As the Chief Executive of Relate, the UK's leading relationship support organisation, I thought it might be apt to share a little of my own experience of how relationships can develop over time.
Ian, my husband, announced on the eve of a long weekend that we should paint the kitchen. I felt my chest tighten and an acute sense of impending doom.
"Ok, Darling," I trill, swiftly followed by "Are you mad?"
Ian and I have a bloody history when it comes to DIY; it has been the source of some of our most spectacular fallouts. Over 20 years ago, following tantrums, arguments, tears and sulking, we vowed we would never attempt to do any DIY together again. From now on we would outsource this grief. However, never is a long time and scars heal Maybe we could try after all? After all, aren't we grown-ups now?
Fast forward to Sunday evening. Job complete, glasses of wine in hand, and big grins on our paint-speckled faces. So what's changed?
1. We discussed it all before we started and got everything we needed first.
2. We had enough money, time and space to do what was needed. We were more realistic.
However, it was probably the unspoken changes which were more revealing. I have learnt that Ian loves preparation, whereas I just like to get things done. Without discussing this, we started preparing. When I had done everything I thought was necessary, I decided to go out, giving me time to chill out and Ian more time with beloved polyfilla and sandpaper (he's done that bit three times already, I think, but I don't say anything).
In the past, I wouldn't have had the confidence to make a decision and seek time out. I would have thought the whole project would fail without me. Neither would Ian have felt able to ask me to stand aside and let him get on with what he wanted to do.
Flagging a bit towards the end of the day with a tiny brush on a large panelled door, Ian says, "I don't think I am going to get this finished, let alone a second coat tomorrow."
"It's a great first coat", I venture. "Perhaps for the second coat you could get away with a bigger brush?"
"Hmmm" is the answer. In the past, I would have offered my advice as a criticism and triggered a spiralling argument. Now I knew it was time for a break, I rustled up something to eat and we spent an enjoyable evening, laughing about times past.
Next morning, bigger brush in evidence, Ian is motoring away. I am silent on the matter (in the past probably a 'told you so' moment). We work in contented silence, together but separate. After a while Ian proffers, "I was sceptical about the bigger brush idea but it's paid off."
"That's because of all your superior preparation", I reply. We laugh, compliments flow and are well received.....so maybe we have grown up a bit after all.
On reflection, when we were younger, we were striving to be equal. It was the era of having it all. We both worked full time, we were both studying, we had three children under five. We shared children and chores. Many of my friends were envious of my 'new man' husband who was very capable on the domestic front. But we clashed on areas where one of us wanted to lead.
I now think this was more to do with some gender hardwiring, which doesn't make you less or more of a man or woman to concede. For Ian, this was to do with protection and responsibility. I would accuse him of being over cautious, limiting freedom and spontaneity. Unfair when his primary motivation was to provide for and protect his family. In my striving to be seen as equal, I was trampling on something fundamental for him. But there's a difference between allowing someone to lead on something and burdening them with responsibility. When it comes to my pride (and joy) I can be a lioness, it's a responsibility we can share.
This has happened in reverse and I felt him intruding on what I would think of as my feminine territory. Although I didn't really acknowledge that there was such a thing, a small example is that Ian is great at ironing. Though I am pleased about this, I can't help but harbour a tiny niggle that he thinks I am not very good at ironing. So, am I less of a woman? No, the nurture and caring tasks are something we can share too.
So maybe our DIY wars were part and parcel of the same thing? We have learnt we are good at different things. We have been working out that how we behave and communicate impacts on each other and how we can complement each other's strengths. ....So roll on the next DIY project says me. Steady on, says Ian, it might have been a one off!