Accidental Marriage Therapy
In an exclusive essay, author Allison Winn Scotch shares how a skiing accident helped her marriage — and taught her to stop keeping score.
My husband and I had planned to spend our 13th wedding anniversary in Mexico with our children. Instead, because I couldn’t walk or drive, he took me to physical therapy. One week prior, on a mundane ski slope, my leg twisted in half and took a bunch of bones (and muscles and tissue) with it, resulting in emergency surgery, 10 screws, one titanium plate, two bone grafts, and the most challenging crisis to our household since we’d been married. Like many long-term marriages, ours had endured good years and difficult ones; we muddled through raising babies and then toddlers; we grappled with three rescue animals, none of whom were particularly sane. We changed careers, we lost loved ones, we switched coasts. But I don’t think I truly understood marriage, the kind you speak of so eloquently when you take your vows, the kind you swear that you anticipate up at the altar, but really… simply do not, until the months following my accident.
Like many busy moms (that’s a redundant phrase, now isn’t it), I accepted the bulk of our household duties. And while I kept my chin up about it all, I can’t deny that I didn’t keep a running tally (and that I didn’t complain about it to my girlfriends). That I’d easily grow annoyed when he’d walk in the door, kiss the kids hello, and fairly quickly, relax to the comfort of the couch with his phone curled in his palm, while I kept on keeping on: dinner, the dishes, showers. It’s not that my husband wasn’t a loving or involved dad: he was. It’s simply that, I suppose, I handled everything competently and well, and this was how we had always done it. I did more. And for as long as I’d done more, it annoyed me. The tally kept running, kept ratcheting up. How he got to tune out on his phone while I ran around filling backpacks, stacking the dishwasher, realizing that we were out of dog food. (How difficult is it to inform me that we’d run out of dog food?) We’d bicker about it, of course. I’d make passive-aggressive comments or he would tell me to stop being critical, and round and round we went. We weren’t unhappy—in fact, these past years, with the kids getting older and us mellowing out with, well, age, we were more solid than we’d probably ever been. But still: there was that checklist, that drum beat playing: I do more.
He’d say to just tell him what to do, and he’d do it!
I’d say: I don’t want to tell you what to do. No one tells me! I just do it.
And then my leg split in two. The surgeon warned us that this was invasive surgery, that, in terms of leg injuries, this was just about the worst it could be. I wouldn’t walk for at least 10 weeks, and that was if all went well. I couldn’t bathe myself. I couldn’t ascend or descend our steps; I couldn’t get myself food and I couldn’t feed the kids or my husband or the dogs. Everything, for once, was up to my husband. He carried me into the shower for the first few weeks (eventually, I couldn’t stand it anymore and figured out how to hop in with crutches and ease onto my shower chair without breaking more bones); he raced home from his office to drive me to physical therapy several times a week; he brought me coffee in the morning and dinner at night; he got our kids to the bus, never once missing it in the morning, managed to pack their homework and wrangle them into the shower too. And I watched this hubbub around me, this tornado of activity, all of which he picked up without complaint (well, toward the end, truth told, he did announce that if the doctor didn’t deliver good news soon, he might physically harm him), but most important, all of which he handled as well I would have. I thanked him once, and he said simply, truthfully, “It was his turn.” And I think something shifted in him too over those months: we snipe at each other less now; we understand that the tally is essentially pointless. No, it’s not pointless actually. A partner needs to show up. But in the larger picture, when he’s an overall fantastic father, when he’s a supportive spouse, does it really matter if I do the dishes more often? That still, to this day, he loads the dishwasher in ways that make me nuts? Maybe on some days, when I’m feeling uncharitable, it does. But most days, what matters is that when I went down on the mountain, my husband propped me—all of us—back up.
Those three months weren’t easy for any of us. But, in some way, they strengthened my marriage; they shifted my outlook on what’s important in my partnership. Eventually, I started walking again; eventually, I started driving, retrieving the kids, hobbling around the grocery store. A year later, my husband still leaves dishes unwashed in the sink and still forgets to tell me about the dog food, but my tally sheet rears its ugly head far less often. Because I know that he could. And he would. And that has made all the difference.
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