“So, do you think you’d enjoy having a dog more, or the same, since Belle came to stay with us?” Erin asked as we jogged along a creekside trail near our home.
Erin was referring to the beautiful, four-year-old chocolate lab fastened to a crimson red leash. Erin wound the leash around her hand as Belle darted toward a cottontail rabbit.
Dave, Belle’s owner, had landed a prestigious summer internship while pursuing his MBA. His summer job required that he travel every week, so when I shared that Dave was searching for a summer home for Belle, Erin was thrilled.
“We’ll turn our house into Camp Nasralla!” She'd exclaimed.
Erin has these gorgeous brown eyes that are hard to say “no” to. They brim with tears at the sight of a dog in-need, which only makes it more difficult. Seriously. One photo of a senior-aged dog in a shelter elicits a more emotive response than me falling from a 12-foot ladder. That’s not to say that Erin doesn’t love me. She just really loves dogs.
So, without much debate, we did open Camp Nasralla for the summer. Belle had lived with us for two months at this point, which was long enough for Erin to begin referring to herself as “mom." She didn’t want Belle to grow confused, however, so she told Belle that we were a “Modern Family.” Belle had two dads, and one mom.
These are the things I should have considered before responding to Erin’s question. Except I didn’t. Instead, I just said what I felt.
“Less, actually. I’m less likely to want a dog.”
“Whoa, less?” Erin abruptly slowed her pace, as if I'd taken the wind from her sails. “How is that possible?” she pressed.
Belle looked backward as if to say that she, too, had in fact heard what I said, and she didn’t appreciate my attitude.
My statement was wholly genuine, mind you. I travel like a pilot most weeks, and those first two months of Camp Nasralla validated my assumption that arranging our calendar around a furry friend’s needs would require sacrifices. That wasn't something I was interested in, candidly.
However, as I focused on the selfish and logistical implications of dog ownership, I completely missed the feelings enfolded in Erin’s question. There’s more to communicating than the words we choose to speak, you see. I had overlooked how Erin chose to frame her question, “are you more excited, or the same?” She didn’t even think to provide a less option.
“You asked how I feel about owning a dog. I now feel I’m less likely to want a dog.” I repeated with as much empathy as a sack of jalapeño peppers.
I wasn’t just lacking empathy, though. I was being selfish. I was only thinking of the burden on my schedule. I wasn’t considering how much I love to see Erin happy, and how happy Belle makes Erin. Every morning that Erin wakes up to Belle excitedly wiggling her booty is like nine-year-old Erin being told it’s a snow day, and school is canceled. Let the good times roll!
“You’re kidding.” Erin coughed in disbelief.
“No, not kidding.” I said flatly.
We had reached an impasse. I decided to run ahead of Belle, imploring her to follow me and by extension, drag Erin along with her. My plan worked, and we resumed our jog.
It was a quiet morning on the trail. There weren’t many other cyclists or joggers to distract us, so I was forced to listen to the drumming of our shoes and the swishing of our shorts. Neither of us spoke to the other.
Erin soon broke the silence, “I just figured that you would have noticed how much I love Belle. You know I love her, right?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied.
Erin continued, “She’s just the best dog ever. I mean, Belle is incredibly well-behaved. So how are we ever going to get a dog if even Belle can't convince you?”
“That’s a fair question,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, it is.” She stated.
We ran in silence for a few more steps before I offered, “To be clear, I’m not saying 'never,' I’m saying 'not now.'”
It didn't seem to help.
Feelings are like honey. They’re sticky. They don’t wash away so easy. It takes more than a brief moment (of conversation) to clean up honey (feelings). And if you’ve ever left a bottle of honey sitting on the shelf for too long, you’ll realize that when it crystalizes, it becomes even more difficult to cope.
That afternoon, I allowed Erin’s feelings to crystalize. I mistakenly assumed that end-of-conversation meant end-of-issue. After we left our run to go to work, she went through her day feeling hopeless that I’d ever see the issue from her perspective.
I didn’t see a need to follow up on the conversation, however. I felt justified in my response. I had truthfully spoken my mind. Surely, she wouldn’t have wanted me to answer falsely, gaslighting a scenario of doggy delight, right?
Wrong. My option was not binary. Instead of choosing between a positive or negative response, I could have chosen to address the feeling within the question. But, I didn't.
Erin dropped her keys on the kitchen table as I looked up from my laptop to ask, “Hey, how are you?”
“I thought about our conversation all day,” she revealed, looking away from me as she spoke.
She pulled a coffee mug from her purse and set it in the sink. “I don’t think we’ve finished discussing the topic.”
“What’s there to discuss? You asked what I thought, and I answered,” I said coldly.
“Yes, and that’s true, but we never talked about how I felt,” she returned.
“Oh, okay. Well, how did you feel?” I inquired.
“Like I wasn’t heard,” she said.
I countered, “But didn’t you ask me the question? I thought you wanted me to answer, not listen?”
“Well, based on your answer," Erin said, "I wanted to talk about it. But you went silent as we ran, like you didn’t want to. Then we had to go to work, so we didn’t get to follow up.”
“Okay?” I answered.
Erin paused for a moment before explaining, “I was expecting you to text me. Or call. You know, something to say that you understand how I was feeling. I thought you'd want to pursue me, but you didn’t.”
“Pursue me.” The key word there was “me.” Erin didn’t say, “pursue getting a dog.” Erin was talking about her need to feel understood by her husband, not her need for me to love dogs.
I missed that too, however. “Oh, I guess I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
“Nate, it’s not about right or wrong, what you were or were not supposed to do. It’s about the fact you didn’t want to know how I feel.”
“But I thought this all started by you wondering how I feel?” I reacted.
“You’re not getting it!” She cried.
“What’s there to get?" I exclaimed. "You asked me how I felt about a dog, and I said how I felt!”
That’s when the tears started.
Erin turned away from me, recoiling like we do when something cuts or burns us. She stepped toward the sink and drizzled soap into her coffee mug. The running water muted her sniffles, but I didn’t need sound to know she was sniffling.
On the first day of my college course, “Introduction to Relationships: Interpersonal Dynamics & Interactions,” our professor said 95% of the time, tears should be followed by an apology and a hug. During the remaining 5%, the severe cases, a brief discourse that alerts the other person of an incoming hug should precede physical contact.
Just kidding. I never took a college course called “Introduction to Relationships.” Classes like that don't exist. It would be antithetical, in fact. In the very moment that we define a series of rules or operations for building relationships, we undermine our own end. A rulebook would kill exactly that which it hopes to grow – authentic, genuine, healthy relationships.
And yet, I wanted a rulebook. I wanted to know Erin’s preferred process for how to proceed.
“Tell me what I should do, then,” I petitioned.
“Nate!" Erin cried out. "I don’t want to have to tell you!”
I continued to dig myself an early grave. “Then how do I know what to do?”
“You should hug me! Say that you're sorry!”
“But because I want to, not because you told me to, right?” It was as if I just shot myself in my foot, reloaded, and then shot myself again before noticing the pain I was causing.
“Just hug me!” Erin pleaded, exasperated.
I moved toward Erin and wrapped my arms around her. As we stood in our kitchen chest to chest, my first trace of relational wisdom appeared.
I whispered, “I love you, E, and I’m sorry. I should have said that sooner.”
Erin nodded, affirming she'd heard me, and she appreciated my words. She had never wanted to change my opinion. She'd only wanted to know that I could empathize.
As she remained motionless within my embrace, I stared at our dishwasher. I felt grimy, sullied for making my wife cry. I envied our dirty dishes for a moment. If only I could crawl inside our dishwasher alongside them, I'd load in the soap and turn the dial to "Power Scrub." We’d all emerge one hour later, spotless and without blemish.
People don’t get to sit inside dishwashers, though. When we walk into honey and are feeling sticky and grubby, there’s no “Power Scrub” to wipe things clean. Instead, we only have our words, and it happens that our most powerful sentences contain the fewest words. “I love you,” and, “I’m sorry,” just five words total, happen to be the mightiest of them all.
Meaningful relationships aren't built by quid-pro-quo. "We can get a dog so long as you..." That doesn't work over the long-term. Flat out capitulation doesn't work, either. It's only a matter of time before contempt and resentment sets in.
Instead, I think a more viable alternative is to allow our desires to be reshaped. More often than I'd like to admit, I don't want something simply because I don't want to want it. Do you know what I mean? I develop a certain uncompromising narrative in my head, and when something contradicts that narrative, I shut it down.
The narrative I'd developed said that dogs kill freedom. You may laugh, or cringe, but I'm serious. My thought process went something like, "As soon as you give in and adopt a dog, say goodbye to travel, spontaneity, long weekends and late nights - all of the freedoms you love."
Strangely, the day that Erin had to part with Belle - the close of Camp Nasralla - was the day that I became open to Belle returning. The story I'd been telling myself started to fade like twilight in the late summer hours, and I grew open to my desires maturing.
I turned on my phone as our wheels skipped along the tarmac at Denver International Airport. My screen lit up with the preview of a new text from Dave, Belle's owner.
"Hey, I’m going to have to let someone take care of Belle when I graduate and start my new job," it started off. "My sister offered to take her, so I don’t want you to feel any pressure if it’s not the right choice, but if Belle would be the right dog for you and Erin, we could make camp her new home."
I smiled. One month had passed since Belle checked out of Camp Nasralla.
Each week since, as I checked into a new hotel - Portland, Los Angeles, Oakland, Dallas, the list goes on - I'd call Erin to ask how her day was. With each call I made, a recurring thought shoved its way into my mind, "Nobody is going to welcome Erin home tonight."
I hated that thought. I hated that it wasn't irrational; it was reality. As it persisted, it reversed my longstanding aversion to building our schedule around a dog's. It stoked my desire to know that Erin would be welcomed home by a smiling face each evening (dogs do smile, I’ve learned).
I texted Dave back, "I’d say let me confirm that with Erin, but I think she’d get on a plane to pick up Belle tonight if you asked her to!"
I pasted Dave's message into my conversation with Erin, followed by a "?" She texted me back immediately. Like incoming missiles, a series of seven texts communicating how much she loved Belle blew up my phone.
The last one asked, "But what do you think?"
I didn't need more than a few words.
"I'd love for Belle to join our family."
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