Todd and I talked about this on Zen Parenting Radio last week, but I felt it necessitated a longer explanation.
As women we can laugh about needing to be asked 10 times if we are OK - we identify with it, we normalize it, and we validate other women when they do it.
But the best thing we can do is learn from it.
When a man asks if you are OK, he wants to know if you are OK. He is noticing that you are different or seem annoyed, so he asks how you are.
And you respond “fine”. So he takes you at your word. Men don’t really beat around the bush with each other - they say what they are thinking, so he expects you to do the same.
But you get mad. You think he should do more. You think he should ask a different way. You think he should just “know”. This seems rational to you, but it’s irrational to him.
I know this because I used to do it all the time. My husband would ask if I was OK and I would tell him I was fine, but I wasn’t. Then I would get mad when he didn’t ask again or maybe even say he didn’t care or didn’t love me enough.
But the truth is that I didn’t love me enough. I am the one who didn’t speak the truth. I am the one who acted passive aggressive instead of honest and brave. I am the one who created my suffering.
This kind of suffering is two-fold – I suffer when I don’t say what I really want to say, and I suffer when I don’t feel understood. I can’t guarantee that someone will understand and empathize with me, but I can’t expect anything until I speak honestly.
Many women my age (and generations before) have difficulty saying what they mean because we were taught to people please. We were taught that frustration is unbecoming, irrational, dramatic, or unkind. We were taught, through words and actions, that we might not be liked if we showed anger, sadness, or any other negative emotion.
We were taught to be nice, to be good, to be agreeable, and to put others first. We were taught to suck it up for the sake of everyone else, and to push our true feelings aside.
That’s why it was difficult for me to say what I was really feeling. I would get angry and then immediately fear rejection for being angry. Will he think I am disagreeable? Will he think I am “high maintenance”? Will he think I am annoying, dramatic, or god forbid, unlovable?
But I had to take a risk and break the passive aggressive habit. I had to be brave enough to share what I was feeling. I was tired of suffering.
At first I told my husband to just keep asking me until I was able to say the truth (this didn’t really make sense to him, but he obliged).
And pretty quickly he only needed to ask five times, then three times, then one time, and then finally he didn’t need to ask me at all.
I would go to him when I was disappointed, confused or hurt. Instead of wallowing in it and waiting for him to notice, I would tell him that I needed to share how I was feeling and he would listen. And then it was over.
So instead of blaming my husband for everything and criticizing him for not “getting me”, I helped him understand.
That’s what I did to help myself, but my husband had to do his part, too. He needed to hear me. He needed to have enough patience and understanding to really listen.
And this wasn’t necessarily easy for him because we are different. What I feel and experience doesn’t completely make sense to him and vice versa. But that’s the point of partnership or friendship – to grow and learn from each other. To slow down, to listen, and to empathize, even when it doesn’t completely make sense.
My husband could just stay stuck and say, “I don’t get women”.
Or he could be patient and really get to know a woman.
He could put down his defenses and his need to be right and realize that I’m looking for the same thing he is looking for – love and validation.
And validation doesn’t mean full agreement or allowing me to “win”. He doesn’t have to give in or agree with everything I say. He just needs to hear me, see me, trust me, and accept me as I am.
But to do that, I need to do my part. I have to speak. I have to say how I feel and be vulnerable enough to state my insecurities and fears.
That is what love and intimacy is all about.
That's why a spouse, friend, or even a child is a great spiritual teacher - because we love them enough to look at ourselves and take ownership for our actions and issues. They inspire us to go beyond habits and comfort and take responsibility for what we bring to the relationship.
Have I mastered speaking my mind and sharing my vulnerabilities? No. But I practice every day. Sometimes I fall back into old habits, because I would rather be comfortable.
But eventually I notice – and I do my best to get real and start over.
I don’t want to suffer. And I don’t want to cause suffering to the people I love the most.