Respect the cannotness
A story about giving and receiving the gift of respite in a relationship
These days there is not a thing that I'm more grateful for than my wife. I have much to say about her, about how much she has influenced who I am today, which I fully expect to write about in this newsletter over time. In this post I want to examine something that I've been thinking about a lot lately - it's about her respecting and granting my need for respite.
The feeling I get when she lets me rest is the same every time: I feel loved, cared for, respected, and supported.
Her simple act of accepting my unpredictable pleas for a break may be one of the most wholesome things that I experience on the regular (especially since we became parents). I've started to wonder how we came to be like this, partly because I'm curious and partly because I wish for more people to know about this dynamic and cultivate it in their relationships.
The way it works in our relationship is this --
Let's say I'd been up a little later than normal the night before dealing with some paperwork for our daughter's citizenship application (true story). I'm a grown man, so I naturally find myself tired the next day. For me, this fatigue can come any time - right after breakfast, at midday, or, "conveniently" when our daughter poops in her diaper and needs a butt wash and fresh diapers.
This time, it comes at lunch. I yawn incessantly and am extremely lethargic - eyes teary and red, half-open, inattentive. I'm crashing.
My internal monologue at this point is going something like, I really want to do my duty as a parent and partner, but I cannot. Too tired. Need rest. Brain turning up red flags with the white flag at the ready.
It's clear in my problem-solving brain that my next best option is to take a power nap (it works for me) and then spring back to life like an undead resurrecting from the grave, all ready to do things.
I looked up wearily at my wife and, in my Singaporean English, declare, "I cannot."
Despite the fatigue, I brace myself to explain. Why am I tired? Can't I see that she needs a break too? Why can't I pace myself better and not be so burdensome?
But instead of questioning the circumstances and picking apart the decisions that led me to be this tired, she simply responded with a gentle knowingness, "Okay, don't worry, you rest," and carried on chopping something on the kitchen counter to prepare our daughter's dinner. Said daughter, in the meantime, is crawling from the adjoining living room where I was toward the kitchen shelf in search of yet another potentially dangerous thing to touch, chew, ruffle, or otherwise childishly examine.
Just like that, she grants me the chance to hang up my parent uniform, drop out of reality, and nap on the sofa for a while. I do nap, and when I wake, I find myself naturally wanting to be extra helpful to try to compensate for my disappearance.
This, like many little things that matter, feels inconsequential. Your wife let you take a nap. What's the big deal?
The big deal is that this indicates that we're in a healthy relationship.
I did not need to justify why I'm tired or the extent to which I was feeling it - she trusts that when I say I am tired to the point of needing a rest right now, I am indeed tired and need a rest. She doesn't ask any questions. This is only possible when two people trust each other. Not only does she automatically believe that I'm telling the truth about my energy level, but she also believes that I always have her interest at heart and would therefore not do senseless things that would make me needlessly tired and thereby need a break and unfairly dumping my responsibilities onto her.
Another reason this is a big deal is that this simple act, aggregated over one's lifetime as a couple, adds up to something tremendously enabling. I find deep comfort in knowing that I shall have respite whenever I need it, for the rest of my life, till death does us part.
In practical terms, this means that I have the license to toil at whatever I want, expend my energy, and not worry that my eventual exhaustion will have a negative feedback loop on my family life. There's a circuit-breaker (see what I did there, my Singaporean friends?) that my wife embeds in our relationship in the form of kindness- and trust-enabled respite that makes sure that I get back on track again.
In the end, this matters to me because: a) I will always have the energy to try new, creative, entrepreneurial things (like this newsletter) that could end up providing for our family in some way; and b) I'll be happier in general, having time and energy for my pursuits, which reverberates positively back into our family.
I asked myself how we got here and the first thing that came to mind was trust and mutual respect. I think they have a big role in making this "respect the cannotness" dynamic possible. If my wife and I didn't trust each other or have mutual respect, I think she would easily be in contempt when I say, "I cannot." Her contempt would then lead to my contempt, and the contempt spirals out of control, and any chance of respite gets swung out with it. So anything that I can do to build trust and mutual respect helps.
Aside from that foundation, I think the key was for one of us - the person on the receiving end of the "I cannot" - to, when the occasion arose, respond with a rare level of kindness and understanding and decide to "take one for the team." My wife did that for me first. The first time she did, I knew I would happily reciprocate the next time she tells me that she cannot, establishing a virtuous cycle of trusting and respecting and covering for the other.
Recently, I also realised that you don't need to wait until your partner cries for help to extend this rare kindness. A few weeks ago I offered to take the responsibility of caring for our daughter for a full day by myself. I did this not because she asked for help explicitly but because she had hinted in conversations that it is exhausting being mum (it is an always-on job, unlike a dad's, especially if she is breastfeeding), and I saw an opportunity to give her some respite for a day. Oh, you bet she relished that day!
If you think you'd like to build this dynamic in your relationship, my suggestion is to find an opportunity to be the one extending this kindness first. I wouldn't have anything to celebrate in this post if my wife hadn't met my "cannotness" with respect and kindness!