This year I would really like you to work on…

OK, so I know it’s January 4th and most of you are probably thinking that New Years was so last week, but this is the first time I’ve hit the keyboard in 2011 so I’m going to start at the beginning and tell you how we celebrated the turn of the year over here in Laos.

On New Year’s Eve we headed for one of our new favourite haunts, Dyen Sabai. To get there you walk down to the Khan River and then cross it on a rickety bamboo bridge that’s only in place because it’s the dry season and the river is so low – the brown torrent that pushed the boats along on Dragon Boat Racing day has fallen precipitously in the last couple of months and the newly exposed river banks of are crammed with temporary vegetable gardens. After you cross the river you climb up a row of steps hacked between the small veggie plots, and walk underneath a tunnel of vines, then turn left and there you are. Dyen Sabai is a restaurant of wooden platforms tucked into tall stands of bamboo. The tables are low, wooden, and flanked by silk lounging pillows laid on the floor. The ambiance is great and so is their smoky eggplant dip.

Mike and I settled down on the cushions and devoured eggplant dip, and fish steamed in banana leaf, and hosien chicken stir-fried with crispy mint, and big bamboo containers of warm sticky rice. There were cocktails and two sinfully rich deserts made with imported chocolate. There was laughing at the chicken that flapped up to explore then table next to us. There was reminiscing.

Sparked by the blog I wrote about returning to Laos, we talked that night about uncomplicated emotions. Mike asked me what “happy-uncomplicated” moments came to mind from 2010 and took it in turn to offer up these incandescent snippets. Some were exotic – sunrise in Death Valley for Mike, motorcycling along the Thames in London for me. Many were prosaic – tiny stitches in time that fashioned our “normal life” this past year. Grocery shopping together after church in California. Sitting on the deck of our small apartment in Alhambra enjoying brie and dates as the sun set. Reunions in airports.

We talked about these happy moments all night. Then we walked home, full and tired, through the cool darkness and went to bed at the luxuriously geriatric hour of 9pm.

The next night we settled down to the serious business of contemplating 2011. This time we chose an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Mekong and watched kids play soccer out on a sandbar in the middle of the river as we talked.

Mike had a few New Year’s Resolutions to list off but I didn’t set any this year. I already have a pretty clear idea of what I’d like to get done and none of my goals related to writing or diet or exercise seemed worthy of being slapped with the lofty title of resolution. So instead of a resolution this year I named an aspiration that is more of a theme – an attitude and an outlook that I aspire to embrace more fully this year… finding the positive in change.

So much changed for us last year and so much will change again for us this year. I do love change on some level, this I know, but even as changes bring new and wonderful things into my life I also lose old things that were also wonderful. Sometimes I can find myself mourning too much things I used to have and enjoy (wine and cheese on the deck in Alhambra, and hot showers that work) and neglecting to pay enough attention to new and wonderful things (smoky eggplant dip and sticky rice overlooking a river, and chickens that parade around on tables).

After we were done talking resolutions and aspirations we looked at each other and grinned.

“So,” I said to Mike. “What is it this year?”

Last year Mike introduced a concept that initially horrified me – that each year we might also name one thing we’d like each other to work on in the upcoming year. When he first suggested it I stared at him across the dinner table looking, I’m sure, like a wallaby in the headlights. What awful, embarrassing, character flaw was he going to spotlight and ask me to work on?

“I would like you,” he said carefully last year, “to please pay more attention to not dropping your stuff wherever you feel like it the minute you walk in the door of the house.”

This year’s request was pretty much on the same level (read: basic habits that 70% of people seem to acquire in third grade) – that I pay more attention to turning of lights and air conditioners when I leave a room. My request of Mike was similarly non-epic – focused on something small that he sometimes does that can annoy me.

It’s made me think about marriage and the years to come. Will we have years when the things we name are epic, or are these early patterns indicative of the fact that when you’re in good relationship space the things that usually bug you most over time are the little carelessnesses and habits that just happen to grate?

What do you think? And for those of you in a relationship, what would you ask of your partner if you could pick one thing you’d like to see them work on this year? What do you think they’d ask of you?

12 responses to “This year I would really like you to work on…

  1. Before I married Peter (over 20 years ago) my pastor gave me a list of things not to do, or things I shouldn’t try to do. One of them was to recognize I could not change my spouse. So I went into marriage with my eyes wide open realizing all the epic values in life were ones we shared and it was just the little things that drove me crazy.

    I’d want Peter to organize the landfill he calls an office – I call it Ground Zero. And he would ask me to stop “Grizzying.” This is a term of endearment he uses for me when I attempt to clean up too fast, before he is finished using everything. He coined this word after one of our hamsters, Grizzelda, who did everything so quickly it left her mate, Wilber, trembling in fear. Ah, married life is much more interesting than I ever expected.

  2. Well, I think this touches on “Love Languages” – a term coined I think by Dr. Gary Chapman

    My wife and I went through one of his books and identified what made each of us “tick”. For me it was “acts of service”. So, I “feel” more loved when given acts of service which is usually manifested in the house being picked up, the dishes put away. All that means is that things are out of the way.

    For her it was talking. So she enjoys talking and being talked too which is really hard for me since I’m not a talker.

    So, check out those love languages and see where you fall.

    • Yes, the love languages – what a cool tool that framework is. Mike and I talk about this sometimes – gosh, the last time was well over a year ago. If I’m remembering rightly (and I’ll ask him later) the ones he named were “acts of service” and “words of affirmation” and I named “touch” and “quality time”. Of course, the way I recall our last conversation I think I told him that I thought he was a quality time person too – that he liked to give acts of service but didn’t value them as highly coming in as he valued quality time (cuz, I’m sure that’s what Gary intended us all to do with his work, use it to tell our spouses where they’re wrong in their own self-interpretation). Thanks for giving us something to chat about this week!

  3. Those little things that can annoy you… Yes. For sure as time goes on they will blow up and become huge things, if you let them.

    For me, I was so crazy in love I simply couldn’t imagine my husband doing anything whatsoever to annoy me.

    Then, a year or two into the marriage I noticed that I was routinely tripping over his shoes, which he conveniently left on my side of the bed. First I thought, “How cute. He needs me to put his shoes away.” And I faithfully put them away.

    But then I said one day, “Honey, I keep tripping over your shoes. Could you either put them away or at least put them on YOUR side of the bed.”

    He said, “Sure, honey, I’m sorry.”

    But…he forgot. Daily. I reminded him again. And again. And again. And I began to get angry. I mean, I asked him nicely to put them away. I explained that it was a health hazard, that my toes were bruised. That I trip if I get up in the night to go to the bathroom. If he really loved me, wouldn’t he just do this one small thing?

    One night I announced, “Honey, the next time I trip over your shoes I am kicking them under the bed. From now on, if you can’t find your shoes, I suggest looking under the bed first.”

    He looked a little shocked. I know he wasn’t doing it on purpose, he was just in his own world. But I wanted ME to be a bigger part of his own world.

    Selfish? Yes.

    So, I triumphantly kicked his shoes under the bed for the next year or so. I watched with glee as he crawled around on the floor, searching for his shoes. I privated chuckled to myself over my brilliance at imposing ME into the inner workings of his mind.

    But then, I realized how selfish it all was. I began to understand his heart a little better. I started honing my shoe finding skills. I stopped kicking them under his bed. And, finally, I apologized to him for being so childish.

    What would I change about him? Nothing. Because you can’t change another person. You have to love them with all of their faults, bad habits, and failures. This, I have learned so far. But I do think that this is one of the most difficult things to work on in marriage….

    • Gosh, these stories are so nuanced. Because I can totally see both sides here (the both sides in your own head that is)… There’s the side that wants your mate to be more considerate of YOUR wants and needs rather than there own, and then the side that recognizes when the seeds of attitudes that were perhaps planted in a good point have sprouted up into something … less good, and scolds us for being selfish.

      As for not being able to change another person, I agree, we can’t. But I do, however, think that we can express to someone else (calmly and with as few expectations attached as possible) ways that we would like them to consider changing themselves. And I do believe that sometimes people can change themselves around this stuff, with time and effort and attention. And I don’t think that we should give up hope that the people we love will take us into consideration when they’re working on what they want to change about themselves (which is, of course, a lot easier said than done).

  4. Ahhhhh.
    He would ask of me:
    Would I please, when I come across him failing to do those small things I wish I could ask of him at the turn of the year, the things I would stack up in a list and carry around, planning gleefully and frustratedly in my mind which I would choose for him NEXT year … when I run into those things:

    would I please stop breathing hard through my nose and muttering to myself.

    Even though I *think* breathing hard through my nose and muttering to myself is my effort to not explode and to re-tell myself that I shouldn’t be such a hateful person to such a lovely man that God has (finally) given me for my husband, really? It’s a lot of nasty, petty, non-verbal communication about my immature rage that would better be channeled into some form of repentant prayer to God about my inability to be a loving spouse and my unwillingness to serve someone I love the way Jesus chose to serve me.
    So, yeah.
    THAT would be a good goal for the year, ne?
    I roll my eyes and breathe strongly through my nose in my own general direction.

    • Hee hee hee… I mean, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never feel immature rage in any situation, and certainly never directed at my husband.

      In all seriousness, it’s a tough one, isn’t it – Finding the right balance between expressing wants and frustrations and leaving some petty things unsaid because, no matter what people say, I really don’t think any relationship is strengthened by letting every thought that crosses your mind out your mouth.

  5. I think for me it’s mostly sucking it up and accepting that things HAVE TO BE CLEANED and I no longer live in a developing country where I can hire a maid on a teacher’s salary. I have a really hard time accepting that I am ever part of the cleaning and organizing team. Ever.

    Early in our marriage I had such a hard time with this that I finally copied 1Cor. 13:4-6 out and taped it to the fridge so I could stop mid-clean and read to myself that “love was kind ” and “kept no record of wrongs.” I just have a hard time actually doing it. I think I might be getting better, I just need more work. Thank you for the prompt, though. This is a good goal for me to work on this year. I already knew I needed to improve at it. I just needed a wee confession to help push me in the right direction. 🙂

    • You’re welcome. I sympathize on the not liking cleaning front. I don’t like it much/at all either and my threshold for mess is a lot higher than Mike’s. This, too, will be a part of our story that we renegotiate one day again when we leave here.

  6. I think I’m going to do this this week. Ironically, I find that if I think about what my answer would be if my husband asked me what I’d like him to work on it, it would be exactly the thing that is MY new years resolution. Does that mean I should take a hint from his resolution?

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