I was on a book tour when things came to a head.
Finally, hoarse and broken, I sat down in the shower and began to cry.
Keri looked at me angrily. “What?”
“How can I make your day better?”
“You can’t,” she said. “Why are you asking that?”
“Because I mean it,” I said. “I just want to know what I can do to make your day better.”
She looked at me cynically. “You want to do something? Go clean the kitchen.”
She likely expected me to get mad. Instead, I just nodded. “Okay.” I got up and cleaned the kitchen.
The next day I asked the same thing. “What can I do to make your day better?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Clean the garage.”
I took a deep breath. I already had a busy day and I knew she had made the request in spite. I was tempted to blow up at her. Instead I said, “Okay.” I got up and for the next two hours cleaned the garage. Keri wasn’t sure what to think.
The next morning came. “What can I do to make your day better?”
“Nothing!” she said. “You can’t do anything. Please stop saying that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I can’t. I made a commitment to myself. What can I do to make your day better?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I care about you,” I said. “And our marriage.”
The next morning I asked again. And the next. And the next.
“I should be asking you that.”
“You should,” I said. “But not now. Right now, I need to be the change. You need to know how much you mean to me.”
She put her head against my chest. “I’m sorry I’ve been so mean.”
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you,” she replied.
“What can I do to make your day better?”
She looked at me sweetly. “Can we maybe just spend some time together?”
I smiled. “I’d like that.”
I continued asking for more than a month. And things did change. The fighting stopped.
The walls between us fell. We began having meaningful discussions about what we wanted from life and how we could make each other happier. No, we didn’t solve all our problems. I can’t even say that we never fought again. But the nature of our fights changed. Not only were they becoming more and more rare, they lacked the energy they once had. We’d deprived them of oxygen. We just didn’t have it within us to hurt each other anymore.
Keri and I have now been married for more than thirty years.
Marriage is hard. But so is parenthood and keeping fit and writing books and everything else important and worthwhile in my life. To have a partner in life is a remarkable gift. I’ve also learned that the institution of marriage can help heal us of our most unlovable parts. And we all have unlovable parts.
Through time, I’ve learned that our experience was an illustration of a much larger lesson about marriage.
I’m not saying that what happened to Keri and I will work for everyone.