When we were one year into our marriage, Phil and I went on a backpacking trip through Europe for a month. At the time, he was a youth pastor and I had just completed my first year of teaching, and we were living on a pretty tight budget. In order to extend our trip as long as possible, we stayed in dingy hostels and budgeted $4 a day each for food, surviving on gelato, pizza from the roadside vendors, protein bars we had packed in our bags, and ungodly amounts of trail mix (which I was unable to eat for years afterwards). Needless to say, while it was an amazing trip overall, there were quite a few times that we were hangry (hungry + angry), tired, and not very clean- not the best combination for great communication and happy times.
On one of these particularly hangry, tired, dirty days, a day of riding around on subways and walking for miles on end to get to the sites we were visiting, we hit a breaking point. We were walking up the stairs to the Sacre-Coeure, one of the most famous churches in all of Paris, and we had one of the biggest fights in all of our marriage—to this day, it still tops the list.
Like I said, we had budgeted $4 each for food. When we were walking up the huge flight of white stairs to the sweeping view of the city from the garden surrounding the Sacre-Coeure- seriously so hangry and so tired- a man who clearly lived on the streets approached us and asked if we wanted to buy a friendship bracelet. I said, “No thank you,” and proceeded to trudge up the stairs to the church. Phil stopped and said, “Sure. I would like one for my wife.” As he said it, a deep annoyance set in and I all but rolled my eyes at him. Can’t we just get where we are going? I thought. Why are we stopping? Don’t spend any money on this right now! We only have $4 a day each for food. You are wasting it.
The man took his time as he handmade the friendship bracelet for me, allowing me to pick the colors I wanted. I felt annoyed and bothered by the whole situation. Finally, he finished.
“That will be $4,” the man said. $4! For a friendship bracelet?! You mean the $4 we had to eat that day? I was mad. And hangry. And I let Phil know it. How could he be so stupid? Why didn’t he just say no? All my emotions came flying out and we had one of the biggest fights of our marriage- all because of a friendship bracelet. It sounds so funny as I am typing this out.
However, as I really look back, I’m deeply ashamed of my response. It was a seriously low point for me. Here my sweet husband was buying me a friendship bracelet and here he was stopping to give to someone who was in need, and I was mad. He saw this man I was going to pass by. He saw him and stopped and gave him attention and time and money, even when it cost us something. And it was BEAUTIFUL. This side of Phil, his tender heart for people, is one of the things I love most about him. But in that moment, I missed it.Looking back, it really wasn’t about the money or the friendship bracelet. It was about something else. It was about what was underneath. I’ll spare you the details, but besides being hungry and tired, the situation triggered some things we had been dealing with that were unresolved. It bumped an open wound. The hangry, tired, sweaty, impatient moment intensified what would normally have been a mild irritation into a full-blown fight, bringing underlying, unresolved issues to the surface.
Isn’t it almost always about what’s beneath the surface? We make a comment and we get a reaction that is way overly intensified, and we realize there’s obviously something underneath. It hits a nerve or a soft spot. Maybe it’s a wound that hasn’t healed and we just bumped into the scab so it hurts more than it usually would. It’s usually not about the thing we are fighting about; it’s usually the stuff beneath the fight.
This is something I am learning. When I have super strong reactions to situations, there is usually something deeper going on. When this happens, I’ve been asking myself the question: What is going on beneath the surface here? Am I actually frustrated with this person or is he triggering something else going on in me? Am I this upset with my kid or is there something deeper being triggered in my soul? Am I really mad about the friendship bracelet or is it about something else?
I keep that friendship bracelet in my jewelry box on my dresser as a reminder. When I see it, it reminds me of the compassion my husband has for those who are in need. It’s a sweet reminder of his love for me and it’s a humbling reminder to give the benefit of the doubt and assume the best in him, not the worst. It’s a reminder to pause and evaluate my emotions in moments of frustration and to ask what is beneath the surface. It’s my reminder of how far we’ve come in our communication and friendship and yet, it is also my reminder that I still have so far to go.