Yesterday, my wife (@KatMByrne for those of you on Twitter) and I celebrated our 17th anniversary of being married and a total of 18 years being together — and today is Father’s Day. I’d given some thought about writing a mushy tribute to her, but realized that didn’t feel right. And then I realized why — who I am today as a person is the best tribute to her there is because in large part, she deserves a lot of the credit. I also realized that my kids deserve credit as well for teaching me so many things. My family has made me a better person over the years, and so I figured I’d share what being a husband and a father has taught me. This is, by no means, saying you have to have a spouse or kids to be complete as a person – it’s just the only thing that worked for me.
I’ll start off with an anecdote that sums it up in a nutshell. Four years after my own wedding, my sister was getting married and my far-flung relatives came to attend. One of them was my dad’s oldest sister Yvonne (usually just “Aunt Y” to all of us). She was 13 years older than my dad, and as with most of us in the Byrne family, she tended to speak her mind but loved us all very much. So while she was in town, my wife Katherine and I volunteered to take her around town and ended up going to Great Falls Park outside DC. There we walked and talked for a bit, and at one point talking about weddings, family, and my own marriage, my aunt turned to me and said “Jason, I’m glad you found Kathy. Marriage has been good for you — you’re not such a little shit anymore.” I would have been insulted I guess, except for the fact that I immediately knew it to be true. I wasn’t such a little shit anymore. What Aunt Y really meant was “Jason, being married to Kathy has given you confidence and made you happy,” because frankly being unhappy and not confident generally translates as “being a little shit.”
Which brings me to the first thing I learned:
If you’re going to get married, make sure it’s to someone who helps you become the person you want to be.
Notice I did not say “makes you the person you want to be” or “helps you become a better person.” Those are quite different and/or open to interpretation. I also purposely didn’t say “going to be in a relationship” — marriage is different, often times because it isn’t until we’ve dated other people that we have any idea who the hell we even are or what we want. But “marriage” in this case is just shorthand for “long-term committed relationship between two adults,” which is all it really ever is, despite what meaning people keep trying to ascribe to it. Before I met my wife, I tended to date women of a certain personality type – you might call it “impassioned”, many of my friends called it “crunchy-granola eco-fem-nazis from hell,” but what it came down to was I kept picking women who were passionate about many of the same issues I was. We had great discussions and even greater arguments and I was miserable most of the time. And then I met Kathy and in addition to a number of other things, she was a passionate advocate for me, and suddenly I was happy.
The key here is that I believe the best marriages are based on not only the sum being greater than the individual parts, but that each partner in the relationship allows opportunities and offers support to the other in terms of becoming the kind of person they want to be. Luckily I had good role models with my own parents. Neither of them would have accomplished all that they have without the support of the other. Which brings me to the next item…
It’s a cliché because it’s true: there’s no more important aspect of being in a relationship with someone than communication
This one I think is not only true for marriages and relationships with significant others, it’s true for every relationship we have as adults, including with our children. When you’re growing up, you learn to take different types of communication for granted. You interact with your parents and authority figures one way, peers another, etc. And then you go out into the great wide world and discover that those types of communication don’t work anymore — either because you or the other person learned bad habits growing up or neither one of you has adapted to the fact that part of getting to know anyone is discovering how to communicate with them. [Note – “communicate” does NOT mean “talk” — communication implies listening as much as talking, and being in tune with each other’s verbal AND nonverbal cues]
Growing up as an introvert with social anxiety, I was not a natural communicator. Growing up as the youngest in a family of over-achieving Type A personalities, I also did not communicate well with my close friends and family about what I was thinking or feeling. That’s a lot of bottling up to deal with. As I came to adulthood, I tended to communicate too much, too fast in my romantic relationships and without having bothered to learn they liked to communicate. The result? Clingy, needy Jason who then got hurt when things tended to go off the rails and didn’t understand why. The first three years my wife and I were together were wonderful, but it also tested each of us as we came to accommodate how each other communicated (especially during arguments!). At the end of that, not only did we have a stronger relationship, we had each undergone significant personal growth (which as distastefully new age-y as that sounds, really is the best term for it.)
Don’t forget the kids
We ended up not having kids until almost 8 years into our marriage for a number of reasons, and that had both pros and cons, but the biggest bonus was the foundation it provided once we did have children. If you think communicating with a significant other is tough, try throwing in keeping that going while dealing with parental roles, finances, logistics of a busy calendar out of your control, and learning to communicate with your own kids. And if you don’t think you have to learn how to communicate with your own kids, you’re crazy.
Looking back on it now, it becomes pretty evident that at least part of human’s extended childhood (in relation to other mammals) is at least partly due to not only them needing to learn, but the parents needing to as well. It starts off pretty simply – sleeping, eating, and diapers are the basis for all initial communication. Then once the “Terrible Twos” hit (usually it seems actually at about the 18 month mark) you get a communication crisis — and the cause of the so-called Terrible Twos. They’ve been soaking up an incredible amount of information on EVERYTHING and suddenly lightning strikes and they want to start communicating and by extension taking some measure of control of their environment. The cosmic joke is on all of us though, as they usually can’t even speak worth a damn at that point. So you have this widely exploding intelligence trapped behind poor muscle control and a lack of syntax — and thus the tantrums…and really, who can blame then? If no one listened to you and you couldn’t express yourself, you’d be throwing tantrums as well (you know, like Sarah Palin).
So what I learned early on is even when your kids are newborns, talk to them like they’re more than just a cute blob – talk to them like they are human beings — not only is that just a good habit to get into, but you’ll actually be teaching them how to communicate. As some of you who have met my kids can attest to – they can talk in a manner well beyond their calendar years.
Now my oldest is nine and my youngest is almost three, so I don’t have any pearls of wisdom to offer on teenagers – and at that point, you’ve either taught them well or you haven’t, so there may be no special trick to offer. The only salient advice I have — and this applies to any child — is don’t talk down to them. Simplify only as absolutely needed to make yourself understood. If you talk to your kids like their idiots, all you get are idiot kids.
With great power, there must also come great responsibility…
While this one sounds like strictly a parenting tip, but it applies to relationships with spouses/significant others as well. For kids, it’s pretty straight forward. You are the parent first. That doesn’t preclude the idea of being their friend to, but that can never come before being their parent. Many of the baby boomer generation were all about having a different kind of relationship with their children than their parents had with them, which is fine in theory, but too often resulted in parents giving up the mantle of authority in favor of warm fuzzies. Now as a rampant liberal, why am I in favor of being an “authoritative parent?” (and not “authoritarian” as I had originally written – Thanks @markzero!) I sure wasn’t when I was a kid. My parents were notorious for being much stricter with my sister and I then my friend’s parents, and I hated it. Some of my friends could be out to all hours, had outrageous amounts of things bought for them, and were basically answerable to no one.
But now with years of parenting under my belt, I’ve come to (grudgingly) admit how right my parents were. Because while they were strict, they were also fair, consistent, and reliably communicated expectations to me. Most of all, that structure gave me the freedom to get my own feet under me and later gave me the tools to stand on my own. Without the self-discipline they instilled in me, I don’t believe much of what I love about my life would have been possible. So my model with my own children has been a sort of benevolent co-dictator (with my wife of course). We don’t control every aspect of what our kids do, but what we do ask (and we still do ask politely — another lesson for the kids), we expect to basically be taken as an order. Orders can be questioned within reason and clarification and alternatives can always be suggested, but we expect our kids to do what we’ve required of them. This perhaps sounds tough to some, but the importance of the heading comes into play here — when you yield great power over someone, you have an equally great responsibility to exercise it well.
In a romantic relationship, it’s a slightly different perspective, but the same general concept. Any relationship like that should ideally be one of equals. The phrase “wearing the pants in the family” is one of my pet peeves and to me underlines much of what can go wrong in a relationship. Despite what you may have heard, in a healthy relationship there is not a “top” or “bottom” to use rather direct phrasing. Two much better phrases come to my mind when it comes to relationships:
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. – Karl Marx
Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send. – Jon Postel (Postel’s Law)
The first is straight up Marxism, and a healthy relationship between two people is about the only place it can actually work 😉 The second is from Jon Postel, one of the founders of the Internet, talking about best common practice in network communication – but it applies remarkably well to many types of communication. To tie it in to what I was discussing earlier – ideally in a relationship, each of you finds that right balance between self-identity and serving the common purpose of the relationship — there’s no room for power plays or one seeking to push authority over the other. And that also applies to how you communicate – be liberal in what you accept (meaning you shouldn’t place limits on how you’re communicated with) and conservative in what you send (meaning think before you speak).
And that brings me to the end of what is likely an unnecessarily long piece — but these are just some of the things I’ve learned from being both a husband and father. As I said at the beginning, I don’t believe you have to be in a committed relationship or have kids to be a complete person, but I do know that for me, I didn’t become the person I wanted to be until I had. Many people probably learn this stuff in other ways or don’t learn it even after having been a spouse or parent, but I thank my wife and kids for teaching me.