Roger wasn’t sure how it happened, but he recalled it starting after he offered to help Mary in the kitchen. Seconds later, she was on him. “Don’t use the new potatoes. The Idaho potatoes aren’t for mashing. Use the Golden potatoes.” “But there are only three small ones”, he replied, “and I want more.” Her voice became shrill, her facial expression turned stern and he remembered hearing something about being too fat and not needing potatoes to begin with. The next thing he was heard himself screaming. “Shove those potatoes where the sun doesn’t shine.” He told me, “There may have been more, but my memory is vague, probably because I’m totally embarrassed by my reaction.”
Indeed, there was more. It went from potatoes to every resentment he held throughout their marriage. In the end, he fled from the kitchen with her final words reverberating in his head, “You’re a crazy man.” she screamed. “Someone who raves in front of his children, who can’t even help in the kitchen without losing it.”
He felt humiliated. There was no way to argue against her summation. His own behavior gave her the ammunition to skewer him. His outburst proved that he was out of control, so anything he added would have little credence. His solution, stay at the Holiday Inn. There were numerous calls on his cell phone, but he didn’t answer them, because he knew she’d only berate him more. Anyway, he was tired of her playing the victim and casting him as the victimizer. It was an all too familiar vignette. One they enacted throughout their years together.
Roger was at wits’ end. He either wanted a reprieve from the constant arguing, or out of their crazy relationship. He tried numerous times to talk to her gently and display interest in her day, but it always wound up the same way. She’d complain about the car pool, what the kids had done, how incompetent the maid was, or that a phone call from her mother had interrupted her nap. Inevitably, her irritability turned toward him. “You sit in your fancy office, secretaries do your bidding, and you talk to them. They don’t get the silent treatment I get. You eat at upscale restaurants and come home expecting the same service. Well, that isn’t the way it works. And the children are yours, too. You can come home, bathe and read to them and help put them to bed. Your job is 9 to 5. Mine is 24-7.”
On a bad day, she could go on forever. In his head, he’d try to turn her off. Finally, when he could take it no longer, he’d do her bidding, walk out, or lose it as he did over the potatoes. The worst part was, he couldn’t win. When he complied, he felt weak, hated himself and resented her. When he screamed or left, he felt guilty. After all, they were his kids and they did need attention. “But what about me?”, he thought. “I work my butt off so she can take naps, go to luncheons and complain about the maid. She thinks she’s a princess who deserves everything she desires.”
By now, you’ve got the gist of Roger’s and Mary’s thinking. It’s difficult to determine who is the real culprit or which one needs to change their behavior. Roger said she was 70% to blame, he was 30%. But, no matter who was to blame, each had to take 100% responsibility for the part they played. Competing to determine who is most to blame leads nowhere, which is where they were then, in a relationship filled with discord and unhappiness. To change, both had to see that the degree to which any relationship is successful is directly related to the degree each partner understands and is successful in dealing with themselves. That means that each one had to take responsibility for their own negative behavior. They had to commit to eliminating any actions, whether 30% or 70%, that they saw as harmful to their marriage.
However, altering one’s behavior for one or two days isn’t sufficient. If you’ve shared a dysfunctional relationship for a period of years, you become so distrustful of your partner that you’re certain to be suspicious of any change in your partner’s behavior. Thus, if Roger came home to a loving wife who verbalized appreciation for his efforts, he’d more than likely think, “What does she want?” Similarly, if Mary experienced Roger coming home early to help with the kids or take her out for dinner because she works so hard, she’d probably think he was on drugs. What Mary and Roger needed to learn was that emotional change is a slow process requiring time, consistency of behavior and an ability to delay gratification. In their case, the result was positive. Roger learned to speak his mind without resorting to emotional overload to gain the courage to be honest. Surprisingly, Mary didn’t react negatively. Although she didn’t always agree with his opinions, she no longer felt ignored. She welcomed his openness.
So, you see, there can be a happy ending. Instead of living the rest of your life trapped in a miserable relationship, feeling unable to leave because of financial issues, or because you can’t leave your children because they need a father figure, you must learn that the problem isn’t potatoes. It’s mashed egos, resulting from every human being’s need to feel loved and appreciated. The fact that most people learned that having those needs made you weak, less manly or subservient and dependent. But that’s not true. When you ask for what you need emotionally, recognize that you have the right to those needs and that you needn’t be embarrassed by them, you become stronger. It’s then you realize that you have the inner strength to make it on your own but don’t have to, because you can also make it with your present partner, or someone else.