I remember the feel of the sheets at the W Hotel where I sat at the end of the queen size bed. It was sunrise and I was sitting at the end of the bed staring out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the clouds hanging above the Atlanta skyline. I couldn’t move anything except my hands, which were moving back and forth across the sheets. The night before my flight from New York City my wife and I had an argument.
What began as a misunderstanding on my part over the meaning of a magazine article escalated to her screaming with all her might that 1) I was a joke of a man; 2) she had made a mistake picking me to be the father of her children; and 3) all the decisions I had been making for the family had been bad ones.
I was stunned. As black man in America it’s impossible not to be at least minimally exposed to misjudgments by others. But nothing could’ve prepared me for what my wife said to me that night. I immediately laughed it off, telling her and myself that what she said wasn’t true. Our beautiful children were living happy lives. She and I may have been in want for a few of life’s luxuries but we were in need of nothing. I asked her where all these feelings had come from. She didn’t have an answer. I also asked her how, once she had calmed down and the smoke had cleared, was she planning to come back from what she said. Finally I asked whether or not she truly understood that she was not hanging out with some disposable dude. I was the man who had been at her side for nine years””with her through all her ups and and downs and she through mine, the stepfather to her son and the father to our daughter. She didn’t have an answer to any of my questions.
Despite the calm front I put on the damage was done. If words could kill I would have been dead on the floor at my wife’s feet. Getting to the airport, my flight, even arriving at the hotel was all done in a fog. I didn’t begin to feel again until I woke up in that hotel room unable and unwilling to move to attend a workshop I paid for. I was alone and felt incredibly ugly and unworthy. The fact that, at the time, I had gained a few extra pounds only made matters worse. I’ll never forget how I had to force myself to stand, to look at myself in the mirror as I dressed and to eventually move to leave that hotel. I’m sure some reading this might be thinking that I should’ve just found some company in Hotlanta or I should’ve left my wife or worse. But there was nothing a stranger was going to do to repair what had been done to me in my own home. I’m married and had made my vows before God and despite it all that actually means something to me.
That was a little more than two years ago. At first I passed on seeking out therapy because I was too embarrassed and angry to repeat her words to anyone. I struggled tremendously for almost a year with my self-esteem and my role in my family. My wife has long since apologized, even taking back what she said. But the truth is that once words are spoken there is almost nothing that can be done to undo them. You can only hope the people you’ve offended will forgive you. And seeking forgiveness, as noble as that is, does little to repair the initial damage caused. I’ve forgiven and I’ve moved on. I’m in a place where I’ve regained my sense of self but I will not pretend to be superhuman or super-righteous and say that I am not occasionally haunted and angered by her words and that she said them.
Ultimately, a marriage counselor had to tell us both that this kind of talk is completely off limits inside a marriage. People often blame their actions towards others on how they were raised, on what they are dealing with at work, and especially on that other person. Our argument two years ago occurred because we were both wrong. Not because she was right and I wasn’t or vice versa. In the heat of the moment words were spoken that didn’t destroy our relationship but definitely sought to rob me of what really matters to me: my role as a father and a husband. Marriage is a place where two people come together to become stronger. Even in the worst of times one, if not both of you, has the opportunity to build the other up. Being angry isn’t justification for saying whatever you want however you want because it’s how you’re feeling. All you’re doing is planting the seeds for the destruction of your relationship and your family. If underlying issues are at play then try talking about them before they come out during an argument.
Short of mental impairment the only one who has control over you, your emotions and your mouth is you. Life never stops moving but words are eternal, particularly the ones you speak to those closest to you. Be careful to speak life, not death, even when you’re disagreeing. Try being a cheerleader for your spouse and see what happens. If each of us in the married lane tried this, particularly during the challenging times, there’s no limit on how much we will accomplish, together. We can do the job we pay counselors to do for us. We can stem the tide on divorce. We can be an example to singles for why marriage works versus why it doesn’t.