own and trying to mitigate or solve their partner’s. My approach is a bit like AA’s approach to life from the serenity prayer. The serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Finding serenity with your partner is a version of this. I did not recognize the boundaries while I was married. I thought if she was unhappy, I needed to take that one with her. I needed to rail against the things that got her mad. I needed to avoid upsetting the imbalance at all costs. I became a subset of myself trying to fix and entertain her. Obviously, now, it’s easy to see this was not possible.

Do listen. Then be empathetic without taking on their burden. And in relationships, listen, love, and do not offer advice unless it is directly requested. We all seem to want to give each other advice. But it’s rarely as intelligent or as helpful as we might imagine it is in the moment we’re giving it.

Let your partner struggle with their own demons. And use Brené Brown’s BRAVING as a way forward. My paraphrase is this, “I can hear that you are struggling. I am here beside you. I support and love you. And I will remain here with you in this space of healing.  You can offer ibuprofen when they are in pain, but you cannot take on their burden or make them happy.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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