I recently celebrated my 30th birthday. For the first time I was excited because turning 30 represented a new kind of respect for me as a woman, no longer too immature to have much value in the eyes of society. I also had higher expectations than usual as my previous birthdays were always celebrated, but were times that made it clear my family never really got me, per se. This one was being celebrated with my husband and my two small children; of course it would be great. Except that it wasn’t. Maybe I didn’t make a big deal of the whole thing, but having recently celebrated my husband’s birthday and having done a great deal to make it a special experience, I expected something similar in return. My husband got me some nice gifts, though he didn’t even bother to wrap them, and we went to a post Halloween party because that was already in the works with some of our couple-friends. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t enough. Still, I feel really guilty for even thinking this and have no idea how to say something to my husband that would make me feel better and not have him take it the wrong way. How do I ask him to see me in a way that my family never could?
Dear Thirty and Fabulous,
I get it! I really do. I think yours is an experience that a few of us can relate to. For years we are trained to be good wives, mothers, daughters, friends, scholars- pick one! All the while, we are usually told that until we have more experience under our belts that really, we’re just kids and we can’t possibly know what we are talking about. Let me tell you, two healthy kids, a husband, and a well-rounded life speaks volumes about what you have to teach the rest of us! I’m glad you are able to value yourself even when others struggle to see you for what you are. Bravo!
I tend to hear a lot of women talk about the things that really get to them, the hurts that stick and yet they minimize these things with some regard for the state of the world, “how can I possibly be upset about something like this when there are people going hungry and with out refuge in the world”? Well, here it is: yea, there are millions of people in the world that probably have it much worse than you do on a daily basis, and yet your problems, your hurts still matter. How will you ever be healthy enough to help those others in need if you always minimize or brush off the things that weigh you down? You can’t. Pretty simple. So, before you have this conversation with your husband, and perhaps with your family too, have one with yourself. Acknowledge your worth and your concerns. Make some space for them. This is that whole self-love concept in action. A little self-compassion can go a long way. It’s ok that you were given nice gifts and that material things were not enough to make you feel fully loved by your close people. This might be a good time to make space for a gift to yourself. This isn’t just a “ya’ you’re right” moment; it’s time to start doing for yourself what you would like others to be doing for you. It’s not fair to expect others to do what you can’t do for you. That’s a lot of pressure.
That said, an important thing to remember when approaching your husband is that he might very well get defensive even if you have a legitimate complaint. Don’t let that deter you. Let it be an opportunity for both of you to grow. Many wise teachers will tell you that our mates are there to make us look at ourselves and dip into our own deep waters. Start by being honest. In real honesty there is no manipulation or plea for another’s compliance. There is simply a space for speaking your truth. Tell your husband that you are grateful for his gifts and the effort he did make, even if it didn’t meet your expectations. And then tell him what feelings showed up for you upon reflection. Let him know what you experienced with your family and that this celebration brought those memories back up for you. Tell him what you would have liked to experience with him and what you would prefer your marriage to reflect as imposed to old wounds that you’ve carried with you. Tell him that you expected him to do for you what you did for him. Expectations are teachers; we are constantly failed by them and that’s why we have them, to help break out of the illusions that bind us to our suffering. Some might tell you to be grateful and move on. You could do that, but there’s a pretty good chance that if you leave it at this then this will show up for you every year around this time. It’s not really about the birthday so much as the vulnerability of being present with one another and being able to see your partner fully. This is where unconditional love is born, and if you need to make your way to this place by sharing your pain, then do it. This is not selfish. It’s powerful.
I hope you find the courage to speak up, for yourself, for your marriage, and for the children that you are teaching with your actions. Just ask your 40-year-old self what she would do. I bet she will have some perspective. She knows that you are worth it.
You can ask Samara and Caroline questions for the Love & Life Advice Column here at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* The ideas and advice presented here are not a substitute for professional advice. Talk to your psychologist, counselor, physician or health care professional for situations that warrant further analysis.