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The last appointment of the day

March 1, 2001
If you think your day is over when you leave the office, think again. You still have one more appointment - with your spouse - and it's your most important one of the day.

by Mary Ellen Psaltis

How does your house look at 5 p.m.? Does your workday end in a peaceful retreat or in a seething cauldron? Whether you are the returning dentist (my husband) or the spouse at home (me), both husband and wife contribute to the outcome of this challenging and emotionally charged time of day. After an agenda-filled day, we come together tired, hungry, excited, worried, or happy - or a little of each. For the rest of the day and evening to go well, it is essential to understand the dynamics at play and make choices about what is important. In fact, I believe the activities between arriving home and eating dinner are so critical, they are reflective of the health of your marital relationship.

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In a fantasy household, family members would joyfully come home ready, willing, and able to listen to everyone's stories of the day. Solutions would be found for every situation; a tasty, healthy dinner would magically put itself together; and there would be plenty of time to read the mail and the paper because no one needed to go anywhere else that evening. This scenario is not reality-based and, if it's anything like our home, it includes children moving in different directions, needing help with homework, transportation, or finding the portable phone. It also includes a pile of papers that needs sorting, assembly of our dinner, final preparation for an evening meeting, and growling stomachs.

It's no surprise that when spouses get together at the end of the day, sparks can fly. Certainly there is plenty of talk, but do we communicate effectively? How do we transition from our "day jobs" and reconnect? We want our needs met. How we care for each other at this critical time of day sets the tone for the rest of the evening. After some frustration, experimentation, and practice, my husband and I have found ways to untangle our puzzle of needs and behaviors and support each other and our marriage.

First, in order to understand how we arrive at this junction, it is important to take a look at each of our daytime environments. Although each of us has a day filled with activities, they are geared to our individual personality style. When we meet up at home later in the day, our needs are different.

My husband, Greg, is a pediatric dentist who spends hours peering into the mouths of more than 50 children and the faces of their parents. He drills extremely small holes into extremely small teeth with adult-sized equipment while simultaneously coaching his patients and their parents through their treatments.

The entire office is geared for a successful child-friendly experience where kids are happy to return and parents wish they could sign up for the same program. The office, the day, and the work are highly stylized. His day is filled with appointments. Skilled chairside assistants and hygienists, as well as a front-office staff to make phone calls, manage the books, greet people, and make financial arrangements, surround him. There are uniforms, written conditions of employment, lunch times, and an office terminology known and understood by everyone. In most ways, the office revolves around the doctor. He is the diagnostician, performs the most technical dentistry, signs the checks, and is "the boss." I take our children to the office for their six-month exams, drop off a forgotten lunch, or come by to make a copy, but I do not work there. "The office" is solely Greg's domain.

Our home may be Greg's castle, but I oversee the day-to-day domestic activities. Our son's wardrobe, lunches, homework, and activities fall under my jurisdiction. Since I help out in his classroom, I am more knowledgeable of his teacher and classmates and what goes on there. Freelance writing fits into pockets of time during my day. I know the aisles of two grocery stores, the plumber knows my first name, and if family members want to know where something is, chances are I can tell them. I like doing the laundry "my way," planning a month's worth of dinners, growing plants inside, and having the freedom to organize my day to my liking.

Since I do not have a job outside the home, my days have a solitary quality to them. I often eat lunch alone. As I drive around town, my mind is organizing and planning, or I am singing with the radio. There are no uniforms, times and places of appointments change every day, and my terminology can be vague - "picking up a few groceries" could mean many different things. I get our youngest son to school and I'm home in time to meet the school bus. As we walk home, we catch up on the day and, when we arrive home, I fix a snack for our hungry little boy. As the afternoon fades and Greg arrives home from the office, I usually have had time to check the mail - via the mailbox and computer - and begin dinner.

On the drive home, Greg has less than 10 minutes to make the transition from "the dentist" to "husband and dad." He leaves behind a realm where he is fully in charge and enters a domain where he shares authority. When the garage door goes up and I know he's home, I have a moment to transition from "domestic engineer" to "wife." I am neither Greg's employee nor his next appointment, and he is not just the next thing I must deal with.

The next few minutes are often filled to bursting. For my husband, any illusion of coming home to peace and tranquillity can be fleeting. A stack of mail awaits, pots are boiling, the phone is ringing, our children and their friends are playing, the lovely wife is scowling at something, and there is stuff everywhere. Does he want to tell me about his day or does he want to grab the crossword puzzle and disappear into the big blue chair in the living room? I face a similar situation. Must I immediately drop whatever I am doing to show my love and affection? Or, perhaps I have been waiting all day to tell him some exciting news.

I have imagined a system of honks and flags. This system would signal each spouse's state of being. Greg's one honk means, "I'm pleased with the day and ready to engage the family." Two honks mean, "I'm OK, but don't overwhelm me too fast." Three honks mean, "I am checking the mail. I am not mad at you, but I want to unwind before I connect." By the same token, I would put a flag on the garage door. A green flag means smooth sailing, yellow means there are hazards inside but the way is navigable, and black means enter at your own risk.

Of course, the trick would be to remember to honk correctly and to put the right flag out. Unfortunately, this technique does not account for the myriad of other combinations. Therefore, we haven't tested the flag/ horn idea yet. We use the more subtle and illusive techniques of reading body language, listening to the tone of "Hello, I'm home," and throwing out statements like, "How was your day?" or "Wait until you hear this." These can be effective when your whole marital relationship is working.

Here are a few suggestions for navigating this time of day.

1. Remember that your spouse is a wonderful, special person whom you like a lot and love. You had a great time dating and getting to know each other. Later, you made a heartfelt commitment to live, love, and be together. Losing sight of this leads to taking your relationship for granted. When we first began dating, we talked on the phone for hours. We're not in the heavy processing mode now, but I still like to hear Greg's voice at the other end of the line. Sometimes I call him just to hear his voice.

2. Save some of yourself for your spouse. Throughout the day, there are people and activities that demand our time, attention, and energies, and there is only so much of each of us. It's not your partner's job to fill you up at the end of the day. Bring a little home to share.

3. Save some of yourself for yourself. See above. Make time to meditate, work out, walk, read, or do whatever is meaningful to you.

4. Plan dates. These can be dates for movies or dinners out, a video at home, or a walk in the neighborhood. Make time for each other with each other. Our hot tub has become a place where we talk about grandiose ideas, plan for our future, and dream together. We are out of reach of the usual distractions, yet we are still at home.

5. Have a conversation with your partner about what works for you at this time of day. Do you need some time to unwind? How long will it take? What will you do? What do you like to do first when you get home? How much information do you want or need about the other person's day? When do you want to share big news? When do you want to figure out life maintenance (tomorrow's carpools, changing dinnertime because of an activity, etc.)? By talking about this, you might find some interesting information and ways to make it work. This may sound odd, but when Greg gets home from work, I like to have a few quiet minutes of "letting him back into my space" before he inundates me with his news and stories.

6. Find an activity you like to do together. After years of resistance to skiing due to physical difficulties in cold weather, I availed myself of an opportunity in Sun Valley. Eighteen months - and several ski trips - later, I now own my own skis and boots and our youngest son (now 8) is well on his way to being an expert skier. It's a great family sport. Since Greg and I both enjoy traveling, this has opened up many new possibilities.

7. Get help if you need it. Counselors, ministers, books, and personal-growth classes are everywhere.

8. Count your blessings. Everyday I have a time of quiet and prayer.

9. Tell the truth. Telling your spouse you need 15 minutes to finish a project is more helpful than half-listening, being distracted, or resentful that your time is being pressed upon.

10. Do something for your spouse that he or she likes. You'll have to ask to find out what that is.

If you are someone who really need specifics, here goes:

Dentist: When you come home from work, ask your spouse how you can help with dinner, with the kids, or whatever he or she asks. Then do it! After dinner, give your spouse an eight-minute foot massage (four minutes for each foot). Spouse: When your spouse asks what he or she can do, give him or her a task. After dinner, thoroughly enjoy your foot massage. Thank your spouse for helping you before dinner and for thinking of your feet. At bedtime, light a candle and welcome your spouse into bed. Let the day go and have some fun together.

Opening communication might be awkward at first, but it gets better with practice. Initially, it can seem to take more thought and energy than denial or withdrawal, but, as the door of honest feedback and information opens back and forth, it's much easier. However your day goes, coming together in open, loving, and sincere ways brings comfort and contentment, which are hallmarks of a healthy relationship.