When my wife and I purchased and remodeled our patio home in 2004, she lobbied convincingly in favor of removing our shoes when we walked on the carpet. With reluctance, I agreed. She honored the agreement every time she walked on the carpet. I honored it most of the time I walked on the carpet.
Though she never actually saw me violate the agreement, she could see the carpet getting dirty in some areas where I walked most frequently. When she asked if I was walking on the carpet with my shoes on, I would typically deny or justify my actions with the argument that removing my shoes was not always practical. This low-level conflict pattern of her complaining and me denying/justifying continued for four years.
One morning last year, having forgotten my keys and being in a hurry to get to my office, I decided it was impractical to remove my shoes. I cautiously scouted my field of view to be sure she would not see me, and I scooted from the tile, across the carpet to the keys, and back again -- less than 5 seconds. When I came out of the room, she was waiting. She sternly asked me the same question she had been asking me for four years: "Why did you walk on the carpet with your shoes on?"
In a flash of clarity, the real problem emerged in my mind. "You have been asking me that same question for four years, and I have been giving you the same answer for four years. I think that you really want me answer a question that you have not asked. I think you want to know why I am not keeping our agreement, not why I am walking on the carpet with my shoes on."
My response altered our four-year pattern of her complain/me justify because the new question had identified the real problem. Instead of continuing the back and forth of her complaining and me justifying, she asked: "What question is that?"
"I have not been honest with you", I said. "I have not been keeping the agreement because I was and am not in agreement that I take my shoes off every time I walk on the carpet. I don't believe it's practical every time."
I waited for her response.
"Do you know any doctors?" she asked. My wife is not a violent person, but I fleetingly wondered if she was about to be.
"Why do you ask?" I responded.
"Well," she said, "I know that doctors wear little booties over their shoes in the hospital, and maybe you could get some of those."
If I lived alone, I would not likely wear hospital booties over my shoes. But I don't live alone. I don't want to live alone. And I don't want to live with someone else. I want to live in a happy and satisfying marriage with her. And a happy, satisfying marriage requires honesty, integrity, compromise and joint effort in identifying and solving problems -- even little ones.
Gordon A. Gunnell, MS, LMFT, LISAC, is a member of the Ahwatukee Foothills Behavioral Health Network. Reach him at (480) 220-7050 or firstname.lastname@example.org.