How Do Spouses Figure Out What’s Important to Each Other?


Matt Sullivan is director of creative operations for Delaware and Philadelphia film and video company Short Order Production House. He used to write stuff like this a lot, but he’s a little out of practice. He also really hopes his wife is still cool with it.

Thursday night is a quiet night. My daughter is at a dance, my son is at basketball, my wife is on carpool duty, Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek fame is back on my television, and me, I’m on the couch, ready to engage.

And that’s when I notice it: the poinsettia. Half-dead, exactly in the middle of the floor, just below the sight line that runs from my couch to the TV screen where Jean-Luc is playing cards with Data. It’s an odd place to see a poinsettia, four weeks after Christmas. How long has it been there? I don’t think it was there before. Was it? I wonder why my wife put it there, but then my hubby-sense starts tingling.

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This is a test.

I should do something. But what? Throw it away? It’s half-dead, not all-dead. How much dead is unacceptably dead? I don’t know. This is tricky. I decide against the garbage plan. Throwing it away is very final, as there’s no coming back from that if I’m wrong. I move it into an empty corner, sweep up the leaves that fell off in transit and cross my fingers.

I know what you’re thinking: Is he really that stupid? Well, actually, that’s not the right question, because the facts here are long established. Early in my marriage, my wife came upstairs, visibly annoyed.

“You didn’t clean it up?”

“Clean what up?”

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“Don’t act dumb.”

“I have no idea what you’re  talking about.”

“Come here.”

I follow her to the bottom of the stairwell, where what appeared to be an entire floor’s worth of sweepings have been piled into a heap that I apparently vaulted over to get upstairs. I stare at it as though seeing it for the first time—because I am seeing it for the first time—and my wife had a dawning realization: “You truly didn’t see it, did you?”

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I did not. But my honest obliviousness is a reason, not an excuse. And that leads to the right question: Why can it be so hard to care about the things a person you love cares about?

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Sometimes late at night, after a couple beers with close friends, when we’re being introspective and honest with each other about the reasons why our wives will finally smarten up and kick us out someday, mine is always the same: I don’t help out enough around the house.

They say you can teach people new skills, but you can’t teach people how to care. I think that’s true in the workplace, and maybe at home, too. Some things are just hardwired. But love is a powerful motivator, and love means being willing to try. —Matt Sullivan

I know it’s true. And it’s not like we’re gender normative in many ways. I cook on weekends; she builds the IKEA furniture. I set the summer camp schedule; she does some light plumbing work. But in the day-to-day of running the house, much of the burden falls on her, for reasons that are a complex stew of personality and patriarchy, and a bit of personal laziness, but basically come down to this: She cares about things being neat and clean more than I care. (I don’t not care, but there’s a significant care gap here.)

Kids, let me tell you something about life from the perspective of a man who’s been married for almost two decades: An imbalance in the things you care about is the No. 1 thing that will cause conflict in an otherwise successful relationship. Democrat and Republican? Don’t talk politics. Hot versus cold sleepers? You can cure that with blankets and personal fans. People who say “irregardless?” Just don’t marry them.

But when you honestly care about different things, that difference runs deep. Each person’s subconscious will start a fight years before your mouths can catch up, and it can feel like you’re in the ninth round before you ever throw a punch.

They say you can teach someone new skills, but you can’t teach people how to care. I think that’s true in the workplace, and maybe at home, too. Some things are just hardwired. But love is a powerful motivator, and love means being willing to try.

A couple years ago, my wife said she would appreciate it if we started putting the toilet seat lid down before we flushed. I agreed it seemed like a good idea, and then failed to do so every single time. She noticed. And so I worked at it. I’d forget most of the time, then half the time, and then, suddenly, only about a quarter of the time.

Is that enough? No. But I swear, I’m trying to get better in other ways too. Maybe you can’t teach someone to care, but you can work to act like you care—and some days, if there’s love there, too, maybe that helps.

My wife returns home with our kids just as Picard is getting his groove back. She walks into the den, stops and smiles.

“So, who moved the plant?”

I did! I did! Whew. She doesn’t thank me, and I don’t expect it. This plant moving was not a grand gesture. But it did make her smile.

I give myself a C+ on this one. (I later learned the plant had been there for three days, so points off for that.) But I’m trying, and I’m grateful she thinks I’m still worth the effort.

Published as “Learning to Care” in the March 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.

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