Revisited: Those three magic words

We had just come back from a pleasant Mother’s Day afternoon spent at an Indian restaurant and a matinee showing of “Star Trek.” My wife and son and I were settling in for a relaxing Sunday evening of domestic tranquility, lounging in the living room, sipping soft drinks and enjoying each other’s company. Suddenly, from across the room I hear that phrase I’ve heard so many times in the past.

“I told you…”

Oh, I should also mention that I had put my Pepsi on the bookshelf right above our expensive loveseat, and one of the cats knocked it over onto me and the upholstery.

Sure enough, I had been told for the thousandth time that this was a bad place to put a carbonated beverage. But I had not listened to past warnings from my beloved spouse – or if I was listening, I wasn’t paying attention – and once again I was correctly being chastised like so many husbands deserve every day.

Those three little words form more of a foundation for many modern marriages than the more endearing combination that substitutes “love” for “told.” I do indeed love my wife and can show you the Mother’s Day card that says so. If I hadn’t met her over 30 years ago and somehow convinced her to spend her life with me, I hesitate to think what I would’ve become. I suspect I’d be pursuing a social pathology that would eventually land me on television, and not the good kind like the evening news but the bad kind like a reality show. She’s made me a happy man.

However, I don’t make things easy for her with my poor listening. I’m not sure why me and so many of my fellow men have such a difficult time with this most critical of marital skills. (Well, one of the most critical anyway.) Husbands and wives seem to have evolved in slightly different directions from the ancestors who relied on their acute sense of hearing to survive predators and hunt our own food. Men apparently think listening became unnecessary as civilization advanced, sort of like the vestigial tail or Duane “The Rock” Johnson.

Recorded history never would’ve been recorded if our ancient spouses hadn’t encouraged us to write things down if we were going to be so damn forgetful. The annals of time would not be documented so that later generations could learn from previous ones. All the science and mathematics and philosophy of our forbearers, the predecessors to today’s grocery lists and appointment calendars, would be lost. And then we can’t even remember to put orange juice and toaster strudel on there.

I’ve tried several defenses of my thick-headedness yet they always seem so inadequate. Still, I thought I’d pass these on to other husbands who might be out there looking to somehow justify their inexcusable thoughtlessness.

Let me start with one that you’d think might work but actually tends to backfire disastrously. I’ve tried contending that it’s because I’m so relaxed and comfortable in my wife’s presence that I tend to “veg out” and allow entire sentences to float in one ear and out the other. Everywhere else I have to be on constant guard to make sure my surroundings aren’t trying to harm me – be they oncoming 18-wheelers or supervisors looking for a volunteer for the safety committee. In my home, however, I can rest at ease.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that this can also be called taking someone for granted. And this is not somewhere you want to take anybody you care for.

I’ve also tried citing a technique I learned in my days as a corporate trainer that’s known as “just-in-time.” Under this manufacturing philosophy, materials and other inputs are not brought forward to the production line until they’re needed. Applied to verbal interactions, this means that information necessary to do something – remembering to pick up your child after school or changing the air conditioner filter – is not tapped into until the action is ready to be performed. So if “I told you” to stop leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor, this instruction has to be conveyed while you’re still dripping, not at dozens of other times since at least 1980.

This one also doesn’t work very well.

Two other arguments related to each other can have some effectiveness as you approach your senior years. These are the hearing-loss justification and the Alzheimer’s cover. Blaming your poor listening on the deterioration of your cochlea is a risky maneuver, considering a quick exam by a medical professional can cost you not only what seems like a good excuse but a $35 co-pay as well. Alzheimer’s is much harder to prove, and all but the most insistent spouses will stop short of demanding a post-mortem brain autopsy to prove your inattention is disease-related. Raising the specter of potentially debilitating conditions is a pretty cynical card to play just to maintain your reputation, so I’d use it sparingly.

Finally, I’ll mention the Dave Bedingfield rationalization. Dave was a close friend of mine back in college and we spent many long hours together alternating between coma and watching Atlanta Braves baseball (not really all that different when you think about it). He is now a respected legal scholar and barrister in England, but in the seventies even he would describe himself as a worthless, no-good, irresponsible excuse for humanity. If he missed an appointment, lost the mix tape he borrowed or otherwise failed to act in good faith on agreements you had made with him earlier, it was understandable because it was widely known he couldn’t be counted on. “I know,” he’d say before you could make the suggestion yourself. “I’m an idiot.”

Unfortunately, most women recognize passive-aggressiveness on this grand scale and simply won’t stand for it. If you make too strong an argument about what a jerk you are, there’s the risk that you’ll call into doubt her judgment in choosing you for a lifemate, or that she’ll simply agree about your depravity and start separation proceedings.

In the end, I’d have to say that the best way to parry the “I told you” accusation is, unfortunately, to actually start listening. Watch her lips and hear her words. Write notes on your forearm. Carry a PDA. Repeat the message over and over to yourself until the mumbling resonates in your brain like the euro-beat classic “Come On Eileen”. Realize that you’re always going to be the insensitive oaf and your wife is going to be the patient but stern adult.

(Thanks, Dave, and if you’re out there somewhere, send me an email. I might need some advice.)


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