Stop me if this DOESN’T sound familiar: You see your husband at breakfast, just before the two of you rush off to your respective jobs. It’s chaos. You get the kids off to school, having packed their lunches, signed their permission slips, and mediated their fight about who has cooties (or the Black Death. I’m not sure what kids these days are afraid of…). And in between sips of coffee and a quick kiss on the cheek, you ask the love of your life to do ONE STINKING THING: To take out the garbage. And he says he will. But you already kind of know that he won’t. And sure enough, when you get home that evening, there it is: the garbage bag. Still in the kitchen where you left it this morning, taunting you. And then, when the man who makes your heart sing comes home, the avenging angel of household chores and Patron Saint of Overreactors bursts out of your chest and eats his face off. Or something like that.
When you find yourself getting irrationally angry or hurt by little things like a garbage bag, an unmade bed, a forgotten anniversary or the not-so-perfect birthday or Christmas gift, you’re never actually upset about what you think you’re upset about. It’s always about something deeper.
It’s never about the garbage
It’s never about the bag of garbage, it’s about what the bag of garbage has come to represent. The incident has triggered a deep seeded insecurity of some kind (or several) and when you find yourself completely losing your shit over something so seemingly minor, you’ve assigned a tremendous amount of meaning to this otherwise, unimportant task.
In your mind, your husband taking out the garbage has come to represent his love/devotion/respect/etc. for you. And his failure to take out that garbage now represents his lack of love/devotion/respect/etc. for you. Meanwhile, your husband, for whom the bag of garbage is just a bag of garbage, has no idea why you’ve gone to your crazy place.
And yes, this once, I’m talking pretty much exclusively to the ladies here (not ALL ladies, but enough to allow me to generalize a bit). Women tend to yearn for security in relationships and since the people closest to us are the most powerful mirrors of our beliefs, both limiting and otherwise, our romantic partnerships tend to trigger our insecurities and abandonment issues. Men, on the other hand, tend to want freedom, so their partnerships tend to trigger their fears around being controlled, smothered and trapped. Attracting a partner whose insecurities cause her to go apeshit over a bag of garbage, by the way, plays right into those fears.
What’s really bothering you?
So, when you find yourself overreacting about something like a bag of garbage, take a moment, calm down, and ask yourself, “What’s really bothering me?” Or, if this is impossible, do it after you’ve scraped your husband’s remains off the ceiling tiles. You know, when you get a chance.
What do you feel like when you look at that bag of garbage? Sure, you’re probably annoyed and frustrated. And on the surface, you could say that you’re angry because he promised to do something for you and he didn’t. But honestly, if your best friend came by today and you asked her to take out the garbage on her way out and she forgot, would you feel the same emotions? Would you be angry and hurt? Or would you give her the benefit of the doubt and think “She probably just forgot.” The bag of garbage would simply be a bag of garbage.
When your hubby forgets, however, you go just a little bit bonkers. Why? What has the garbage come to represent to you? What does his REFUSAL to take out the garbage (which is also in your head; forgetting is not the same as consciously refusing) say about how he feels about you? Does it mean that he doesn’t respect you? That he doesn’t realize how hard you work (and that probably no one does?) Does it mean that he doesn’t love you enough (because if he REALLY loved you, he’d take out the damn garbage!)? What’s really being triggered here?
He can’t read your mind
It’s time to let your husband off the hook. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that he shouldn’t help around the house, or that he’s not being inconsiderate, or that it’s all your fault. I’m making no such declarations. What I am saying is that your husband has no idea that you’ve come to see the taking out of the garbage as a representation of his love for you. To him, it really is just a stupid bag of garbage and whether or not it gets taken out today is pretty much irrelevant to him. The garbage is irrelevant, not you. The association between the garbage and his love for you is in your mind, which he can’t read. This is why he acts so clueless when you yell at him about the garbage. This is why he doesn’t “get” it and never will. He’s not being hard headed and he’s not refusing to understand you. It’s just that it never occurred to him that some seemingly tiny and insignificant action like putting the cap back on the toothpaste or putting the toilet seat down or noticing your new haircut could represent the width and breadth of his feelings for you. And if you really think about it, how could he possibly know that?
He’s telling you how he feels
Your husband is telling you how he feels about you all the time. He’s just not doing it in the way you’ve determined that he must. He’s not doing it in the way that you show love. When he takes your car to get the oil changed without even being asked, he’s telling you he loves you. When gets angry because your mother said something hurtful to you, he’s telling you that he loves you. When he gets stressed because he’s not making as much money as he’d like to, and can’t provide for you the way he fantasized about, he’s telling you that he loves you. Not just men and women, but people communicate very differently and we all associate love with different actions. One person may say “I love you” with flowers and chocolates, while another says it by mowing the lawn.
Just because someone expresses their affection differently than you do, doesn’t mean they don’t love you.
Think about this: What does your husband do for you that you may have been taking for granted? He can’t read your mind, and you can’t read his either. Just as you tell him that you love him by cooking his favorite meal, he may well be doing the same thing in a myriad of ways. He may not understand what that meal means, and you may not understand what cleaning the garage means. And how could you? Unless of course you become a little more self-aware and you actually talk about it.
Admit to the crazy
Now, ultimately, the goal is for you to release those insecurities, so that you’re no longer afraid that he doesn’t love you and all the triggers fall away. But while you’re working on that, it’s totally possible and even acceptable to let your husband in on the associations you’ve made and ask him to help you. This is the man who loves you. And I promise you, he’ll be much happier gaining some insight into your psyche, no matter how off its rocker it is, than getting the rolling pin to the noggin’ for something he should know, but if he doesn’t, you’re not going to tell him, damn it.
For example: You bought a new dress. It makes you feel beautiful and sexy and you’re hoping that when you see your husband that night, he’ll go all googly eyes, be gripped by an almost animalistic passion and jump your grateful and validated bones. But when he comes home, he’s tired, pecks you on the cheek, turns on the Sports Channel, and pops open a beer. For you, this means that he no longer finds you attractive. For your husband, it means that he’s tired and his laser like focus on unwinding blinded him to the new dress.
Now, if you realize that you really kind of need him to notice your sexiness and ravish you, it certainly speaks to an insecurity which you’ll want to address. But since a lifelong insecurity may take a little time to let go of, you can also text your husband before he gets home with: “Bought new dress. Feeling sexy. Need you to ravish me. Stat.” Chances are, your husband’s afternoon will take on a whole new flavor, causing him to rush home and possibly even kick in the door before swaggering into the house with a resounding and enthusiastic “Daddy’s Home!” Or whatever it is that married people say to each other…
Talk to your husband. Tell him that when he tells you that he loves you, it makes you feel wonderful. Tell him that you need him to tell you in words, not because you don’t know that he loves you, but because you need to hear it in order to feel that good. Your man will be grateful if you tell him how to make you happy. Share your neuroses, as long as they’re reasonable. Hell, share them anyway, but don’t expect him to comply with everything. The point is, once you’ve told him, he at least has a choice. If the action you’re requesting is something small and insignificant to him, he’ll probably have no issue giving in, once he understands how important it is to you.
If the action is ridiculous or triggers his own fears, then you have even more to talk about. He can explain to you why he thinks your request is unreasonable or what he’d be willing to do instead to show you how he feels. By talking about it openly, honestly and authentically, you both have a chance to get what you need from the other and stop disappointing each other in ridiculous and unnecessary ways.
Admitting your problem is the first step
Once you’ve become aware of whatever insecurity was being triggered, and even better, have said it out loud to someone, chances are very good that this trigger will lose a lot of its power. Simply naming your insecurity will cause you to notice when you’re feeling this way and will often be enough to stop you from blowing up. Being aware of how you feel is the first step in being able to notice your reactions and change them.
Instead of demanding that your husband take out the garbage, ask him to do it and explain to him what it means to you. Give him a chance to understand your fears and soothe them. Let him reassure you that he loves you in whatever way works for both of you. And then, the bag of garbage, can just be a bag of garbage again.