Jenna felt that she was doing almost all of the housework, and that Clayton expected to be pampered. She was angry that he spent so much time with the guys, playing ball, watching the games, and hanging out. She didn’t feel that Clayton made decisions with her, but more often than not decided things on his own. But she was too frightened to bring these issues up directly to Clayton. Jenna spent a lot of time complaining about Clayton to her women friends. Her friends were supportive offering stories that reaffirmed their shared beliefs about how they were all victimized by their selfish, immature, and insensitive men. “They all just want it their way. Men are so selfish. Men are egoed out, so self-centered. They are such little boys. They don’t have a clue.”
Such comments were commonplace in their private conversations. There wasn’t a single time when a friend was responsible in her level of support and said anything like, “I think you should talk that over with Clayton and straighten it out.” All this so-called support kept their marriage stuck.
Jenna’s sister-in-law was present at one of the women’s bashing fests. Out of concern for both Clayton and Jenna, she told her husband about the remarks Jenna had made about Clayton being selfish. Clayton’s brother called Clayton and repeated what he had heard. “Your wife calls you a selfish, uncaring jerk who takes her for granted. Is this true about you? What’s up? Are you two having trouble?” As soon as he could recover from the shock of this news, Clayton said, “I thought things were going along just fine. I’m making every effort to be a good husband. I had better see if there is something going on I don’t know about.”
He immediately went to confront his wife. He wasn’t angry as much as bewildered and hurt. “What is this I hear? Are you talking trash about me to your friends about my being a lousy husband? Is that what you really think of me? Do you think I’m a lousy, selfish husband?”
When he confronted her, she could see how hurt he was. She didn’t deny his accusations. She felt like a coward for spreading terrible, exaggerated judgments. She didn’t get defensive. In an instant, Jenna realized that she had been playing out the same pattern that she had seen in her own family growing up. Her mom had repeatedly spoken to her and whoever else would listen about what a disappointment her dad had been. Jenna remembered how awkward she had felt hearing her father discredited. She remembered how desperately she had wished that they would speak to each other and work out their problems and not tell her about them. She was just a little girl and couldn’t fix these adult problems.
She told Clayton the truth. “I feel terrible. I feel so guilty about talking behind your back. I’ve been thoughtless and unfair. I hope that one day you will forgive me for talking badly about you. I will break this old pattern. You’ll see.” And, true to her word, as soon as she noticed herself tempted to begin speaking to her women friends in a derogatory way about him, she made a mental note to go to him at the first possible moment. She drew up her courage to speak directly to him. She told him about how exploited she felt, being in charge of all the housework, and that they had to work out an agreement around shopping, cooking, dishes, vacuuming, and laundry. She spoke honestly about wanting to be reassured that she was as important to him as his guy friends. When she met with the fear and resistance inside herself, she noticed the urge to slide back into her old complaining habit. But she was unwilling to repeat the past and settle for the broken-down wreck of a marriage that her parents had lived in.
Several conversations were required to establish new habits. But most of their thorny dilemmas eventually did get worked out. Even though some of the discussions were heated and difficult, at least Jenna no longer felt like a dirty sneak. Over time, there was nothing that was off-limits to speak about. These days, neither of them can bear withholding strong feelings, good or bad, for even short periods of time, and they always go first to each other when there’s something to say. Once Jenna stopped complaining to her friends, she didn’t hear them complaining so much anymore either. Maybe they got the message too.