What You Should Do With Your List of Marital Grudges This Valentine's Day

"Both of us were completely flawed then and are completely flawed now," reflects one mother, who learned she married her husband for his potential

Before anyone is misled by the title, I want to share why I married the man I did, aside from the obvious that he asked me. I met my future husband on New Year’s Eve, nine years ago. I was a college graduate, working in a job that I loved and renting an apartment. It should have been the time of my life, being single, not having to share my income and having relatively few responsibilities. But I was incredibly anxious to get married. And not just to anybody — I wanted to find someone I could share a great love and life with.

I arrived at a point in dating that I just could not deal with the disappointment I felt again and again and again by dating the wrong guy. I had read a quote attributed to George Washington: “It is better to be alone than in bad company,” and I agreed. So I decided I would not waste my or anyone else’s time dating if I wasn’t feeling it completely. That year I felt so lonely that I often couldn’t sleep; almost every night, I could feel my heart breaking from loneliness. Nobody should ever have to feel that lonely — and yet people do it all the time. It makes me want to treat people with a little more kindness and understanding.  

Then, like an answer to a prayer, I was invited to a New Year’s Eve party. My future husband (although I didn’t know it at the time) was invited as well and although he was only in state for a few days over the holidays and I was new to the neighborhood myself, and we both got lost and had to ask for directions to even arrive at the party, we somehow managed to meet that night. Call me weird, but the first thing that attracted me to my future husband was the sound of his voice. It was so unaffected and so sincere.  He wasn’t trying to show off or be this way or that way, he just was himself and I loved him — at first sight. It didn’t hurt that he was tall, dark and handsome either. 

We were expecting our first baby the fall after we were married. We were on vacation with my family in Idaho, staying in a condo. I remember my husband and I getting into a terrible fight because we had different ideas of how to spend our vacation — mostly I was begrudging spending mine in the bathroom throwing up due to morning sickness while he got to enjoy some recreation. We were fighting like cats and dogs and I stormed out of the room, past my dad who was sharing the condo with us and plopped onto a bed and yelled as loud as I could, “He is so stupid!”  while bursting into childish tantrum-like, uncontrollable sobs. I really believed I had married the wrong one.

Admittedly, the previous months had been filled with ups and downs. And when my dad put down his newspaper, walked over to where I was sobbing and calmly asked me, “Can I help?” I considered it an invitation to open a floodgate of emotion and complaints. You see, I had been unconsciously keeping inventory of all the grievances and perceived wrongs my husband had supposedly purposely done to bug me. As I started to list them out to my dad, one by one, I got more and more animated as I talked and it seemed to me like I had, in fact, been very mistreated and I was completely justified to complain.  But my dad never spoke, at least not until I was finished. 

My dad didn’t ask for me to clarify any of my statements. He simply asked, “Are you finished?”  And not in any sort of accusing way. Then, with the clarity of someone who has loved the same woman for over 30 years, he said, “I know where this list ends. It ends with the two of you getting a divorce.” I thought to myself, What?  That’s not fair.  I don’t want a divorce, I just… But as I looked at my dad, I could see the sincerity in his face as he added, “Or, you can put this list away. Right now. And never get it out again. Start a new list. Even if you only have three positive things to say about him. Start there, and add to it as you go.” 

I don’t remember how my husband and I resolved our fight. I think we gave each other an obligatory hug and said we were sorry and that was it. And I’m not suggesting at all that we never fought again, certainly not. But I never forgot that advice from my dad. Looking back, in the light of how dearly I love my husband, I have cringed that I ever made such a list and at the thought of where I might have let that list take me, if I hadn’t decided to put it away and not get it out again. I am sure at that time in my life, I had given my husband plenty of material to make his own list of that kind, but he was too gentlemanly to give voice to such a thing.

Valentine’s Day is simply about starting a list, a list with our Valentine, and it starts with, “I love you.”

When I first fell in love with my husband, it wasn’t over a long, profound list of compatibilities. It wasn’t because he was perfect and it definitely wasn’t because I was perfect and ready for marriage. Both of us were completely flawed then and are completely flawed now. It was the short list that attracted me to him, the simple things like the fact that we shared a mutual attraction, that it gave me then and still gives me butterflies when he winks at me, that he was kind then as he is kind now. And his sincerity, honesty and willingness to work hard at the good things that truly matter in life. 

Valentine’s Day shouldn’t be about the emotional roller coaster that we love to watch in a romantic chick flick, nor about the hyper-sexualized messages we internalize from media and advertising this time of year. Valentine’s Day is simply about starting a list, a list with our Valentine, and it starts with, “I love you.” I love the way you keep me company while watching TV. I love the way you do the dishes for me even if you’d rather rest. I love the way you talk to our children. I love the way you help with homework.  I love the way you hug me. And I love the way you forgive me and let me try again.

Our list, if we let it, will never end and will go on and on throughout our life and that is what makes a relationship flower. That is how to make real, lasting love and how to make love last. Not to say there isn’t passion, because there is. And not to say there aren't disagreements, because there are. But to say that nurturing a relationship is a choice: choosing to exaggerate the best in your partner and not draw attention to the worst, when it is possible not to do so. Loving your partner for his potential and encouraging him to reach it at every opportunity. The alternative is hen-pecking one another to death, until both hearts are so hardened that no room is given for “I love you.” 

Occasionally, the bad list comes out for a review. I don’t think the bad list ever goes away completely; at least it hasn’t for me. It’s always tucked back in my memory and comes out at the slightest invitation to do so to stir up trouble. The only way to treat the bad list is to silence it. Don’t feed it. Don’t pay it any attention. Replace it with something from the good list. And hug it out. Always hug it out. I have found that the bad list has zero tolerance for hugs, and even less so for kisses. 

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