Six years ago, Darren and I melted down over homeschooling. Among other things, that was the day we said to each other, “It’s not up to you to keep me happy.”
The wording is important. We didn’t say Don’t even try to make me happy or I don’t care if you’re unhappy. Then and now, we go out of our way to please each other. I leave him love notes on the bathroom mirror; he asks me out on dates. I try new recipes for him; he buys me vintage issues of Better Homes & Gardens. We enjoy making each other happy.
But we don’t have to keep each other happy.
When we were younger, one bad mood could hold us both hostage. If I was unhappy, Darren had to think of ways to make it all better. If he was stressed, I tried to alleviate all irritations so he would feel better. My bad mood became his problem, and vice versa.
Our first glimmer of change was when we talked with a marriage counselor. She helped us see several areas where we needed to grow. Then we got out of a chronically painful church situation, releasing some serious pressure on our marriage and our relationship with our children.
And then the meltdown happened.
Leading up to this particular school year, I was completely burned out and (I realize now) mildly depressed. I’d spent six years doing all of the planning, teaching, follow-up, and school discipline—a lot of which I wasn’t naturally good at and didn’t enjoy. So while I recovered, Darren planned to take on the bulk of the schooling by himself.
The day before school started, Darren was tense and hard to please (which isn’t like him at all). According to how we operated, I felt obligated to get him happy again. But nothing I tried worked; he persisted in being unhappy. Finally, I snapped, “I give up. Nothing I do does any good anyway.”
He was immediately sorry, and wrapped me in a tight hug in the middle of the kitchen. He admitted that he didn’t know how he was going to balance work, church, and all of the schooling with almost no support from me. A long conversation followed … almost literally heart-to-heart, as we held onto each other the whole time. We admitted the problems ahead of us, came to a possible solution, and apologized for handling the entire situation so badly.
And in a far-reaching decision, we promised that we would no longer take responsibility for the other’s happiness. Either we would address a problem between us, or we’d say, “I’m in a bad mood. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.” And the other could then carry on with a perfectly good day.
That school year was a lot of work for Darren, since I still struggled with burnout. Fortunately, things improved year by year. Now we’re both in a much healthier emotional and spiritual mindset. We each take responsibility for our own emotional ups and downs. When one of us has a bad day, the other is free to respond from love, not from guilt. At the same time, we carry the task of homeschooling together, protecting us both from burnout and restoring my joy in teaching my children.
That conversation in the kitchen was a turning point. Don’t keep me happy ended up giving us the space we needed to actually be happier.
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