‘Use your words.
I can’t understand whining.
Tell me what you need. Use your words.’
If I had a shiny pound for every time I’ve said this in the last few years, I’d be running off to purchase the entire stock of Waterstones and a personal Elton John concert. I am not a mind-reader. When the boys need me to put right an injustice or provide something they desperately want, I need words.
It’s just struck me lately that, funnily enough, if I have learned anything from seven-plus years of marriage (apart from to defend your share of pizza with your elbows and all the ferocity you possess) it’s this same thing. Ask for what you need. Stand up for what you think. He is not a mind-reader. It’s been one of the most defining shifts of my twenties and it’s become one of the most important things I want to encourage in my children. Knowing yourself well enough to work out what you think and what you need – and then doing someone the courtesy of explaining it so they can be part of your solution – seems to be a recipe for good emotional literacy, self-respect and self-care.
Maybe it takes a while to know yourself well enough and be brave enough to express needs. Maybe you feel timid about taking up emotional space in your relationship, because you feel like you don’t really deserve it. Or you expect someone to automatically intuit what you need without having to ask. I think all of those things were true of me (still are, some days).
We were in our early twenties when we got married. I had graduated university and was a year or so into work; Tim had returned from two years pounding streets in South Africa and was well stuck in to his degree. We were settled and extremely happy. I remember those early years as being all world-building and discovery. It was lovely.
But no matter how well you know someone, once you live together you’re literally warts-and-all. There’s lots to get used to. I had a pathological inability to close a cupboard I’d just opened, and he moonwalked his socks off his feet every night and left them there on the floor by the bed. And there was so much I didn’t understand about myself or about him. The way men and women interact in general and the way we interacted in particular, fresh from and marked by our own families and experiences.
Half our arguments in those early days could’ve been avoided if we’d just asked for what we needed. But maybe it’s the sort of thing you need to learn together, over time.
One of my dear friends says this, and she’s right: relationships are a miracle. That you found someone who makes your soul sing, that’s a miracle. Out of all the people in the world! Of all the choices you could have made, and missed each other! You didn’t. You found each other. You are the answer to someone’s deep and searching questions, and simultaneously, they are yours. What on earth were the chances of that?
I would add this, now: the other miracle is that you get to grow together. You learn things from each other and in the process you learn about yourself, and then you try to change. I mean, I still leave cupboard doors open. WHY CAN’T I SEE THAT THEY ARE OPEN WHEN IT WAS ME WHO OPENED THEM. But over time, and sometimes painfully, I am learning to ask for what I need.
I had a bit of a rough summer, actually. Lots of rain, lots of solo parenting, not very many changes of scene. The boys and I got sick of each other, and the twelve hours a day I spend with them started to feel more like a ball-and-chain than a delight. By the time we got to late August I was exhausted by resentment and CBeebies. Then one evening I had a light bulb moment: I do not have to be miserable. Life with small children does not have to be miserable. It’s just that there are things my soul needs that I am not getting.
I worked out what they were and then discussed them with Tim the next day. Time by myself. Time with just him. Time pursuing my own career goals, however meagre they might be at the moment. He’s a man: he enjoys working out the logistics of a solution. We decided on some different things we could do with our calendar, and I felt like things would get better.
They have. So I feel like this will be my endless refrain to my children, when they start looking for relationships, and to myself in the mirror, and to you, lovely reader, if you want it and it feels right.
You are worth the effort it takes to be happy, and you can take responsibility for working out your own needs. Work it out. Then use your words, and let someone else in.