I still can’t believe John and I are still going strong after so many years. Somehow we managed to get to a place now where we both feel we can say how we feel and we know the other is listening. But it wasn’t always that happy. We had our fair share occasions back in the early years where we were ready to go our different ways because we just didn’t know how to make each other happy.
Picture the scene John was on a daily commute to central London leaving the house at 6am and returning at 7pm. If he had any energy left in the evenings or weekends he would set to work on renovating our house trying to further along this massive project we’d undertaken. John had very little time for sitting back and relaxing. He was constantly under pressure from work and home and was miserable because of it.
I, in the meantime was trying to keep afloat in a seriously high pressure role. What I thought was going to be a job in customer service helping my brother in law to run his new website, turned into a huge responsibility, running a 10,000 square foot office space, employing 98 people and serving millions of customers. I don’t think any of us realised how successful the business was going to be and I had very little prior experience in Customer Service so was quite literally learning on the job!
Finishing at 5.30pm was unheard of. Our customers wanted serving 24 hours a day and it was my job to ensure the staff I employed provided an excellent level of service at all times. The pressure was immense! One minute I was producing business cases to take over the customer service for Sunbingo or expanding the office with 50 more computers, desks, recruiting, writing training programs and then training teams of people, appraisals, and reprimands. Handling customer grievances that had been escalated to me and adhering to our player protection policies. I regularly went to London to report on all of the above and even travelled to Barcelona to assist our Spanish operation to set up their own customer service. I really could go on and on! My head was beyond saturation! Even when I did get home to feed the kids, my laptop wasn’t very far behind me. I was still online, still working until I went to bed at night!
Our combined jobs put such a massive strain on our relationship. Quite simply we didn’t see each other! And when we did we were tired, irritable and deep down didn’t like each other’s company! John would say to me “You worked all evening again, when are we meant to get time with each other.” I, on the other hand was thinking I didn’t want to spend the evening with a nagging husband who wanted me to walk away from all the hard work I’d put in to my job and look after him and the kids. It saddened me that he couldn’t see how important it was to me to be successful in my job.
Months dragged on where we would try to make time to discuss things. In the evenings we’d both agree to sit down and talk which almost always resulted in us disagreeing and not getting anywhere. Exhausted from another fruitless discussion where we seemed to come away from it liking each other less and less we’d climb into bed, trying not to even touch each other, then get up the next day and head off to work. I would usually have swollen eyes from crying the previous night and our argument would be still on my mind the next day. When I got home that evening we’d try the same futile exercise again before going to bed feeling like our relationship was a complete waste of time.
We didn’t even have time at weekends. Fitting in the kids’ activities, dancing, music, sport, housework, groceries then on Saturday evenings I’d head off to sing. At least I was getting a little space from the solemn mood back home while John stayed at home to babysit which also caused problems, John saw me out enjoying myself with ‘whomever’ and he was trapped between four walls never feeling like he got anytime for himself.
I really feared we would never find a solution, it was a dire situation! But the change came when we least expected it. I’d always been interested in self-help books even before I started working for my brother in law. As the pressure grew in my role I began to clutch onto any self-help material that would help me to improve my management and organisational skills in an attempt to fit even more into my day and not feel so panicked all the time.
I would usually listen to audio books driving to and from work, because I was multitasking of course believing I was getting more done! Listening to the recordings also helped me get pepped’ for a long day at work or an even ‘longer’ evening at home. Over the months I would listen to the words of James Allen, Dale Carnegie and Brian Tracey whilst driving along. I think Brian Tracey was the one who mentioned the works of Stephen R Covey and his book called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” This sounded just like the type of book I needed!
I understand now that Habit number five was the one that changed me forever, “Seek to understand and then be understood”. I didn’t make a connection when I first heard it but as Stephen began to explain further I started to see how his words applied to me and applied to my relationship with John.
What I wasn’t grasping is I wasn’t listening with the intent to understand. I wasn’t practising empathetic listening. All I wanted to do was get my point across to John to make him understand me and change himself when he understood me. I wasn’t interested in how he felt and why he did the things he did, I just wanted him to change.
Upon listening to the chapter I decided to change right there and then. I was determined find a way to break the cycle we were in, even if it meant me compromising or at least that what it felt like I was doing but I was prepared to do that.
That evening we met for our usual discussion and rather than us both spouting off about how bad it was for us. I decided to let John speak and continue speaking until he had nothing left to say. I kept asking him to again and again to say how he feels and not tell me what he thought I was doing wrong. It was really unnatural for us and I had to bite my lip not to defend the things he said about me that I didn’t like. I just kept reminding myself that I need to understand how he feels and nothing else.
The conversation was remarkably calm. I was consciously stopping myself from arguing and just focused on listening and understanding. I learned a lot about him in that evening. What was going on deep down, what his fears were, what made him emotional. John thought I was falling out of love for him and he didn’t know how he could stop that. He was afraid he was losing me. I really didn’t know or understand until he’d explained it in that way.
Immediately the need to defend and retaliate wasn’t necessary. For the first time I could really feel the anguish he was feeling in our relationship.
The next stage of the exercise was for me to explain how I felt to John. I anticipated this was going to be a lot harder. John hadn’t had the wisdom of Stephen Covey to guide him and when it comes to having a discussion with John, my emotions always have got in the way and I find myself trying so hard to hold back the tears then I can’t think of the words I need to say to get my point across.
But this time I was determine to speak my mind even though it was difficult. I kept reminding myself this is the one chance I have when John won’t interrupt me so I need to make the most of it! John would try to interrupt with a counter-argument as I was talking but I would stop and ask him to let me continue, like I allowed him to. Slowly his interruptions got less and less and I could see he was beginning to really listen to what I was saying. I tried to focus on how the things he did made me feel and not focus on what he did or didn’t do. When I had finished I asked him to explain to me what he had heard and what he had understood. This way I really knew he was listening and he ‘got’ me.
From that first discussion we were able to agree some simple ways which would move us closer together. We made Wednesday evenings a time where we’d drink wine and watch TV in each other’s arms. Not trying to discuss and resolve anything just showing the love we had for each other like when we first met. Then we found a babysitter so we could take time out together and share some positive experiences. Before we knew it there was very little to argue about. We stopped trying to argue with each other and worked together to find solutions together that made each other unhappy. Sometimes that required compromise from one of us but because we were both on board to make our situation work it wasn't too difficult for one of us willing to compromise. That was the beginning of a really different relationship for us and I don’t think we have had a full-blown argument since.
Marriage is difficult but worth fighting for. I think we've found a way to communicate that saved ours to get it to 26 years strong! If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t throw in the towel until you’ve read this chapter or if there’s time the full book! It might just save your marriage.
Stephen R Covey - The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People