This lovely photo is by the amazing Dana Pugh!
My husband Nick and I have a motto when it comes to our marital communications:
KIND AND BLUNT.
Sometimes we are our best selves, the stars align, the baby tulips sing, and we can be BOTH of those things. We can find a way to tell the truth to each other in a gracious, loving, diplomatic way.
But here’s the most important part: we have agreed that if we can’t be both kind AND blunt, we have to JUST BE BLUNT.
We choose straightforward honesty, even if it’s not gentle.
Isn’t that scandalous? Are you horrified? But hear me out.
One of the things that we had our first “kind and blunt but mostly blunt” conversations about was our morning routine.
After a whole lot of single parenting, both of us were excited to finally have an equal partner to help with the morning full court press. It would be so great! It would take the pressure off of having to do everything alone!!
Boy oh boy, it did not work out that way.
The first year of our marriage and coparenting, the mornings were just awful. Zombie apocalypse, plus sniping. Plus seething. Plus tears.
Finally, my sweet husband said these very loving, kind words to me.
“Honestly? I just don’t like you very much in the morning. You’re kind of awful.”
To which I replied, “I don’t like you either, but I don’t like anyone or ANYTHING in the morning. It’s not personal.”
And that’s how we hatched our new arrangement: I take evenings, he takes mornings.
In the evenings, as soon as dinner is finished, Nick is off duty. I manage cleanup, I supervise baths, I’m bad cop on bedtimes, and I make the kids’ school lunches for the next day. He often pitches in, and he joins the tuck-ins, but we both know that if he wants to hide out in his office watching tv, he’s absolutely free to do so, no guilt. Any time somebody wakes up in the night, with a nightmare or whatever, I’m the point person for that, too. And I’m absolutely delighted to do it.
Because in the mornings– listen to this– Nick gets up with the kids, supervises their breakfasts, is bad cop on their fashion choices, gets them out the door, and takes the little ones to daycare. WHILE I LIE BLISSFULLY ASLEEP. Often he’ll come in and wake me up with a cup of tea as he’s on his way out the door, and I get to start my morning by writing my morning pages in bed in delicious silence, sipping my tea. No guilt.
It’s pretty darn fantastic, because we both feel like we’re getting a great deal.
But that’s not even the best part.
The best part is that we cut down our arguments by 97%. No joke. We used to have 97% of our arguments in the car on the way home from dropping the last kid off at daycare. Now we don’t EVER have those arguments.
When we tell people about our morning/evening arrangement, they’re often scandalized. What do you mean you sleep in while your husband gets the kids off to school? (Funny, they’re less scandalized by the part where I do all the dinner cleanup, bedtime wrangling, and school lunches. #hellopatriarchy)
But while our arrangement might be unusual, and while we’re super lucky to have the freedom to do that because we both work for ourselves, the beauty of it is that it works wonderfully FOR US. We were able to hammer out this deal that accommodates our quirks only because we each got really honest about our wants, needs, resentments, and loathings. This arrangement would look different for every couple, and it only can happen when you get really, really blunt.
Other things that work well for us: Wednesday night budget meetings over pizza, me handling every bit of our finances except for that weekly meeting, quarterly romantic getaways for the two of us, quarterly solo getaways for just me, and having an assistant who puts in two days a week doing Lo The Many Things that otherwise one of us would have to do. Every single one of these choices came about from a squirmy, uncomfortable, there’s-no-delicate-way-to-say-this-so-I’m-just-going-to-SAY-it conversation.
This policy of candid plainspokenness goes against so much of what I learned from the world, both explicitly and implicitly, about what it means to be a good partner. And maybe even a good person.
Be kind. Be nice. (Not the same thing, by the way.) Smile. Be patient. Be generous. Share. Wait your turn.
Those are necessary things, good things, things I’m trying to teach my children. But there was an important, crucial, missing piece: BUT ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH. TELL YOUR TRUTH. SAY WHAT IS REAL. SAY IT BEFORE IT EXPLODES OUT OF YOU.
I gathered, like so many of us did, that a big part of being kind and loving was to NOT SAY the things that pressed on me most urgently. It’s taken many years to unlearn this, and thank heaven for that unlearning.
A corresponding and confusing message about relationships was the old chestnut, “relationships take work.” You see, there are so many different KINDS of work, and no one ever explained that the work of a relationship should feel like planting a garden. It is sweaty, dirty, muscular work, for sure. All that hoeing and digging and weeding, and sometimes bugs. But there is something clean about it, something hopeful. Plus the promise of so much good coming out of it– tomatoes and peonies, string beans and lettuces and sunflowers.
I “worked hard” on many relationships over the past two decades, and I couldn’t understand why it felt so wrong, so awful. What I didn’t understand was that instead of digging in a garden, I was digging in an abandoned coal mine…with my bare hands. The “work” left me feeling shredded, torn up, bleeding. At the end, I had nothing to show for it except a lungful of poison. I just kept wincing and trying harder, trying to be nice, trying to be patient, clawing away at a dead end, wondering what was wrong with me. Because as everyone knows, relationships take work.
You know what would have helped? More bluntness. If I had been less nice and more honest, I might have cut more quickly to the heart of relational dynamics that were broken and hopeless. I might have swiftly exposed the sagging beams in a doomed house and gotten the hell out before anybody got hurt.
So let me just say this, because I would have liked to have heard it. Yes, relationships take work. But it should be hard work like digging in a garden is hard work. Not hard work like digging in an abandoned coal mine with your bare hands.
In fact, a pretty good relational test is whether you can speak your truth (kindly, whenever possible, see above) without worrying that the whole thing will cave in and bury you alive.
Much to our surprise, Nick and I discovered that more bluntness brought more ease, grace, and tenderness into our marriage. It turned out that a ridiculous proportion of the fights we were having were because one of us was skirting an uncomfortable topic, hinting around at something that might create conflict, or avoiding saying that really squirmy thing.
We weren’t trying to be deceitful, just trying to keep the peace. Harmony. Compromise. Aren’t those good things?
But it turned out that all that skirting of conflict was actually causing MORE conflict, and in fact was layering unspoken conflict on top of unspoken conflict until it was like a dangerous layer cake.
Even so, I was afraid of what might happen if we just came out and SAID the squirmy thing. Probably the world would end in a fiery blaze.
I was wrong. Not only did the world not end, it got SO MUCH BETTER.
When we committed to a policy of radical bluntness in our marriage, a lot of the murkiness immediately evaporated. There was immense relief in just knowing exactly what the other person thought and needed.
…I mean, MOST of the time.
And then there were those OTHER times, where we were communicating perfectly clearly but it turned out we just really didn’t LIKE what the other person was saying. But even then, at least we knew exactly what we were dealing with (and we could set up an urgent session with our fantastic therapist! who works virtually! tell her I sent you! to hash it out in a clean, safe space).
I think more of us need to have blunt conversations like this. It’s terrifying, but the relief on the other side is incredible. And when you have them, as a matter of course, about a lot of little things as well as the big things, all those unspoken things don’t build up and fester until they explode in a volcano of putrid resentment. (Oh wait, that’s never happened to you?)
I think this is true not just in romantic partnerships but in most parts of life.
What if you simply SAID the things you always thought you couldn’t say?
What would happen?
Well, fair warning, your unhealthy relationships might fall apart. That’s true. But if that happens, it means that they were only being propped up on a rickety arrangement of both people politely looking the other way and never actually seeing each other for real. (Which is the loneliest kind of relationship of all.)
Your good relationships will get stronger. So much of the emotional gunk will get stripped away and you’ll see what you’re really dealing with. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Hurrah for bluntness!
HOWEVER, before you go try this, let me offer a few commonsense words.
Start practicing your “kind and blunt” approach on the little things.
Start with strangers, like the server who brought you the wrong order or the person on the bus who’s stepping on your foot.
Do not start with the most loaded, charged, longstanding argument you’ve had with your spouse for the last ten years. Do not start with your immediate family. Start with more neutral things, perhaps conversations about laundry, about the snow shovel, about the flavor of yogurt you buy. If you discover big gnarly truths welling up alarmingly, definitely enlist the help of a therapist or trusted coach.
Start easy and work your way up to the big stuff, ok? Gently, the way you’d start lifting weights.
Tell your truth. Say it as kindly as you can. And if you can’t be kind about it, know that just saying it bluntly might still be the very kindest thing you can do.