Stop trying to fix everything!

P1030639I know better. I really do!  ”Stop trying to fix everything!” “I just wanted you to listen!” I’ve heard it plenty of times. I’ve heard it as advice from people I respect. I’ve read it in books I trust. I’ve even seen it as good advice in movies that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.  But for some reason I fall into the trap again and again of making it my responsibility to immediately fix any problem my wife is sharing with me.

Maybe it’s just a natural tendency for most men. But when my wife is having a hard time with something and is letting me know, either by telling me or by demonstrating with her attitude and actions, my natural response is to try to immediately “solve” whatever problem happens to be upsetting her. If she’s frustrated with not having enough room to store everything, my natural response is to feel bad, apologize for not providing her with a place with more storage space, and throw myself into my work and every occupation which could potentially bring in more money to afford a bigger place. When she’s agitated because her computer is acting up, I want to shove her away from it and work on it and buy all the parts I can to upgrade it until it’s working flawlessly. When someone wrongs her and she’s hurting, I want to destroy them.

All of these are extreme, I know, and thankfully I don’t usually follow through on what my natural response would be. But it gets more complicated. What about when she’s not happy with the way the world works? What about when she doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror? What about when what’s frustrating her is herself?

These are things I have relatively little control over. I’m not capable of “fixing” the world. I can tell her and show her that she’s absolutely gorgeous and perfect in every way to me; but deep down I can’t change how she sees and feels about herself at any given moment. And what if her problem is herself? That’s not exactly a problem I can “solve” now is it?

And so when those things happen, since my natural response is to put on an intensified version of her frustration and add to it a strong compulsion to make that frustration end, it’s easy for me to get frustrated with her.

This happened just a couple of weeks ago.  In an effort to lose some weight and get more healthy, my wife was doing a 24 day challenge to help jump-start our new healthy lifestyle. We ate a lot more vegetables and whole grains, avoided eating too many carbohydrates and pretty much all fried foods; and she stopped drinking any sodas and started drinking lots of water. It was going really well. We were feeling better and honestly not having a hard time with it most of the time.  Overall we were actually enjoying it.

But one day, my wife did have a hard time with it.  She desperately wanted her frappuccino, but couldn’t justify the calories. And then she wanted Panera for lunch, but even though it seems like a healthy place to eat, nearly every meal is at least 700 calories.  So she ended up breaking down in tears, frustrated and angry that everything is so full of calories and so much of the food she likes to eat is unhealthy.

I started out alright, I think, encouraging her that she was doing great, that she was seeing great results, and that she’d done so great the past 21 days.  But since that didn’t “fix” the problem that I saw (her being upset), my response quickly degenerated into annoyance, and be essentially telling her that if she wasn’t going to be happy not eating  Panera Bread or wherever that we should just eat there and that it wasn’t worth her hating her life and making people miserable just to lose some weight.  This was both harsh and cruel of me, and showed no love, and I am ashamed that I reacted this way.  But even though I felt like she was being unreasonable, her response to my frustration was both reasonable and humbling.

In response, she just stated very plainly. “Raymond, it’s okay! I’m fine! I’m not miserable. I’ve been happy — extra happy even — for 3 weeks and I’ll get through this. I’m not asking you to fix anything, I’m just having a hard time right now.”

Boom. There it was again. “Stop trying to fix everything!”

My first thought was, I just told you that you hadn’t been miserable and were fine and you weren’t listening! But as I thought about it more, I realized that the entire time I’d still been trying to fix things.  She knew what I was telling her. She hadn’t gone crazy. She even knew that her reaction wasn’t necessarily proportionate to the things troubling her. She was just struggling because how she felt and what she knew in her mind to be true weren’t in line with each other.  And I should have been there to help her with that, by listening to everything she said, doing my best to empathize with how she was feeling, and finding what areas I could encourage her in. Instead, I told her what she already knew and got annoyed that she was still upset. And in doing that, I probably caused even more emotional instability.

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In general, the struggles my wife has aren’t caused by me or the things I have a perceived amount of control over.  They are things like this where her emotions and what she’s feeling don’t match up with what she knows in her mind. Times when what she feels challenges what she knows in her mind. They are times of frustration, insecurity, vulnerability, and sometimes doubt. The funny thing about “I didn’t want you to fix anything. I just wanted you to listen.” is that I often interpret that as, “The way to fix it is to listen.”  I try to use listening as my first method to fix whatever I see as the problem, and then move on to something else if the “problem” isn’t resolved. But I believe I err greatly and miss the point when I do this. I believe that all of those things will always be frustrating to me and destructive to both of us if I approach those feelings as a problem and make it my goal to fix that “problem”.

But if that’s true, what am I supposed to do?

I believe it starts with changing the way I look at my wife’s struggles. And I believe that starts with recognizing that I am not responsible for solving my wife’s inner struggles, nor am I capable of doing so. That’s God’s job. My job as her husband is to love her like God does — to put her above myself and serve her. I am responsible for guiding her and being the leader God has called me to be, but I do that by loving her and serving her and focusing on what’s best for her. I do that by teaching her God’s love and truth not only in my words but in who I am to her. And when I approach her problems this way instead of looking for a quick way to make them go away and stop inconveniencing me, then instead of creating tension, they can create times of deep intimacy for us as husband and wife.  Because of the trust we’ve built up together, these are times when she can bare her soul to me and break down in front of me, and know that in her brokenness she is loved, cared for, and valued beyond measure.  They are times when I can be Christ to her.

I would like to note that there are sometimes problems that we can do something about.  If your wife is sharing with you how important it is for the bedroom floor to stay clean and how much it hurts her that you don’t seem to recognize or care about that, then by all means, stop throwing your clothes on the floor and do what you can to show her love by caring about what she cares about — keeping the bedroom floor clean.  But my fellow men, if you’ve been pulling your hair out trying  to make your wife stop getting bent out of shape because her friends aren’t perfect, or you get really uncomfortable every time she vents about her job or the house or the internet going down, then I challenge you to take a step back and examine what’s really going on. Venting isn’t complaining and neither one makes you responsible. So stop trying to fix the problems with your own power. Instead, thank God for the privilege and opportunity to be someone she can share with, and be Christ to her by showing her His love at all times. And look to Him in prayer to repair anything that really is broken.

The Car Wash

My wife had been mentioning that she needed to wash her car for many months, so this afternoon after getting home from a Haitian market at our church, I decided to finally see about washing it for her.  The day was lovely, and I had nothing pressing to do, so while she gathered our mass of Christmas gifts around her to start wrapping, I gathered my supplies.  A couple of rags, a duster, some paper towels, and some Windex.  I figured I’d dust the interior, clean the spills in the cup holder, and wash the windows. I didn’t particularly feel like getting out again, so was still debating rather to take a quick trip to the car wash or not.

Dirty Car

My cleanliness standards for my car.

I was excited though, and couldn’t help but smile to myself, thinking how pleased and surprised she’d be to have her car cleaned! I didn’t figure she’d notice what I was doing. She was already streaming the 96th episode of Medium from Netflix and focusing intently on sizing up gifts and determining which wrapping paper would match their receiver best, so I was a little disappointed when my surprise was ruined by her taking note of my supplies and asking what I was up to.

“I’m going to clean out your car!” I replied, anticipating her delight and the beautiful smile that comes with it.  But instead what I got was a big list of things to do to make sure the car was clean enough.  She wanted me to use lots of Armor All on everything — especially the steering wheel — and proceeded to give me instructions for how to coat everything in it and explain how much she likes the feel it gives the steering wheel and how it makes everything shiny.

So I grabbed the Armor All and headed outside, slightly irritated that my surprise had been spoiled and that she was so particular about how she wanted me to do everything when, in my mind, she should have just been delighted that I was doing it for her, even if I did a bad job.  But my irritation soon became secondary, and I got to work dusting everything, cleaning out the cup holders, washing the interior of the windows, and then coating the dash and every piece of dark grey plastic with Armor All. The instructions suggested using 3 coats for the first time, so I figured if a shiny slick interior was what she wanted, I’d give her the shiniest, slickest interior I could manage.  It also said not to use on the steering wheel to prevent the possibility of it making your hands slip, but since it’s not that slick and the steering wheel was important to her, I rubbed it on anyway.

I had to admit to myself that the Armor All was making a huge difference in how clean the car looked and felt, so I decided to go the extra mile (literally) and run by some gas station with a vacuum cleaner real quick to clean out the floor boards. I ran up stairs real quick to grab some quarters and to let her know I was running out to use a vacuum cleaner.  And again, instead of delight she started to tell me to make sure to get under the rugs, and say that if I washed it to wipe off the wheels, because that makes it look a lot better.

Again irritated, I kissed her goodbye and headed down the road.  And then at last it dawned on me how foolish I was being, and I realized an important fact.  All those tips she’d been giving me? Those were exactly what I should have been looking for from her — even prompting her for.  There was a secret way to clean her car that would be more special, be more important, be more noticeable to her, and show her more love than any other way, and in every one of her “annoying” tips, she was giving me a key to unlocking that secret. Like a map leading to hidden treasure, she was giving me directions for how to give her the biggest pile of gold.

The story does have a happy ending, by the way. I realized all this while driving, and went a few extra miles to the nicest car wash in town. I got the full deal where they spray your tires to make them shiny and everything. I wiped the dirt off the wheels that the car wash couldn’t get and vacuumed every inch of the floor and mats. I threw out every bit of trash I could find, and in the end I couldn’t help but be proud of making it the cleanest car I’d ever cleaned. And my wife? She was delighted and her face lit up with that beautiful smile that comes with her delight.

Clean Car

The clean car, shiny steering wheel and all.

Clean Car

The clean car again. (Taken days later)

So dear readers, don’t make the same mistake I made! If you really want to do a service for your partner, instead of resenting when your partner gives tips on how to do it, search for those tips, and learn from them how to show your love in the way that is most meaningful to them.