repeating white doors, one bright yellow door

Perpetual Problems in Marriage and How We Tried to “Solve” One of Them

My readers know that I’m a big fan of John Gottman and the Gottman Institute. Gottman is the author of the book Eight Dates, which is amazing and I think everyone in a serious relationship should read!

I love how Gottman is very matter of fact about marriage. For example he says, “you can’t be in a relationship and not have conflict. Not if you’re doing it right.” (Eight Dates, p. 6)

So it’s inevitable – we’re going to have conflict no matter how long we’ve been married, how much we love each other, or how good of a person we are.

When my husband and I started going to marriage counseling 6 years ago, I remember wondering how long we would need to go before our problems/conflicts would be solved, before our marriage would be “fixed.” What I’ve learned since then is that fixing our marriage and solving our problems are not synonymous. It doesn’t take the absence of conflict to be in a happy and healthy marriage – in fact Gottman would say it’s impossible.

Some problems are solvable. (Yay!) But most of our relationship problems, sixty-nine percent in fact, are perpetual problems. Perpetual problems, as you may have guessed, are those issues that are going to surface again and again and again in your marriage. (And that’s okay and totally normal!)

So if the absence of conflict is not the sign of a healthy marriage, then what is?

Gottman would say that the ability to continue to talk about your perpetual problems and learning to understand and accept the ways in which you are different from your spouse is key. (Eight Dates, p. 11)

One of the perpetual problems that we have been dealing with in our marriage for over 12 years is HOUSEWORK. The dreaded h-word.

I am the person in our relationship that always feels like more housework needs to be done, and that others are not pulling as much weight in this area. Clutter gives me anxiety. I feel like I can’t relax or have fun if the house is filthy. (Filthy being a very subjective term…)

Dean enjoys a clean house, but his tolerance for a mess is much greater than mine. So by the time he would naturally think about cleaning something, most likely I will have already cleaned it because it was bothering me so much to look at it.

Even taking our personalities into account, I am much more Type-A, a self-declared perfectionist who will notice the tiny details that are not right or are out of place. Dean is definitely more laid back and is not bothered by things to a similar degree (I envy him sometimes). We have learned that if we make a rule to just “clean things when you notice they are dirty,” I will end up doing a lot of cleaning and Dean will not. Not because Dean is a bad person, but because he’s not wired the same way I am.

Housework seems like a silly problem to be battling over for more than 12 years, but I think it’s super common because it’s so easy to get resentful at the other person if you feel like they are not doing their share. Essentially, any time you start keeping score in marriage and trying to determine if things are “fair,” it’s not going to end well. Marriage just isn’t always “fair.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t have conversations about housework, or that both partners should not be putting in effort towards a clean house, but it’s really easy to overestimate how much you do, and to not notice how much the other person has done. We always have a skewed view of reality to some extent, because we always initially see things from our perspective.

I found myself in one of my resentful moods recently, specifically in regards to housework, and Dean and I decided to have a discussion about it. Dean came up with the idea to assign each other chores after making a master chore list, and initially I was not interested. We have tried to do things like that before, and the farthest we usually get is just making the list, not actually doing the chores. I suggested hiring a housecleaner because we both work full time and it’s just hard to find time to actually do the cleaning.

Dean, being the more frugal one in our relationship, really did not want to pay someone else money to clean our house. So, we made a deal. We would try parsing out the chores again and holding each other accountable to doing them. We’d give it a trial period of a few months. If that didn’t work (if the chores were still not getting done) we could try a housecleaner.

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My Sister Rachel (Part 6): Grown Up

What does my relationship with my sister look like today? All of my other posts have focused mostly on my experiences growing up with Rachel – but what do my experiences with her look like now?

In some ways, it’s the same. I still don’t interact much with Rachel, in part because of our differences, and in part because we don’t live in the same state anymore. When I was 18, I left to go to college out of state, and even took classes during part of summer. Since then I have never really spent that much time living in the same space with my sister.

While I was in college in Arkansas, Rachel stayed home, still attending her high school for a few extra years (I think until she was 22.) After that, she began attending a day program for adults. The program organized activities and events, and it allowed Rachel socialization (on the small chance she desired it). I know some day programs train people to develop skills that they will need to have either at a job or to live on their own – we knew Rachel would never live on her own or have a job, so she did not need skills as such. But the program was tailored to allow people to function at their individual levels.

In the past few years, Rachel has transitioned to living in a group home after living with my parents for over 30 years. It’s a normal-sized house, with Rachel being one of three people with disabilities living there. A mother and daughter are the caretakers, and it’s actually a very nice set up. Each person has their own room, and Rachel still gets to go to her day program on weekdays. My parents spend Sundays with Rachel – they pick her up from the group home and take her to church, and then have lunch together afterwards.

The decision to move Rachel to a group home was not an easy one, even though it was the right one (I suppose I’m speaking for my parents here.) I remember talking with my mom and dad about how they wanted to find the right place for Rachel to live, and didn’t want to rush the decision due to an emergency or crisis. The transition went better than any of us imagined (change is hard for Rachel, after all) and Rachel seems to be really thriving in her new environment. It’s nice to see. I think Rachel knew that it was a big, important milestone for herself. I think she likes the independence it brings having her own space away from mom and dad – just like any other grown child feels.

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My Sister Rachel (Part 5): Challenges

I’ve never written a series this long before, but I’m planning to wrap this series up in a 6th post to come soon. If you missed any of the other posts and you’d like to read them, just do a search at the top for “My Sister Rachel” and they should all pop up.

I’m going to try to keep it real in this post, and today’s topic is “challenging times.” Coincidentally this is also the longest post in the series, so bear with me if you attempt to read through it. I’m sure it’s no surprise that there were times with Rachel that were really difficult and stressful. Honestly, there were many times that just really sucked. I don’t say that to blame my sister or my family for how things were, it is just a true statement due to the circumstances we found ourselves in.

Rachel had limited abilities to communicate with us how she was feeling or what she was thinking, and I’m sure much of the time she felt frustrated that we didn’t understand her. She probably felt frustrated when things didn’t seem “right” to her and none of the rest of us were doing anything to fix it. She wasn’t aware of all the social rules that most of us follow (like giving others personal space, or knowing to stay quiet during a movie so as not to bother anyone) and so inevitably she would commit many social taboos that would draw attention, very often negative attention.

Anger

I was probably only in Kindergarten or elementary school, but by that time I had already learned to associate Rachel with negative feelings and outcomes. Without even realizing it at the time, I strategically began to avoid being around her or interacting with her. I had learned that I needed to keep myself and my things away from Rachel if I wanted them to be out of harm’s way. As I said in an earlier post, we really didn’t play together much anyway (due to being on different developmental levels), and so we each kind of did our own thing and had our own interests. We had our own rooms and our own toys, and my toys and belongings were very different from Rachel’s (again, due to our differences in abilities). I’m not sure if that was the reason Rachel seemed so intrigued with my room and my things, but there were many times that she would take something of mine, and essentially destroy it. Sometimes she might find a tag on one of my stuffed animals and rip it off (tearing a hole in it) or she’d crumple up a drawing I was really proud of. I don’t think it was done intentionally against me, but it made me so upset. (I’m sure older siblings have experienced similar situations where a younger brother or sister broke something of theirs.)

One time in particular when Rachel broke something of mine stands out to me. Earlier we had gone to a science museum, and I had gotten a wooden stegosaurus skeleton that you could put together piece by piece, kind of like a 3D puzzle. (It was so cool!) I had assembled it and had it on display in my room. I think the door to my room was open and I was in another part of the house, but I remember hearing a crash and running back to my room to find Rachel standing there and the stegosaurus smashed to pieces on the floor. I’m not sure why this event, out of all the times Rachel broke something of mine, sticks out in my memory, but I remember being devastated. That event might have been the catalyst to cause us to put a lock on my door.

I mentioned that I had learned to keep not only my things, but myself, away from Rachel in order to avoid harm. Another not-so-fun thing about Rachel was that around this same time (Kindergarten or elementary school) Rachel started having violent tendencies. If she got mad, her way to express it was through hurting herself or someone else. And if you were the person nearby, you might find yourself hurt. Rachel was always bigger and stronger than I was, despite us being the exact same age, so fighting back wasn’t a great strategy for me. I learned instead that I was much faster than her, so I could outrun her if she was trying to attack me. There were still plenty of times though when she would get me by surprise, and being the good girl I was, I knew I shouldn’t try to hurt her back. That was SO frustrating to me – it never felt like justice was served. (Probably was the start of a lot of repressed anger for me to be honest.)

On one occasion, however, I did retaliate back at Rachel, and I didn’t hold anything back. We were older, maybe junior high age, and Rachel had hit me or hurt me somehow. I remember being so mad, and I decided I was going to hit her as hard as I could. And I did. I slapped her on her back so hard that it left a hand print, and I remember Rachel started to cry. (Sorry Mom, I don’t think I ever told you that before!) Of course then I felt terrible, but it was a mixture of feelings – I knew I shouldn’t have done it, but at the same time it felt like I was standing up for myself. (I’m sure there could have been a better way to do that…)

Fear

Besides being fearful for my physical wellbeing sometimes (her violent outbursts did get better over time), I began to have a lot of fear about what other people would think – whether or not they were judging me or my family for how my sister behaved.

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