Our conversation began innocently as I prepared dinner and she caught up on Facebook at the end of her workday. I’m not sure how comments about our days resulted in a deep conversation. Regardless, I confessed my feelings about being the emotional caretaker and nag to a woman with chronic asthma and other health issues.
One of the roles I play in our marriage is to nag Maggie to take care of herself. Sometimes it’s necessary; much of the time it’s not. I’m also a sounding board when her too-often struggles to breathe do not fit with her desire to lead an active lifestyle. For example, she struggles with the likelihood that there are places I have hiked that she may never be able to see firsthand.
But this conversation was more about my psyche than hers and, with my permission, Maggie was “doing CPE” on me. (CPE refers to clinical pastoral education. CPE is a touchy feely part of pastoral education in which delving into a deeper understanding of motivations is idolized. It’s a form of deep communication, listening to your inner voice, and helping others to do the same.)
“I often feel like I can’t share my needs because you’re sick so often.”
“What would it be like if you did?” she responded.
As I pondered my response I felt tears welling up. Tears are simultaneously a gift of the Holy Spirit and a psychological sign that I’m close to my core feelings. I replied that, “A good husband places the needs of his sick wife before his own needs. Some of my needs conflict with your health.”
Aware that I wasn’t yet done, she remained quiet. I continued, “I genuinely worry about you. At times, though, I feel like I have to play the role of ‘the good husband’ just as I played the role of ‘the good son’ for my mother growing up. Sometimes I feel like I cannot do things for me because of your health.”
Like a good therapist, Maggie waited attentively as I processed both internally and aloud. To even name my needs feels selfish, I thought. A pivotal moment came when I said, “I’d feel vulnerable if I shared my needs.”
“Tell me more about your feelings of vulnerability. What’s that about?”
Of course those pesky tears showed up again. To even name my feelings and needs that conflict with my wife’s health needs, would tarnish my self-image as the good husband, as the perfect husband, as the one who has it all together.
We both laughed out loud at the absurdity. Feelings are real. Needs are real. Naming feelings doesn’t give them power; it allows us to problem solve and work together to find ways to meet both of our needs. It is when we shove those feelings and needs deep inside that they are more likely to sneak out in destructive ways.
I sighed and smiled. Here we were after thirty-three years of marriage still learning and growing and working together.