When my children were babies, my husband was finishing up his residency program at the Hospital for Sick Children. His barbaric schedule frequently placed him on call for thirty-six hours straight, returning home for twelve hours before starting another long shift. Because he was so sleep-deprived, I felt no resentment about being the one to get up with the babies. It was only fair.
Then came that blissful month when Keith was on an adolescent medicine rotation. No call! We decided that we would divide the middle-of-the-night responsibilities 50/50. I was ecstatic.
On Keith’s first baby shift, I woke up to Rebecca’s cries, but Keith just lay there like a stone. I shook him. “It’s your turn, honey.” But that man would not wake up. Finally, I climbed out of bed myself, went to the telephone, and called the hospital. A few seconds later Keith’s pager went off and he was up like a rocket. He dialed in to switchboard, only to hear the woman on the other end tell him, “Go get your baby. She’s crying.”
Keith had trained himself to hear pagers, but everything else went over his head. It’s not so surprising, really. We humans can’t pay attention to everything, so we tend to notice those things which we deem most important. This trait starts in childhood, when we try to make sense of the world around us. Little children learn to call four legged yappy creatures with fur “doggies”, whether they are Chihuahuas or Great Danes. Two legged creatures with beaks and wings are “birdies”, whether they’re Canada geese or sparrows. Kids see the similarities, and disregard the differences.
When you’re eighteen months old and trying to figure out what a “kitty” is, that’s not a bad strategy. Unfortunately, we often carry this habit into our relationships, selectively noticing the things that reinforce what we already believe. Two legged creatures in skirts who share our homes are nagging wives who never notice anything good their husbands do. Two legged creatures with beards who make permanent indents in the couch while expecting the female to cook them dinner are lazy, ungrateful husbands.
We may not notice when that same lazy, good for nothing bearded excuse for a man tells us we look pretty today, because we’re used to being mad at him. We see the negative, because it conforms to what we already expect.
Often relationships get into these negative cycles because you’re genuinely hurt by something your spouse, or your mother, or your brother has done. You haven’t resolved that hurt, and so everything is now seen through that lens. All those little foibles that didn’t used to bug you now start driving you crazy.
After my column last week on ballroom dancing, a friend wrote to tell me how he and his wife broke their cycle of negativity. They started taking dance lessons once a week, too, and a miracle happened. As they struggled to learn the steps, they were forced out of their comfort zone. They learned and experienced something new together. But most importantly, they started to laugh. And when you laugh, all those bad feelings seem to not matter quite so much. Instead of rehashing their negative past, they just started enjoying themselves in the present.
We often forget how important simply having fun together can be, especially when our daily life gets so busy and overwhelming. Next time you find yourself constantly mad at someone, and bothered by just about everything they do, break the cycle. Look for the exceptions. Do something unexpected. Most importantly, try adding some laughter. You just may find that those good things you used to love are still there after all.