Pause Before Shrieking: Essential Marriage Skills 101

Elaine. Vic, and Leo on a good day: 1990

Elaine. Vic, and Leo on a good day: 1990

“What the hell did you do to my forsythia?” I screeched.

“We agreed it was too big. It took over the whole yard,” Vic said. “You’re being a bitch.”

“That was my bush. You didn’t ask me.” I’d just come home from town. We’d discussed this plant as it thrived and expanded. I loved its wildness, but it was taking over. We never got around to trimming it in June. It grew like kudzu.

“You can’t trim forsythia in August,” I yelled, red-faced, arms flailing. “It won’t bloom in the spring. Shit! How could you? You can’t…” But he already had. My wild graceful shrub was a round tight ball, an over-trimmed suburban foundation plant.

I stomped toward the house, but glanced back. Vic glared at me, his jaw popping with anger, and then he turned and walked away, toward the barn.

He came inside a few hours later. He did not speak. By then, I felt ugly and aggressive. Even if he blew it, my nastiness was worse. But I needed control somewhere. The plants were my domain. Our life decisions were centered around Vic’s teaching and writing career. My job as a nutritionist was part-time and low pay. He brought in the money, but the house and yard were mine, damn it. Mine.

“You should have talked to me first,” I whined with apology dripping from my voice. He didn’t respond. “Speak to me, Vic. I need to talk to you about this.”


Sailing on Seneca Lake with Fred and Dotty

“I can’t talk to you, E. You’re acting like a monster. Yes, I should have asked you first, but it’s a stupid bush. I didn’t know you could be that mean.”

“I’m sorry I lost it, Vic,” I said the next morning when I came downstairs. He was making coffee in the kitchen.

He did not smile. His shoulders did not relax. He didn’t reach out to touch me. He turned his back. I was scared. I tended toward irritability rather than anger, grumbling not screaming, but I’d gone too far. Just like the forsythia, I couldn’t undo what had been done.

There was a cold truce for a few days. Vic slept in another room and didn’t speak much. I waited. The bush didn’t matter anymore. In truth, the yard looked better without it.

Saturday was my birthday, and we had planned dinner out with friends. To my surprise, Vic didn’t cancel. We drove to pick up Dotty and Fred on our way to town. The silence was awkward, and Dotty wasn’t ready. We waited. What about our reservations? I felt anger rise, but pushed it down and took a slow walk to Dotty and Fred’s pond.

“OK, let’s go,” Dotty said 45 minutes later, smiling without apology.

“Oh, I have to stop at home before we go to Ithaca,” Vic said. “I forgot my wallet.”

“What about the reservation?” I asked.

“It’ll be OK,” Vic said with an I-don’t-give-a-damn shrug.

IMG_0002When we drove up the hill toward home, there were 50 or 60 cars parked by the roadside. “What’s going on?” I asked. Vic was silent, but his jaw softened a little. Then I got it. He’d created a surprise 45th birthday party for me. Dotty’s stalling gave our friends and sons time to arrive and lay out a dish-to-pass banquet.

“I had to trim the forsythia to make room for everything,” Vic said with the first grin I’d seen in days. “The kids wanted to put up a volley ball net, and I wanted everyone to have fun.”

“I’m sorry,” I said with tears of shame. “Thank you for giving me a surprise party.” And then, just like a romance novel, he hugged me.

“Happy birthday, E.”


How do you deal with anger and aggression in relationships of all kinds. I hope you also enjoy two other posts about Essential Marriage Skills: The Art of Argument and Talking Back.

  1. Beautiful and insightful, as always, Elaine. I love reading your posts. They make me love YOU and Vic!

    • Thank you, Ava. Sometimes I make Vic sounds like a saint which he wasn’t, but this is a time he handled anger well. He paused instead of uttering those damaging words and feelings that I let rip. Sometimes it went in the other direction, but I was more likely to escalate a fight rather than walk away. Good man, good marriage. Thanks for your encouraging words.

  2. For me it was a rhubarb plant. Your forsythia story made me gasp in self-recognition. Sam threw me a surprise birthday party for my 47th. Seems I’m always a couple years behind you, my wise friend.

    • I love these parallels, Jill. Usually Vic and I didn’t pay much attention to birthdays, but there was this grand party after I lost my temper and another surprise party soon after we married, so more than 20 years before. I wasn’t expecting a thaw or a smile or a gift, much less a party. What a surprise and what a lesson. And you are always ahead of me in the things I need to learn. Thank you for your unending support.

  3. Oh my dear Elaine ~ What a beautiful story, and what a valuable lesson! So real, so honest, so true. No wonder you and Vic had such a special relationship, and clearly yours was one of those marriages that both of you built to last. Bless Vic for his patience, and bless you for your humility. You are a very special lady. ♥

    • Marty, I’m happy when I strike a home run with you. Yes, a valuable lesson about the power of anger to push people away, and the power of forgiveness to bring us together again. We learned how to navigate the rough spots and to built a strong love that still supports me. And sometimes one of us blew it and the other forgave. Vic said I taught him how to love. He taught me how to love, too, but he also taught me how to work with anger, to be energized and learn about myself from it rather than destroy those I love. Although we’ve never met in person, you are kind and generous with me and so many others. Sending gratitude your way.

  4. I have to run some errands, but I will be back to make a real comment. Just loved everything about this!

    • Thanks, Patti.

      • I’m back, but I still can’t say more than has already been said so well. Your honesty makes this a wonderful story.

        • Thanks Patti. Looking back on my marriage, it’s easy to remember the times when we were at our best together. My journals remind me that marriage is always a give and take, a trading off and compromise, full of love and sometimes full of misunderstanding. I think one of the true measures of a marriage is the ability to negotiate the rough parts. For the most part, we did well and learned how to do better in time.

  5. Wow, what a happy ending to a marital spat!

    Adrian and I could never stand to be angry with each other for more than a few hours. I think he was more likely to apologize than me–thank goodness for that quality in him!


    • This is one of the longest quarrels we had in 42 years, Lynne. I remember it well because of its longevity and the final act. A birthday party! Love it that you had a kind relationship with a forgiving man, too. Vic and I rarely argued. I learned some big lessons this time. Thanks for reading and responding.

  6. I love reading about the two of you. I wish I could have had a relationship like yours with Vic. It was work but it sounds so worth it. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Robin, it was worth it. I always knew it was a gift, but it feels more so in retrospect. I’m glad I no longer have to do some of the things we did together. More stories to tell.

  7. Simply wonderful to read, as always. I am constantly working on this issue … I am very mindful of my low tolerance and impatience. Ask me about the dishwasher sime time. Thanks for another great read.

    • Thank you, Jane, for your kind encouraging words. I look forward to hearing about the dishwasher. I learned a strong lesson about the power of anger. In my home as a kid, no one raised their voice. My mother’s anger was icy and silent. On the other hand, my father’s mother was expressive and emotional. She hugged and erupted, she wept, raised her voice, baked bread and apple pies, made homemade peach ice cream, and had a trained operatic voice. She sang, as though on stage. I loved her, but my mother’s curse was, “You’re acting just like Grandma Ware.”

  8. Elaine, as always, I just love reading your posts. Your stories are so easy to relate to, and so honest. I find it so amazing how a bond between two people can be so strong. That bond and trust permits a person to be themselves, what a gift! Really no other relationship in ones life like it. Marriage is amazing and frustrating and wonderful and challenging and magical….

    • Jess, it’s a nice surprise to find you here this morning. Thanks for your wise and loving reflections. Vic and I felt that marriage provided its own special “Spiritual path.” In India, there is bhakti or the path of devotion, karma or the path of service, hatha yoga or the physical path, jnani yoga or the path of knowledge, and I’m sure more I don’t remember. We thought there should be a special path of marriage because we learned so much from constant adjustment and work on our relationship, how to accommoto change and struggles that inevitably arose while keeping the love nourished and alive. For us, marriage was the biggest gift and teacher.

  9. I loved this story. How happy it was. The way Vic responded to your anger at cutting the bush, reminds me of my husband. We never fight but when we lock horns, the temperature seems to drop for a day or two and words are few between us. Then the next day comes or something else comes up and suddenly it seems what was so annoying suddenly can become so insignificant. 🙂

    • Thanks for a little taste of your marriage style. Without learning to handle conflict, we wouldn’t be together for long. The annoying stuff became irrelevant after Vic’s death. But I was annoyed and so was he, and we were both annoying sometimes.

      I wonder why replies aren’t being sent to you? I think others receive replies, but I might need to check that. I usually check a box at the bottom of the comment section at a site to get am email when there is a response. Tell me if my blog doesn’t have a place like that (I can’t tell), and I’ll have my web person sort it out. Thank you, D.G.

  10. Beautiful. Tears to my eyes, Elaine. Liz and have our spats, and managing my reactivity and often out of proportion internal indignance and external hardening is a great challenge and opportunity to improve. Fortunately, love always prevails, even if it has to trip over a lot of crap in the way.

    • Vic and I thought there should be another yoga path besides jnani (path of knowledge), bhakti (path of devotion, karma (path of service)…. There should be a yoga path of marriage, because we learned more about ourselves and life through marriage than any other way. I believe it’s a miracle when it works out–and that Love and the ability to stay and work through the rough spots are the teachers. Thanks so much for your beautiful response and telling a little of your own story. We are both lucky ones.

  11. How beautiful. Tears and tears. Vic had choices. He could have retaliated and spoiled your surprise by telling you exactly why he cut the forsythia, but loved ruled. One meaning of Forsythia is Anticipation…


    • I didn’t know that about forsythia, Margaret. How beautiful. Vic was angry and felt unappreciated but I’m sure he eagerly anticipated the delicious finale to the blown-out-of-proportion disagreement. Thanks for reading, responding, and telling me more about forsythia, one of the harbingers of spring. New layers of meaning.
      And love back to you,

  12. Elaine – Tom just walked in the door from the store and I relayed this whole story to him. Then I showed him the photos. He gave me his one eyebrow-cocked grin and nodded in recognition. In 34 years of marriage, we have been in similar situations. Sometimes out of the blue, an anger boils up out of me and I am shocked by its power and the force of damage I’ve spewed on him.

    Thank you for your honesty. I love all your stories about your life with Vic before he died and your life with his memories now.

    Keep writing and posting your blogs 🙂

    Much love,


    • I laugh when you describe Tom’s reaction. I know Vic would love the story, too. Vic knew his temper well and didn’t let it take him for a ride. It gives me a new perspective when I write these early stories of our marriage.

      I’m so glad you have a new family member.

      Thanks for your encouraging words. Writing is my joy and my job.

  13. Boy, I sure saw shades of myself in this post! There was a time when I would fly off the handle about the most ridiculous things – and truly act like an idiot. I cringe to think of it…. Thankfully, I think I’ve mellowed a bit with age.

    Oh my, I can’t imagine how you felt when you saw what Vic had done (not the plant, but the party!)…

    Thanks for sharing your life so honestly, Elaine…


    • Ann, our sons were witnesses. I didn’t fly off often, but when I did, I had no idea how to handle my anger. I went for the throat emotionally. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve lost my best sparring partner. Instead, I turn it into a story.
      Love this love fest with you,

  14. Ouch. I don’t believe that yelling at someone is half as problematic as punishing them for days with the silent treatment. An outburst of anger may be unpleasant, but it’s authentic and spontaneous. The silent treatment is premeditated and manipulative and unloving. Just my opinion. Not a big fan of the extended guilt trip either. Poor Elaine!

    • Thanks for your comment, Vivian. I appreciate your response. A couple of things come to mind. 1. We were both imperfect and had rough moments like anyone, although we had an exceptionally close and mutually supportive relationship. 2. This was a once in a lifetime fight in a 42-year relationship. My feelings were vicious. He backed away rather than defend or attack. I learned more about the damage of unleashed rage. If you read my other posts about marriage, you’ll learn that our usual mode was to talk things through.

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