What I’ve learned in marriage: to give sometimes

Once upon a time, in our early years of sharing a name and a home, Ryan and I concocted the Ultimate Telling Question about marriage.

Let’s say that the mister and missus are going outside to dig in the yard. Maybe she needs a new flowerbed, or maybe the septic system is acting up again. One of their two shovels is a little unwieldy; the other is the perfect size, strong and reliable, with a comfortable handle grip.

WHO GETS THE BETTER SHOVEL?

We came at this point to an impasse, because in our families of origin the answer was obvious. And opposite.

In Ryan’s family, his mother would have offered the better shovel to her husband (of course!), because he is the king of their castle. She is a helper well suited to her husband, coming alongside him in his work. In my family, my dad would have offered the better shovel to his wife (of course!), because he is a gentleman. He treats his lady with deference, showing honor to her as the weaker vessel. Both families have a strong Scriptural precedent on their side.

Did you know that men and women can come to marriage with very different expectations? And that the longer they are held, the touchier they become? It got to the place that Ryan couldn’t stick his head in the door to ask for a drink of water without me feeling put upon and treated like a doormat.

Sometimes we wonder what would have happened if the Coblentz half of our marriage had been masculine and the Zook half had been feminine. We might have had the most mutually sacrificial, boring marriage in the history of ever; except we’re human too, and we’d have managed to mess it up somehow.

But listen now – The most important phrase in that whole scenario is the one most easily overlooked. I said one of the spouses “would have offered.” With joy. Would have come into the situation with the expectation of giving. The longer we looked at that posture, the more beautiful it became, and we both wanted a share in it. Happiness came to this Zook-and-Coblentz-match-of-differing-expectations when we decided that in our marriage, it would go either way. Many couples have found harmony on one side of the question or the other, including our beautiful parents – but for us, there would be no “of course.” In the most extreme sense: I don’t have to kowtow to a heap big man; he doesn’t have to indulge a queen. We are heirs together of the grace of life.

These days, sometimes he offers me the better shovel and sometimes I offer it to him (though I often suspect I’m getting the better end of the deal). It’s sort of funny now.


Ryan and I have a deep respect and gratitude for all four of our parents. Each set has grown in love together for 45 years – a miraculous and incredible legacy.

Date night conversation starters

I am aware that for every one of you who said “refreshing” on my last post, there were probably three or four who thought “alarming.” So thank you for being gentle. I’m not brewing up any more of it at the moment, and I wasn’t saying that doubt is a thing to be glorified or sought out. It comes, that’s all. And Jesus is still good.


Confession: After you’ve been married a few years, it’s easy to go on dates and talk about nothing but issues. You know. What are we going to do about this, how could we fix that, what about the kids.

This time The Boss and I planned ahead to just enjoy each other, not dive into decision making, problem solving, or task scheduling. I put some questions in a jar for us to draw from, to get our thinking going. There’s still so much to learn and to love about this boy I married.

What are a few things you would enjoy being asked to do?

What do you fear happening to our family?

Do you wish I would ____________?

What are you praying for?

What’s a story of something you did in childhood with a sibling – a story I haven’t heard yet?

What are your favorite things about us?

If you had a chance to do one piece of your life over, what would it be?

What’s the most ridiculous thing you did as a teenager?

Who are your closest friends? What friendship would you like to grow?

What’s your earliest memory?

Can you describe each of our children in three words?

If this was our last night together, what would you really want me to know?

We had our date last evening, since that’s what worked for us. Tonight is a fancy shrimp dinner with our kiddos, complete with goblets and place cards. I might recycle some of the questions and see what they would answer. A little dangerous, I know, especially “What’s a story of something you did in childhood with a sibling – a story I haven’t heard yet?” Do I even want that information?

I’m not a person who gushes about the people dearest to me. But I love this man more than anything else in the world, and considering how I feel about chocolate and children, that’s saying a lot.

And – Since I can’t share Ferrero Rocher online, here’s a readable gift for each of you. I think it’s the sweetest love story I’ve ever read, and I want to be just like them when I grow up. {From the Washington Post: A 73-Year Union}

Happy Valentine’s Day!


{Here’s a printable version if you want it – Date Night Questions.}

When talking with women

No, I haven’t forgotten. And yes, I offered the opportunity of writing this post to my husband, who laughed out loud.

“No, really,” I said, “would you?”

“I know better than that!” he said.

So I waited.

Two days later I asked him again. He looked startled and said “Goodness, when?” Which being interpreted is, “I would be so delighted to do this thing for you, my dear, truly I would. But as you know, I am much occupied in the winning of bread and the performing of other manly offices. You go right ahead: I believe in you.”

At least, I’m sure it went something like that…

*****

coffee

When talking with women

1. Say a lot

If the rule for women is 49%, the rule for men must be 210%. Which means, you say what you’re thinking—like open your mouth and let it all out—and then look deeply into her eyes and lower your voice and say it all again in slightly different words, gently. Adding a little extra that you thought of during the second go.

You see, when you don’t say what you’re thinking she thinks about what you’re thinking, and 99% of the time she ramps it too high, too dark, too horrible. What you say is less viral than what you don’t say. But please. For your own sake as well as hers, say it

2. Carefully.

I don’t mean to be rude, and I’m making a point of saying that you men are good at many things—if the world depended on me to pound nails and build websites and grow beards and stuff we’d all be dead by now—but really? the subtle cue thing is a little lost on you.

Kronk described it well: “the Cold Shoulder, the Frenzied Eyebrow, the Grimace of Doom, the Sneer of Despair, the Crippling Wince of Guilt, the Scowl of Impending Wrath, and worst of all, the Nostril Flare of Total Rejection.”

Little things like that. It’s important to stay tuned, men, or honestly? You’ll never know what hit you. Even though she gave you fair warning.

3. Ask questions.

I am probably betraying my half of the species by admitting it, but women love questions. Not “Where’d you get this cut of meat and how much did you pay for it and did you remember to fill the car with gas?” but “How was your day? Are things going better with that friendship you talked about last week? What do you think about…?”

When the words “Talk to me, hon. What are you feeling?” come out of your mouth, you achieve instant hero status. Her whole world lights up.

And in the end, if this is all too tall an order and too hot a minefield, do this little thing:

4. Listen well.

Look into her eyes, lay down the paper or the laptop or the smartphone at least for a time, and make sympathetic noises. Grunts are good. Chuckles. Sighs. {Just no farts or hiccups, por favor.}

This will please her. She will go away thinking what a great conversationalist you are.

*****

So then… after my husband said No, he produced this brilliance:

  • Listen much. Talk little.*
  • Your wife can’t read your mind. Surprise, surprise.
  • “I’m sorry” is not an admission of guilt. Unless you are. Then it is.
  • You both lose arguments unless you’re on the same team.
  • Listen when she talks. Then listen when you talk.
  • If you’re in deep doodoo, stop digging.

* No, this is not the same viewpoint as the one his wife expressed above. I’m leaving it in, with a disclaimer—unlike his last point, which I struck from the record entirely: something about “if you have something difficult to say and you don’t know how to say it—don’t.” Utter poppycock. Well, well. You see we are still under construction.

In short, good luck to you boys: you will need it. May your race increase.

*****

I am not sure if any of this is true. Persons of either gender should feel free to amend and correct. I should, however, like to state for the sake of anyone who is in doubt that I am madly in love with my husband.

And as always… But Of Course There Are Obvious Exceptions. You may be one: in which case you may x this window and say “That woman does not have a clue what she’s talking about.” You would be quite right. Although I would prefer that you’d say it to my face. Twice over. Gently.

The fifth suggestion

I forgot one crucial piece I was going to mention about communicating with men.

5. Round up.

Not like a cowboy, like a mathematician. He means well, it just sounds different in manspeak. Round it up to the closest equivalent.

 Hm. = I’m listening, keep talking.
 Aw. = You poor dear girl, I can only imagine how awful that must have been!
 Wow. = You’re a crazy gorgeous lady and I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you. You stun me.
 Um. = I feel uncertain of what to say at the moment, but rest assured I care, and will be thinking over my answer. {For the next ten years.}
 Hiccup. = Enough said. Go make me a sandwich.

 

When talking with men

Let me be clear on this: when I am most mocking and piquant about my husband, it’s a sign we’re having fun. When I start writing serious blog posts entitled Thirty Days of Honor, you can bet we’re not doing so well. Ultimate low point of our marriage, right there. Take my word for it; you won’t get any details. Now–where was I? Ah yes. Mocking.

*****

We’ve all been in this conversation, haven’t we?

whistling

The day you bring him a concern and he sits there and looks at you. The day you realize that the thing you asked him for a year ago has been sitting in the basement all this time. The day you ask him a question and he walks out of the room. The day you complain of shooting pains in your wrist and he says calmly, “It’s probably repetitive stress injury” and goes on typing.

(You think I’m making this up? My imagination’s not that good… true stuff, ya’ll.)

It’s a great story. It’s a pressing issue. It’s an urgent question, for Pete’s sake. And yet he is unmoved.

Are all men like this?

Sometimes I say to him, “Talk to me!” This occurs when I have been immersed in juvenile conversations all day and am desperate for words longer than one syllable; or when I have been talking too long and I know I won’t shut up unless someone else starts vocalizing; or when he is making enigmatic faces and it’s stressing me out.

whistling

Early in marriage, my husband taught me a few rules of basic marital English.

  1. Be as direct as possible already! Don’t make me guess where you’re going.
  2. Use words that start with w, not c. “Would you/ Will you?” not “Could you/ Can you?” that seem to challenge my ability.
  3. Don’t give me a task list when I’m rushed with other things.
  4. Don’t pepper me with questions!

Let me be clear on this: I was raised by a marriage counselor. When I hound this boy, I do it with style.

But sometimes, just to show off, I humor him. He comes home from the fire call or the pastoral meeting or the boy expedition and I think of the fifty-nine things I want to ask him. I think of them all, individually, and then carefully I compact them into one well-worded, all-encompassing, leading, invitational question. “How was it, honey?”

“Good,” he says.*

And exits.

{Shari rushes out of doors to slay something inanimate before she starts hurling china at living organisms.}

* {And perhaps this is unfair. If he’s had a Coke or two to loosen his tongue he may say “Really good.”}

yelling

Here are my (brief) suggestions for communicating (briefly) with men. Some of them may be my father’s, who has forgotten more on this topic than anyone else ever knew.

1. Say less.

A wise friend of mine advises speaking 49% of what you really want to say.

2. Wait.

Men’s ears are like gardens: you put in the seed and then you wait for a while. A long while. He may have every intention of coming around, but he won’t be rushed. The idea has to take root.

3. Say it one more time.

Occasionally, he actually forgets. If so, he will have only hazy memories of your initial conversation, and will not realize you are repeating yourself. Just don’t do it a third time. (He’ll think it’s the second.) That’s so beyond the pale, way out into the nagging camp.

4. Let it go his way.

I’m not advocating being a doormat. Believe me. In the Wifely Olympics I won the prize for Least Like a Doormat so many years running they won’t even let me participate anymore. But—

It’s a good day to remember that eleven years ago, or however many it was, you made a promise that it was going to be all about this man until the day you die. And he’s not the only one with faults.

And some days, magically, you’ll get it just right.

listening

*****

All photos in this post were captured, not staged–and taken by my talented friend Shaunda Stoltzfus. Featuring her son and my daughter.

Coming up sometime, probably: “When Talking with Women.”