Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A House Divided

Yesterday I learned how frustrated my wife, Ma'ikwe, has been that I have not been actively designing and managing with her the construction of her house at Dancing Rabbit. Ouch!

When she moved to Missouri a year ago, it was her intent from the get-go to build a house, assuming only that the community was a good fit for her. As she integrated into the community well, and quickly found a place for her considerable dynamism and social savvy, she was excited to manifest a house at her home. What I didn't know, was how much she wanted me to build that house with her.

Building a house (as opposed to having one built for you) is both an exhilarating and exhausting project. Having done house construction at Sandhill, I knew that—not just in my head; I knew it in my bones. I knew that the opportunity to design your own home is a rare chance to express yourself three dimensionally. For most of us, it's the single larget investment we'll make in our lifetime. I also knew that it would be a statement of values that will last for decades, if not the rest of your life.

The one time I was in charge of a house construction project, it was the dominant theme of my life for six years. Knowing that managing house construction would require me to substantially set aside the other main calls on my energy (promoting community as the main administrator for FIC, doing social change work as a group process consultant, contributing to the health and vibrancy of Sandhill, spending time with friends and family), I considered the price too high, and focused instead on the question of how best to support Ma'ikwe.

Mistaken Assumption #1: I thought that I had talked through this with Ma'ikwe at the outset. Yesterday I learned that that was not her experience. She tearfully pointed out that she never wanted to manage the house project alone and was deeply disappointed that I rejected partnering with her in that role. For Ma'ikwe, our early talks about this were never a discussion; her impression was that I was making an announcement (not stating a preference), and that her only option has been to cope with that reality as best she could.

From my perspective, my choices for supporting the project seemed to fall into three categories. First, I could help with the design.

Second, I could help with the actual work. This further breaks down into: a) being a grunt whenever I was on site and and could provide an extra pair of hands; and b) committing to handling specific aspects of the project (think subcontractor). As it's played out, I committed to cutting the posts for the main framework (there are 16), overseeing installation of the plumbing and wiring, and constructing a cistern.

Third, I could finance the project. In my view, I was an especially good fit for this role. Houses eat money and I'm in a particularly generative phase of my consulting career. The downside was that this choice exacerbated a general challenge that Ma'ikwe and I face around finding the time needed to cultivate and enjoy our relationship (for more on this see "Stretching the Ties that Bind," my blog of April 19, 2009). Where she needed to be home more to manage the project, I needed to be on the road more, to fund it.

There was also another layer below this. I felt that it was important that this be Ma'ikwe's house. I live at Sandhill; she lives at Dancing Rabbit. In addition to the vagaries of all relationships, I am two decades older than my wife and she figures to have many years in this house without me. I felt it needed to be hers, not ours.

Mistaken Assumption #2: I see now that I never worked through this issue with my wife. Where I saw myself as being thoughtful and strategic; she felt cut out. She wanted it to be our house, and I never joined the party. This was—and remains—tricky stuff. While Ma'ikwe has turned down living at Sandhill, I have not. I already have a home. In fact, part of the reason I was unwilling to take a lead role in the house project was my need to continue to invest in my community, to have my oar consistently in the water at home. It's been hard for me to be willing to stretch as far as I have to play a significant supporting role in the house project, and then face Ma'ikwe's bitter tears over how she feels spurned by me in her time of need.

On the good side, I believe that it's worked pretty well where I've taken on specific aspects of the project. On the not-so-good side, the design discussions have been prickly. Ma'ikwe wants to involve me, both for the connection and because she knows I have construction experience. Often though, I'm not available when her questions arise. While I don't have any expectations of her consulting with me—and try to be cheerfully available whenever she asks—these conversations often go poorly.

It goes like this:
o She'll ask a specific question.
o I'll want to know addiitonal information than what she's provided (because I'll typically approach a design question differently than she does, and will want more background).
o She won't understand why I'm asking the questions I do and get frustrated (compounded by the dynamic that she's often working at the limit of her construction knowledge and may not know the answer to a particular question).
o In the presence of the rising tension I'll back down and suggest that we just let go of my opinion on this matter. I figure that my relationship with Ma'ikwe is more important than the house, and I've learned that once Laird-giving-Ma'ikwe-advice conversations go off the rails, they don't tend to get better.
o Ma'ikwe feels miserable. She didn't get help with the design question, she didn't get connection with me, and now there's tension that wasn't there before. Yuck.

Unfortunately, it's even worse than that. Overlaying everything above is another dynamic which is undermining our ability to connect. It goes like this:
o I'll ask Ma'ikwe a question.
o She'll begin to answer and I'll interrupt (to either rephrase my question more precisely once I see that her response won't give me what I'm looking for; or to follow an important side road that opened up in the course of her explanation). I think I'm taking care of my emerging needs and being up front about what those are.
o Ma'ikwe will get frustrated because I haven't allowed her to finish. My interrupting comes across as disrespectful, impatient, and perhaps condescending (don't I have any faith in her ability to answer my question; I give long answers, why isn't she allowed the same courtesy?).

My part of the above sequence is rooted in communication patterns that I've developed over decades—long before I got together with Ma'ikwe. Our struggles over this dynamic however, are now common enough that I believe the viability of our relationship is at stake. I think it's up to me to find a way to overhaul how I ask questions and listen to the responses—and soon.

Ma'ikwe has given me the gift of her reactions to my behavior, and yet I'm uncertain what I'll be able to turn around, and how quickly. I'm starting to get pretty self-conscious around her, pausing frequently to reflect on the ways in which what I was about to say may be irritating. At this point, the tunnel is dark, and I'm uncertain which way to turn or how long I'll be in there. I'm confident that Ma'ikwe is worth the effort; I just don't know what I'll be able to achieve. Luckily, I'm not afriad of the dark.

Looking back, I can see that Ma'ikwe and I did not built a sufficiently solid foundation for the house of our relationship. I'm hoping there's still time.


Unknown said...

Sorry it's such a struggle. Once again the most constructive support I can think of to give is to recommend Robert & Judith Gass' couples' workshop Sharing the Journey. No quick fix, but lots of space, support, & tools to explore new modes of communication and deepen love & trust of each other.

Daisy Bond said...

Laird, my heart goes out to both of you reading all these posts. I wish you luck in your work together!