Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mountains and Molehills, a marital tale

We had a marital breakthrough this weekend. Please adjust your expectations if you are anticipating something huge. For us however, it was monumental.

Last year for Christmas, I was gifted the most amazing handmade giant cork board for my kids' art. My brother-in-law modeled it after this one created by some of my favorite home designers at Young House Love. The cork board resided un-hung and propped up against the wall in our bonus room for approximately 343 days, not that anyone was keeping track or anything. Eventually, after it capsized upon and literally took out a toddling one year old neighbor boy (who was over for the first time ever and who's mother I was hoping to befriend!!!), I resorted to storing the thing behind our large bookshelf lest it fall upon any further children.

Over the course of the year, I made quite a few casual remarks to my husband in hopes he would read my mind and mount the darn thing.

"Hey, it'd be nice if we got that cork board hung."

"I wonder if we could get that thing up on the wall this weekend?"

"Yeah, we had a good day today. Oh, except for when the cork board fell over on Henry during our play date. That part wasn't so great. We should really do something about that."

Secretly or maybe not so, I hoped he'd take the bid in my passing comments and take it upon himself to dig out the level and screw the board onto the wall. Certainly, I could do it myself. But I didn't really want to. For some reason the task filled me with massive amounts of dread and I just wanted him to take care of it and in doing so, take care of me.

Did I ever voice this wish? Not in so many words. I have a really hard time stating my needs. Often this is because I struggle to even identify what it is that I need in the first place. It's hard to ask for something you yourself do not know. But even when I do finally figure out what my needs are, actually communicating them to anybody gives me pause. I don't want to be a bother. I want to be independent. I feel undeserving of the kindness of others. I want to look like I'm "all good" and I have it all together. I feel very small; why would my needs matter?

This has been a long-time challenge of mine; it's how I have operated for as long as I can remember. I want those around me to just know what I need and then to step in and meet those needs. Somehow if I ask it of them, it robs the act of some of it's sincerity and meaning. They must not really care if they can't see the need and then fill it for themselves. I'm learning I have wasted a whole lot of time wishing and hoping those in my life would "figure it out," all the while, growing more resentful and bitter as each day passes that they don't.

How has this approach worked out for me? It hasn't. Bitterness and resentment are tough beasts to tackle and I'm sorry to confess that both have reared their ugly heads in the story of my marriage. The results have been messy and it's taken a lot of hard and painful work this year but what I'm learning, and yes maybe even now finally accepting, is that when it comes to my marriage, I need to voice my needs! Revolutionary? Probably not for everyone. But if you're one who struggles with your needs, it's a game changer. I have learned that not only do I need voice my needs but I also need to be exact and very, very specific. I cannot expect my husband to meet my needs if I don't first make them known to him. In all areas. Also, and arguably just as importantly, I need to give him the opportunity to meet my ask with a resounding "yes!" AND I also need to learn to be OK with matters in the inevitable times when his answer is no. That is really tough work, y'all.

So back to the cork board. This past weekend I decided it was high time that the thing got hung. We are hosting a family Christmas party in a couple of weeks and the whole propped-behind-the-bookshelf vibe the cork board's been sending was cramping the bonus room's style. I don't know why it took me nearly a year to straight up ask my husband to please hang the board, but it did. Maybe it was by the grace of God that it took so long. Lord knows had I asked him earlier in the year, I would have done so in bitterness and the whole thing would have blown up into a fight. Maybe that thing spent 343 days propped up on the floor because that's how long it took me to finally learn the lesson I needed to learn in all this. Whatever the case, flash back to Saturday morning when, on a whim, I decided to implement some need-voicing techniques I've been learning. We were just finishing up breakfast when I threw my request out there:

"Hey Babe. I would love to get the cork board hung this weekend. I want it done right so it will involve going to Home Depot to purchase dry wall screws. Is this something you are willing to take on?"

There. I'd done it! I'd done my part and stated my need. I could tell immediately the hubs was not a fan of my goal for the weekend. If it is possible for one to groan silently, that's most certainly what he did. The ship was sailing south so I added an addendum:

"You don't have to do it. You are allowed to say no. I'm just putting it out there because I need to know your answer so I will know where to go from here."

And believe it or not, I actually meant every last word of what I said for once. I wasn't being manipulative. I was truly going to be OK if his answer was "no." I was hopeful for a "yes" of course, but I wasn't going to let this turn into a fight if this wasn't a task he wanted to take on. He had a right to say no; the cork board belonged to me. I'm a tough cookie and I've wielded a drill before. I could certainly do it again. I just needed to hear from him whether he would do it for me or if I should proceed with establishing a plan B.

He sat there at the kitchen table with my request for a couple of minutes. I excused myself to begin clearing the dirty breakfast dishes while he considered. Suddenly, he stood and bolted for the garage, returning moments later with the drill in hand.

"I will hang the cork board for you," he announced. His tone had changed and the look of dread had disappeared from his face. He continued, "Can you please be in charge of getting new lampshades for our lamps?"

My back was turned, hands deep in the suds of the kitchen sink. I couldn't hide my grin. Nothing sounded more appealing to me in that moment than acquiring new shades for our sorry-looking lamps. The task was long overdue; our lampshades had been in a cracked and sorry state for years. It was a job Graham had attempted unsuccessfully a few times and he was ready to pass it off to someone with fresh energy for it.

"I'd be happy to," I replied.

And truly I was. Though the hunt for lampshades would arguably take hours longer, it didn't feel burdensome in the same way that the hanging of the cork board did to me. I was giddy as I went about with the rest of my morning. It worked! We did it! We had each stated our needs and were prepared to accept any outcome - either a "yes" answer or a "no." In the end we got the best of both worlds - two yeses and with them, freedom from the tasks that had been weighing on us most.

I wonder how many times have we landed ourselves in fights that could have been avoided had we just voiced our needs from the get-go? It sounds so ridiculously simple but all you married folks know how marital discoveries are a lot of times like that - so basic it's almost laughable that you've missed it all this time. And I'm finding this need-stating business to be just as vital in the physical and emotional aspects of our marriages as it is in the dividing and conquering of daily household tasks and chores.

A few months back, my husband was leaving for work in his typical fashion. Usually this includes a quick kiss goodbye and a "Have a good day!" as he runs out the door. But on this cold, fall morning, I was feeling particularly tender. We'd had an emotional conversation the night before and I was still working through it in my head. Any time we have a disagreement or a tense discussion, my default is typically to jump straight to the extremes. Lies like "He probably is going to quit loving me" or "He's realizing it take so much work to be married to me and pretty soon he's gonna decide it just isn't worth it" jump to the forefront of my mind. I know in my deepest core that these extreme thoughts couldn't be further from the truth, but knowing this does not prevent the thoughts from welling all the same. So I am working on having a stern dialogue with these voices when they begin their mental diatribe.

On this particular Thursday morning, I was hovering in one of those tender, lie-filled places. I couldn't stop the voices and I needed my husband's reassurance that we were OK. I needed us to repair. I needed to know that I was loved, wholly and truly, high levels of emotion and all. So when he came to me that morning, sitting alone in the living room, and pecked me quickly before running for the door, my heart sank. The kiss felt like an obligation and I needed to know I was a priority.

I could have sat there on the couch and sulked gloomily all day, feeling sorry for myself, upset that he didn't see me in my moment of need, that he didn't walk over to me and tell the lies off. But in a rare moment of clarity, I didn't just sit there quietly. My head must have been screwed on straight that morning because my mind jumped to doing something that was most unnatural for me.

Tell him what you need, I thought.

It sounded so straightforward and silly and frankly flat out obvious. But clearly stating my needs in the moment had not been my default mode of operation thus far in our relationship so the idea felt like a "light bulb moment" for me. I knew I needed more than a passing kiss and I knew that I needed to be explicit about it. So explicit that I felt a little ridiculous even. Enough with the guessing games.

Tell him what you really want. To the very last detail. 

"Graham!" I called. "Wait! Come back here please."

He was already halfway out the door but he stopped and turned to look at me.

Tears were welling in my eyes as I told him "I need you to come over here and look me in the eye and then cup my face in your hands and kiss me for 10 seconds."

I wish I had a picture of his face, a face that all morning had been one of serious focus, a man running late and on a mission to get out the door. At first he was taken aback, my request so specific and unusual and so very out of the blue. I don't blame him for wondering if I was entirely serious. But one look at my eyes brimming with tears told him all he needed to know: I was absolutely serious. His face warmed, first into a cute little smirk and then progressed quickly into the most adorable "Aww shucks" sort of full-blown smile. His thoughts of work and being late had vanished and I had his full attention. I'd made my bid and now the ball was in his court. The expression on his face read like a book: Now THAT is something I can most certainly do! And he did. He shut the door firmly and gently approached me and executed each step of my request to a tee.

I couldn't put a price tag on the worth of that moment of re-connection if I tried.

Did I wish he would have thought to look me in the eye and kiss me slowly all on his own? Well, sure. That certainly would have been nice. But a dose of maturity and 10 years of experience in the marriage business has taught me that he can't read my mind and it is unfair of me to expect him to. He knew I was down that morning. And he also knew he couldn't do anything to remove the problem completely. But what he didn't realize was that I wasn't asking him to. I simply needed him to show me he was still WITH me in the storm. His slowed-down kiss and focused attention communicated just that to me but I never would have received it had I not stopped to ask.

This happens so often in marriage - little mole hills of disappointments, unmet desires and unstated needs begin to accumulate. Soon enough time passes that the pile of "dirt" is no longer just a little mound on the surface of the earth. It has grown in size and strength and it isn't until all the individual instances are lumped together that one realizes that they have expanded into a full blown mountain of resentment, a precarious barrier between us.

What is the end result when we operate this way? Well, I can tell you. Disconnection. Hurt. Pain. We don't speak our needs and then we feel ignored and abandoned and he is left spinning his wheels and taking stabs in the dark. He grows calloused to trying because past experience has taught him that it won't fix the root problem anyway. Opportunities to fulfill even the smallest of bids are bypassed because we know we will never be able to satisfy the grand ones. We fear rejection and so we neglect even to make bids, to put it out there and say what we are longing for and what we need. We give up before we even start.

At no point was it our intent for this to happen. It never is. We didn't plan to withhold our needs. We weren't consciously keeping them a secret. Maybe we didn't speak them because we were so buried in our own web of insecurity that we didn't even know we were allowed to voice them. We didn't realize they mattered. Maybe we didn't say anything because we felt guilty for having needs in the first place. The household already had enough of them - who were we to add any more to the mix? Maybe unknowingly, we'd surrendered to the idea that our needs were automatically trumped by those around us when we added the title of "mother" to our name. Or maybe we refrained from stating our needs because we were so overwhelmed by daily life that we couldn't spare the time to stop and sort through the chaos long enough to even identify them.

I have been in all of these places. And I can tell you, dear exhausted and weary wife, your needs do matter. I'm willing to bet you married a gem of a man, just like I did. I imagine he adores you and cares for you more deeply than you will ever fathom, mess and all. This is a hard concept to wrap our minds around when we feel as though we spend our days stumbling through motherhood like walking balls of chaos. But these men, these dear sweet husbands of ours, they don't see us that way. We are every bit as worth it to them today as we were on the day they asked for our hands. And maybe even more so. 

I can't help but think of the ever-changing tides of our emotions as women, particularly in the wake of the early parenting years, these years most of us spend flailing wildly in attempts to right the ship that has shipwrecked us into this thing called motherhood. I know I for one, have not journeyed this course gracefully and I can't imagine it has been an easy thing to watch. I wonder how often our husbands feel helpless as they stand witness to our wrestling, wanting so desperately to make us happy. When we are hurting, I wonder at all the times they long to make the pain go away, but their efforts get lost in translation, washed away and unseen by us in the currents of life. I imagine how overwhelming it must feel for them, this innate desire they have to "fix" it all, how that must just feel impossible.

So speak your needs to him. He needs to know. And he needs you to be gosh dang specific. Surrender to the fact that he's not going to anticipate them on his own, at least most of the time. He's just not. I took the hard road in this area of my marriage for far too long and didn't go so well for me. I urge you to spare yourself the hurt and clearly lay it all out for him. Don't allow the molehills to become mountains.

If you, like me, have never been much of a need-voicer, this is going to be uncomfortable territory at first. But I can tell you the work is worth it. And if you don't know what it is that you need right now, it's OK. I've been there too and I know it's a very anxiety-producing place to be. Give yourself some grace and time to ponder it. Work to identify the things that make you come alive and also the things that drain you. Make them into lists and then come back together with your husband and have conversations about them.

So whether you need a cork board or a kiss or something much, much bigger, it matters. Name it.


  1. So good, Kelsie. So many lessons for all of us here. I so appreciate your vulnerability always.

  2. Such wisdom, Kelsie! What helped you know to ASK for your needs to be met? Such a powerful shift in marriage. Thanks for sharing. I blog marriage encouragement at, and love seeing others make changes that take their marriage to a deeper level. Cheering you on!

    1. Thanks Kathy for your comment and for reading my post! I'm looking forward to checking out your website. I had to giggle a little thinking about your question "What helped me know to ASK for my needs to be met." My answer is 9 months of really hard and painful counseling!! But I wouldn't change it for the world. We are beginning to reap the rewards and it's worth every penny.

  3. How do you get me so clearly?!? I've fallen a bit behind rwadung your blog but I believe it was by design. God used your words of advice this morning at the perfect time. Thank you kelsie for always sharing your heart!


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