I’m in a real, grown-up relationship. We’re engaged, but it already involves kids, a mortgage, car payments, bills, blended families, vacations and real-life decisions. It also involves fun, but it’s less of the boozy-brunch variety and more of the adult-with-kid fun that occurs when you hang with the other homies with kids at each other’s house and drink while the youngins run around as you listen intently for the kind of cries you have to respond to for fear of actual pain.
Currently, I’m the breadwinner in the house. Because of some good fortune, I’m in a position where we decided to give my fiancee the opportunity to pursue her entrepreneurial goals. She left her job in October 2017 and has been on a grind ever since. What that also included was her desire to be home and spend more time with our littlest children (who are almost 2 and 3), who stay home during the day.
One lesson I think most people learn when they leave “regular” employment to stay home with little kids is just how much more work little children are on a day-to-day basis. There are no breaks (save for infrequent and irregular naps), which means there is less time for personal business and brand building. Two days a week, we have somebody come to the house and look after our children, giving her some time to work on her business. That’s not a ton of time to grind out, but it’s the agreement we made once she quit, since I would be picking up all household bills for a year.
Between tending the house, looking after the children, working on her business, putting together a conference for millennial moms of color—the Momference, May 19, 2018—she is often exhausted. Understandably. I go to work every day (out by 7 a.m.), and on some nights during the week, I go from work to getting my daughter to whatever activity it’s my turn to take her to. Some nights—and there’s some household dispute on this, of course—I will stay up late cleaning our downstairs and kitchen while my fiancee puts the kids to sleep. Our littlest kids respond to us differently, so it can be more of a chore for her to get them to sleep; I rarely feel like it requires much effort on my part. In my house, Dad gets different responses.
The point here is that Mom is tired, exhausted and mentally drained sometimes. Such was the case this past weekend. I was in Atlanta from Friday through Monday. The PLAN was to attend a marquee event at Morehouse College, but through miscommunications, I didn’t get tickets even though I’d already bought my plane ticket and scheduled a speaking engagement at Morehouse for that Monday. So I ended up going anyway. That weekend was rough on my fiancee. I got back, and on Tuesday we had a spirited debate that I’m sure most couples (or folks doing life together) can relate to, and it highlighted a constant relationship struggle: empathy vs. advice.
She brought up how difficult the long weekend was, how she’d been feeling drained and exhausted, how she was working so hard in the house, how she’s trying to keep it all together and how she doesn’t have time to do what she needs to get done. This is where things started to break down for me (and presumably people like me). I’m a bit too pragmatic at times—to the point of insensitivity. I’m working on me; God ain’t done with me yet, and in many ways I’ve improved in my relationship-centric communication.
Yet and still, I did point out that this was exactly what she signed up for. Did that help? No. She said as much. In fact, that made it worse—she pointed out that what she was looking for was acknowledgment that things are hard for her. I did acknowledge that it isn’t easy and that I realize that she has a lot she’s trying to do. Then I took the next logical step (in my head): I put suggestions (she referred to them as solutions) on the table; that way, I could find ways to pitch in more. To me, that’s the wave.
I’m no spring chicken, so I should have seen it coming; she didn’t want solutions. She didn’t want me to try to fix any problems. She just wanted acknowledgment that it’s hard, encouragement that she’ll get through this season and to cuddle for the time being.
In my head, that’s cute, but it does nothing to make anything better. What she needs—to me, of course—is a nonsolution fix to a set of problems that are going to persist. In fact, she told me she doesn’t want my help at all; she just wants my empathy (paraphrasing). She wants to be affirmed by me.
We got through that discussion—one down, the rest of them to go—but that notion of empathy has stayed with me. I want to call this a man thing, but it’s not—it’s a people thing. Some people need solutions, and some folks don’t care about solutions; they need hugs.
Me, if I have a problem, I want that problem gone. Talking about my feelings toward it only matters for a very, very short time before it’s time for the rubber to meet the road. And that’s not to say that my fiancee doesn’t ever want solutions, because I’d wager she does. She just didn’t then. Then, she wanted empathy, and possibly for me to worry about solutions when she wasn’t in her feelings.
Situational empathy is a lesson I continue to learn in life. I can be extremely empathetic. I’m a human with feelings; Drake’s video made me cry. I try to put myself in other people’s shoes, but that gets really hard when you’re in your own head. In my mind, there are two steps: problem and solution. But for others—including my woman—there can be three: problem, encouragement today, solutions tomorrow.
There’s nothing wrong with this; it just creates a constant need to reframe how I’m thinking about things, which isn’t a bad thing. Who doesn’t benefit from learning how to be a better partner? I guess that’s the real lesson here for any of us in relationships seeking to make them as seamless as possible: trying and actively learning how best to communicate is the key to Wakanda.
There’s irony here, ya know. The “wronged” party usually doesn’t care about how you feel about dealing with their emotions ...
They just want you to do it, which is, effectively, fixing their problem.