Do You See Me?
I slammed the pan on the counter and watched droplets of spaghetti sauce splash bright red stains on my new white shirt.
"That's just great." I bit my lip and grabbed a paper towel.
Ron slipped out of the recliner and stared at the mess. "Do you need some help?"
Guilt tapped me on the shoulder and kicked my hide your true feelings so you can be a great Christian wife response into high gear. I was exhausted and didn't want to cook or be the good wife. I took a deep breath as my eyes darted from Ron to the floor.
I bit my lip again. "No, I'm fine. I'm just tired and the pan got away from me. Go rest and I'll have this cleaned up in a few minutes."
"Are you sure?"
I had to turn away to hide my ugly feelings. Please, God, please don't let him ask questions. "Yes, I'm sure. Go rest."
A sore tongue and sweet responses didn't change the war that raged in my head. It's never easy to admit that I want to be selfish. There are times I want recognition. I want to be noticed. There are times when I crave a thank-you or a pat on the back. I plated our food and wondered, Do you see me? Do you see the way I sacrifice my feelings to take care of you?
Ron is an excellent husband and is often super-sweet. Even a great spouse can miss clues. Even a great marriage can harbor an individual who feels neglected or unappreciated. I'm sure I miss other people's cues as well. When I'm busy it's hard for me to pay attention to every little cue from my family or my friends.
It doesn't help the do-you-see-me syndrome that Ron believes me even when I misrepresent myself. If I insist that I'm okay, he will walk away. That makes me crazy! He doesn't hide his feelings and I do. The fact that I sacrifice even when I'm miserable causes me to feel like a victim and makes his inability to see me even worse.
I hate arguments and strive to be logical when dealing with my own emotions. I have goals (I rationalize). I want to support my family. Sometimes that means I take the high road and don't require my family to notice my unselfish deeds. Unfortunately, unresolved emotions eventually burst through a dam of hurt. Raging emotions can destroy relationships.
Like many men, Ron works a demanding schedule. The decision for me to stay home with the kids makes me feel guilty. I've had time to enjoy our children when Ron couldn't. I want to honor his sacrifice by making home his personal sanctuary.
Don't get me wrong. Being a mother will push you to the limit and rub your last nerve until you run around the perimeter of your house screaming at God for more patience. (That's another story.) Still, I believe a stay-at-home mother has advantages and personal time that people who work outside the home don't have.
The desire to sacrifice 100 percent of me to serve my family isn't realistic. It's caused a war of wills between my faith and my selfish nature. Anyone who tries to serve 24/7 will eventually deplete their patience reserve. No matter how much you pray or how you value unselfishness, at some point you will need to be noticed. When the ugly feeling that you are invisible rises, the desire for validation explodes into a do-you-even-see-me tirade.
When the Dam Broke
When I'm rested and don't feel the need to be noticed, I have no problem serving Ron. He likes to look out the window while eating. When we eat out, without saying a word I slide into the seat that faces inside. It not a big sacrifice, but it's my silent gift to him.
I was shocked recently when a dam of emotions broke and threatened my gift. We stopped at a fast-food dive, ordered our food, and walked to the last booth. I paused at the edge of the seat. I was tired and selfishness surfaced. I wanted to look out the window. I sighed and prayed, God, help me. I told myself, Do I really care where I sit? Be good one more time. Give one more time.
I slid into the seat with my back to the window. Ron placed the cold fries and Coke in front of me and served me by grabbing the napkins and ketchup. I swiped at a tear and then stared at my lap.
"What's wrong? Are you okay?" Tears ran over my bottom eyelids like cresting floodwaters. I couldn't hold them back. Ron tried to find out what was wrong, but I couldn't speak.
I ran to the bathroom and begged for God's help. I didn't want to ruin years of silent unselfishness by acting immature. Why was I so upset over the smudged window that viewed the parking lot of a teeny bopper fast-food dive? I stood in the greasy bathroom stall crying and fussing with myself about all the little things Ron does for me. Like a defense attorney, I argued his case. He always opens my door. He's the first to make coffee in the morning. He trusts my financial and budget decisions. He goes to work without complaining and liberally shares his paycheck. Ron's list was long, but the hurt of being invisible had attached to my heart like dried paint on a sweatshirt. The more I tried to rub it away, the more frayed and miserable I became. I didn't want to be selfish, but I also didn't want to be good.
My eyes were swollen, my nose was red, and I couldn't remove the caked mascara that stained the bags on my lower eyelids. I shuffled back to my seat and picked at my food. Ron finished his supper. He waited in silence until I grumped my way to the trash can and threw most of my supper away.
As you read this, you may be thinking I'm a spoiled little brat. To make a fuss over the seating in a dumpy fast-food dive seems ridiculous. The situation wasn't the real problem. When you feel as if no one sees the hundreds of loving acts you do for others, unselfishness can become your enemy. You may feel invisible, taken for granted and possibly unloved. In the busiest of households you can feel clinically lonely.
As Christians we are taught to be unselfish. We are trained to go the extra mile. Give, give, give until it hurts. "If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles" (Matthew 5:41). We are also instructed in Matthew 6:1-4 to give in secret.
The problem is that I'm human. I'm flawed, emotional, and yes, sometimes a little nuts. I want to be a good Christian who completes her work with a humble heart and yet I cry myself to sleep because no one sees me. Ron didn't recognize that I gave him the seat facing the window and I fell apart. How ridiculous is that?
I know what I would tell my clients. I would tell them that God sees. I'd explain that their reward comes later in life and ultimately in heaven. Staring out the car window to avoid the hurt look on Ron's face, none of those thoughts comforted me. Nothing stopped the emotional waves crashing on my heart. Lofty words and goals sat in my mouth like the hot, numb, sour taste you get after the dentist fills a tooth and your lip is still swollen.
After a sullen drive home, I ran to the bedroom. Ron gave me a few minutes alone before he tapped on the door and asked if we could talk. Too tired to care, I slobbered my way through an emotional explanation. Ron stopped the tears with two small sentences. "Thank you, Debbie. I'm sorry I didn't notice your sacrifice." Ron's not one to go on and on—that's my gift. Instead, he sent his words straight to my heart with a warm hug and a promise to notice little sacrifices.
Protecting Your Marriage
There are three things you can do to protect your marriage from the do-you-see-me syndrome.
1. Marriage must be a two-way street. At some point each partner should make the decision to give rather than take. Every family member should be challenged to give at least two compliments per day. Be creative and don't compliment the same act more than once a week. Search for tiny overlooked acts of kindness.
2. Quickly admit you missed a clue if someone looks hurt. It's just as Christian to say "I'm sorry" or "thank you" as it is to be unselfish. Don't be afraid to herald good deeds.
3. Drop the I'm-too-righteous-to-need-a-thank-you routine. Even God desires our praises. It's not selfish to want to be appreciated.
In the movie Shall We Dance, Susan Sarandon's character says, "We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet … I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you're promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things … all of it, all of the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.' "
Christians understand that God is our ultimate witness and there's more purpose to this life than just ticking off the days. But this movie character has a point. We all need to be noticed. We each have a need to ask the question "Do you see me?" It is a powerful Christian characteristic to notice the people around us and to lift them by commenting on their work.
I've adopted Colossians 3:15-17 as my new goal. I make a point to recognize others and see the hidden ways they enhance my life. I compliment the single mother who works twice as hard as I do. I compliment my pastor, my hairdresser, my dentist, and my children. I let my parents know how much they influenced my life and thank Ron for loving me even during occasional dam malfunctions. Above all, I thank God for the love he gives. I am grateful that he sees every little sacrifice and keeps a record of the smallest deeds. And yes, Ron makes a point to say thank you every time I slide into the seat that faces inside.
Debbie Jansen is a family specialist, speaker, author of Discipline Exposed, and founder of The Family Training Center. She and Ron have been married 36 years. www.debbiejansen.com
Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women
Do You See Me?
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