Before my husband and I got married, we had an understanding that he would lead in the marriage, and I would submit.
Now, before you have a chance to protest at such archaic thinking, let me explain what I mean.
For my husband, it meant that he would agree to put aside his natural tendency for the taciturn, and lead the way in fun and adventure. For me, it meant that I would submit my garrulous nature to a peaceful calm so my husband could occasionally get a word in edgewise.
At the beginning of our relationship we did well. We were very careful to respect these ideals and respect each other. I made an effort to give him space and let him make decisions at his own pace, even when it felt like he wasn’t leading the way at all. He made an effort to be patient with my stream of words – even when that meant accepting a diatribe of complaint without defending himself. How sweet was our conscious love in action.
But now that we’ve been married awhile, we find that we’re slipping in our resolve. Our true colors are coming out.
The funniest advice I had before my wedding came from another American woman who was married to a Frenchman. “Always have bread in the house,” she said. “Even if you think you have bread, but you’re not sure – buy some just to be safe.” A Frenchman, she explained, cannot have a meal without a piece of bread by his plate. (This turned out to be true, by the way).
I laughed along with everyone else at the wedding shower, but I didn’t really feel like I needed cross-cultural advice – or even that I was marrying someone from another culture at all. Our hearts were so complementary, and our personalities so well-matched, I hardly gave thought to the fact that a decade earlier, neither one of us would have been able to understand the other’s speech.
Other bi-cultural couples had it tougher, I mused. I knew of another Anglo-French couple who almost didn’t get married because of communication troubles. When they were discussing the possibility of children, and she (an English speaker) said she wanted them “éventuellement” (communicating this in French), the word didn’t mean eventually, as she thought. The word meant possibly. We’ll see.
Her French husband didn’t want to marry someone who was not entirely convinced of her desire for a family, and it took lots of back-and-forth negotiation for them to realize they actually wanted the same thing. It was just lost in the translation.
They were not as lucky in their communication as we were. Or so I thought.
This October, my husband and I will celebrate fourteen years of marriage. And after all this time, we are starting to understand that communicating across the cultures is not as simple as we had once thought, especially when it comes to the mundane rather than the milestones. Fluency requires work, and patience, and understanding. But it’s not the work of communicating between the French and the American counterparts of our marriage that we are grappling with – it’s the work of communicating between the male and the female. Because – it turns out – men and women are entirely different races of people.
This past week we stayed in the Swiss Alps. We were there to bring my daughter to her pre-teen camp with the church, and to vacation onsite with our younger sons. It was beautiful – magnificent – with double rainbows, and golden eagles soaring against the blue sky, snow-capped mountains, and purple wildflowers set on green hills. There were even cows everywhere we went, with clanging bells fastened around their necks.
The vista was magnificent, but truth be told, we were grouchy.
It came to a head when we were sitting on the park bench by the pool, watching our two boys splash and play. I started openly wondering when he was finally going to get around to doing our budget, and looking over the details the contractor had sent about repairing our roof.
And so he left – ostensibly to work on the budget right at that very minute – but really just to escape my rant. I stayed behind to watch our children play, smug in my own righteousness. Both of us were miserable.
It was only later that we were able to articulate the thoughts and feelings that lay beneath our foreign ways.
Me: I’m sorry that we’re fighting. When I said there was no point to us just sitting there side by side and not talking, I didn’t mean that you had to go and do the budget right then and there. I was thinking you could take a walk or something. But, I have to say … I just don’t understand why you don’t work on it now, knowing that the minute you get back, you’re going to be swamped with work.
Him: Well, I don’t have the same expectations that you have. I was happy with how much I’ve done on the budget already. It was never my plan to finish it this week. My only expectation for this week was to enjoy the vacation with my family, and do fun things together.
Me: Okay. But I still can’t relate to your way of thinking. You spend all your down-time watching videos on your iPhone instead of using that time more wisely. Your work is so consuming – you’re never going to have time to do all this when we get back. You’ll get sucked right back in and be too tired.
(continuing) And so I feel like I’m the one who is expected to make all the concessions. I’m the one who has to cut back on spending, but you can take your own sweet time and do the budget whenever you feel like it. You don’t have to make any changes in your life at all, and that makes me mad.
Him: I have to make changes too. But when you’re constantly telling me what to do, it honestly doesn’t really motivate me to spend all my free time doing the budget. I can’t give you the size of the house you want, and I can’t give you all the things you want because we simply don’t have the money. So I feel like I’m not good enough for you, and that hardly makes me want to spend all my free time doing what you tell me.
Me: Okay, I’m sorry about making you feel that way, and it’s not how I feel about you at all. But – you retreat into this cave, and I’m lonely when you’re in your own world. You’re escaping online, and laughing at the failed ice bucket challenges. And meanwhile, I’m the one who has to discipline the kids and think about what we’re going to do next. When you don’t lead, then I have to. And that makes me mad – and more aggressive when I talk to you.
Him: Alright, we probably shouldn’t call it my ‘cave.’ The truth is, I need to process things. I don’t like to rush into decision-making. And this is getting to be a vicious circle for us, because the more aggressive you are with me, the more I need time away to process things. And the more I feel like I don’t live up to your expectations, the harder it is for me to engage. And so I shut you out.
Me (thoughtfully): And then I feel lonely and I get more aggressive. So I guess we each need to be aware of what triggers the other person so that we don’t keep going in the same circle.
Him (with a half-smile): And I should probably take a walk to process things, and not try to process them while watching videos in the same room as the family – there, but not really there. *
This was how our conversation looked after fourteen years of marriage – fourteen years of learning how to express what our body language and words mean. The discussion continued from there with some suggestions (from me) to increase the amount of hugs, and (from him) to be vulnerable and share what I’m feeling, rather than giving orders in an aggressive tone. In this particular knot of misunderstanding, we’ve translated the other person’s language, and we’ve reached an understanding. And now we’re good. We’re at peace until the next knot.
It takes time to become fluent in a cross-cultural marriage … even for such well-matched personalities, and complementary hearts as ours.
* With special thanks to my awesome husband, who allowed me to put such personal dialogue in a public forum, when the dialogue was to neither of our credit. 😉