One winter, my husband contracted the flu. Even though I'd had the flu vaccine, our infant twins were too young to be able to get it, so my husband had to quarantine in our bedroom and I had to take care of the babies by myself.
Those tiny scrappy spawn of ours weren’t in the least mindful of their parents' situation. They made it incredibly hard on their exhausted mother, almost as if they were doing it on purpose. They woke up every hour on the hour, morning, noon, and night, giggling gleefully.
On the morning of day three, I got up with them after another sleepless night. I took them both downstairs, set them up in their highchairs, and prepared to feed them breakfast. I was just about to shove the first spoonful of mashed up something in their little mouths when their daddy entered, not wearing his mask which the doctor had told him he should specifically wear anywhere around the children.
“Why aren’t you wearing your face mask?” I asked him.
“I forgot,” he said, opening the pantry.
“Well? Are you going to go get it?” I said, setting down the twins' food to grab a cup of coffee that was now done.
“I just need to get some food, and I'll go,” he said. I poured my coffee, and then watched him as he sneezed into his open hand and opened the fridge with the same hand.
I exploded, “Are you serious right now? I’m taking care of these kids by myself, and all you have to do is help them not get sick! You aren’t wearing a masok when the doctor said you should, AND you just sneezed in your hand and then touched the fridge! Do you want them to get sick, or are you just that thoughtless?”
He turned to look at me. He blinked a few times, and then left the room and returned to his lockdown quarters. I grumbled a bunch of non-niceties under my breath as I finished getting everything ready, fed my children, and then laid them down for nap attempt #1.
I thought about what had happened in the kitchen the rest of the day, how I would have liked him to empathize, say something like, “I know this has been hard on you, and I’m sorry,” but instead he’d just left, leaving me angrier and lonelier than I’d felt before.
I’d made a damaging misstep in my relationship: I thought I'd communicated when really I'd just emoted.
George Bernard Shaw said it, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
When we emote instead of communicate, no real communication has taken place. “Emoting” is when we act out our emotions/feelings, which means we often lash out or snap. In my case, I was angry, so I’d lashed out on my partner. Unfortunately, instead of getting the comfort and acknowledgement I might have hoped for, I pushed my partner away and made myself feel worse.
If I’d wanted to communicate instead to my partner, I would have said something like, “I’m really exhausted trying to make sure the twins don’t get sick, and I’m upset that it doesn’t seem like you’re helping me with your part. Will you please make sure to wear a face mask around them until you’re not contagious and Lysol the fridge door where you touched?”
Communicating instead of emoting requires a three-step process created by leading marriage therapists Drs. Julie and John Gottman. It is below:
1. Say how you feel.
Identifying how you feel isn’t always easy, but you do need to label it to make it clear to your partner. “I’m _______ (upset/angry/scared/etc.).” It’s also important to use statements that begin with "I" instead of "you."
I could have said something like, "I'm exhausted and worried about the babies getting the flu."
2. Communicate what you’re upset about.
Try to focus on the situation instead of your partner. No one appreciates hearing something like, “I’m mad because you’re a jerk.”
Your partner is human and is going to make dumb mistakes, but they will certainly be more open to hearing what you have to say if you focus on what happened instead of including an accusation.
I could have said something like, "This situation is extremely hard on me. The babies haven't been sleeping, and I'm upset about that, which has nothing to do with you. This would be hard on me even if I had your help."
3. Say what you need.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that everyone you date and marry won’t be able to read your mind. While I thought it should be self-explanatory that on top of wearing a face mask, my partner should also Lysol after himself, it obviously wasn’t to him. Give your partner specifics of what you would like done. It could be something as small as a hug. No need is too small.
Your partner should never be your emotional or verbal punching bag, and when we emote at them, that’s unfortunately what happens. Imagine how you feel when an onslaught of emotions gets directed at you!
Since my husband couldn't help me out at that time physically, I could have also said something like, "Can you just empathize with me? Can you just let me know how much this really really sucks, and that you appreciate what I've been doing for the kids? I feel so exhausted that I just need a pep talk to get through it."
Thankfully, there’s a specific way you can handle this differently. Take a deep breath or walk away if you have to first, but do communicate with your partner about how you feel, what happened, and what you need. It’ll help how you relate and love, both ways to improve your intimacy.