Saturday, August 1, 2009

This Old House

Two nights ago Ma'ikwe and I got together with a mutual friend (Tony Sirna from Dancing Rabbit) and spent about an hour talking about the weak spots in the foundation of our relationship (see my previous blog of July 29). Tony did a good job of making sure that each of us was heard and helped us identify where to effect repairs. As often happens, shining light in the dark corners helped reduce my fear of disaster, and helped get me out of what John Bunyan styled "the Slough of Despond" in his allegorical novel Pilgrim's Progress.

In fact, we felt solid enough yesterday to spend the whole day together, working on Ma'ikwe's actual house. Just as we're working through some dramatic shifts in our relationship, she's at the point of dramatic changes on the construction site. Almost half of the rafters are up and we nailed up the first purlin as the last act before quitting time. We took receipt of the metal roofing yesterday and with any luck it will all be screwed down within the week. Then it's time for the strawbale infill, taking advantage of the crew of seven friends arriving next Wed from Albuquerque for a week of helping-Ma'ikwe-build-a-house (which is sure to provide the crew with fun answers to the questions they'll get in the fall about how they spent their summer vacation).

• • •
While I'm still nervous about how many shoes are yet to fall (how many more patterns in my behavior Ma'ikwe will reveal are non-trivial irritations), she's clearly aware of my anguish, and has done a great job of steadfastly hanging in there with me. While I'm weighed down by the accumulation of announcements (and especially by those whose delivery has been delayed by months), she feels unburdened and more hopeful. While I'm staggering under the uncertainty of when we'll hit the bottom of the barrel, she's buoyed that we're getting to this level of sharing.

There's a tendency I have that contributes significantly to why these moments are particularly difficult to navigate. When I receive serious feedback (which happened last Tuesday) I want to bore into what I can do on my side of the equation. In an effort to be vigilant against any desire to blame the other person
unfairly and deflect responsibility for the part I've played in what's not working, I typically spend a few days concentrating on what I can shift. Instead of examining the other person's options, I focus exclusively on what I can do differently.

Ma'ikwe, understandably, feels left out of this. (She even feels huffy that I'm hogging all the responsibility for what's not working—every couple should have this kind of problem.) Her preference is to tackle problem solving together, after we've jointly come to some agreement about what the problems are and what would constitute acceptable remedies. She was worried about a number of things:
—I might invest considerable effort in trying to make changes that may not be things she wants.
—I may be overreacting, taking a criticism too heavily (while she's feeling relieved to be getting things off her chest, I'm questioning the viability of the relationship).
—I'm not available to help her sort out what she can do differently.
—While I engage in this intense exploration, I'm not available to her; she feels shut out and that's neither connecting nor partnering.

While my Dark Nights (and days) of the Soul tend to be productive periods for me, they're no fun to be around and Ma'ikwe is frustrated with my disappearing act. At least they don't tend to last long—about 2-3 days at the most.

In any event, here's the constructive outcome of our Thursday night house party. Ma'ikwe's willing to look at how she can communicate more directly what's going on for her and what she wants. This will help me be accurate in my responses, and help me undertsand right away when something goes awry.

For my part, I'm going for the trifecta:
a) I'll try not to interrupt, and let her complete full statements before responding or asking a question;

b) I'll try to pause to ask what kind of answer she wants before luanching into the first thing that occurs to me. This last is especially potent in that Ma'ikwe could want any of the following, in any combination:
o A sympathetic ear (no response needed)
o A response on the feeling or heart level (how am I touched by her story)
o Technical advice (about process, content, or both)
o Background information on the topic

When I guess, there's a fair risk of my getting it wrong (and while it takes a bit longer to inquire about what kind of response Ma'ikwe is looking for, she's never had a bad reaction to my asking—which makes it rather embarrassing that it's taken me almost four years to start focusing on asking the question).

c) When we uncover a recurring weakness in the relationship, I'll try to stay in the conversation long enough to get a full sense of what Ma'ikwe considers her part of the dynamic and what she'd like from me (if she knows).
• • •
Building a strong house can be tough work. But living in poorly constructed one is worse. Thankfully, I have a partner who is not afraid of hard work (and can swing a hammer).

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