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Don’t Be “Bullheaded” Like My Dad Admitted About Him and Mom

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In 1949 my dad, age thirty, wrote the following letter to his grandmother on her eightieth birthday.

Hi Grandma,

Wish I could be sending you a lovely big present for your 80th Birthday. That’s a lot of time, I’m sure. Also eat a nice big piece of cake for me. Of course, would rather be there in person.

How’s the warm weather treating you? Wish we had more of it, but really it’s been in 40’s every day for last week so really it’s been helping a lot on coal bill.

The railroad men gave us $5.00 and two boxes of grocery, so that paid for our coal.

Ann got lots of presents books, doll; high chair, doll bed, rocker & lots of toys. So she really has been very busy taking care of her doll and doing her house work, busy, busy all the time.

Hope you got your paints alright now try and get interested in it again. If not you can go out and paint back fence. Ha.

I suppose you’ve gotten all the Rooby’s (??) mending done. I had to mend a few of my socks last nite.

Say – are you and the dog making out o.k. She’s got about the same amount of speed you have when you are feeling good.

Do your arms still hurt you once in a while or is medicine clearing it up?

Ellene wrote on card. They were sorry they didn’t get my letter in time and missed seeing me. Ha.

They are building and should be in their house by March.

Uncle Henry sent Ann $2 for Christmas (sure to know?). Yes, her Dad borrowed it. The deal(??)

Johna and I get along about the same as always. Ann she keeps going all the time doesn’t want to take time out to even eat. She still remembers who great great is. She always say me sleep. Great Great room.

They still all sleep in same room. Mrs Stemler, Johna & Ann. Johna Dee wanted to move back in mine but said best you stay in another room.

We both are bullheaded & I’ll be danged if I give & so will she.

I haven’t gotten any answer from RR yet. They won’t say one way or other & I’m not going switching & then go back to hospital, but Dr. I don’t believe would let me anyway. He says if you want to get out of pain once in a while go back to work and end it all.

But when I get to work Grandma I’ll send you nice present. Because sure would love to give you a lot of things in past of repay for all you’ve done for me through life.

Happy New Year & good health. Write when you get low on bills.

Emerson E Eggerichs

Tell Red hello both of them your son-in-law & neighbor. I feel like I wrote my name. My family is all in bed so will go soon myself.

I included the entire letter here, because I wanted to share how the first thing that struck me when I read it was my dad’s positive personality shining through, a personality that did not come out much at all as I was growing up. In this affectionate letter, I discovered a loving, lighthearted, humorous, empathetic, appreciative, and kind man. He loved his grandmother and spoke fondly of my sister, Ann, who was probably two or three at the time. (I would not be born until 1951.) 

Why did I not encounter this playful, positive, and energetic man? The dad that I knew possessed an undercurrent of anger toward my mom. A clue revolves around Mrs. Stemler, my mom’s mom who lived with them at this time. Dad comments in the letter, “Johna [my mom’s name was Johna Dee] and I get along about the same as always. They still all sleep in the same room: Mrs. Stemler, Johna & Ann. Johna Dee wanted to move back in mine but said best you stay in another room. We both are bullheaded and I’ll be danged if I’ll give [in] & so will she.”

There it is. Both were bullheaded and did not have the knowledge or skill to figure out a win-win solution to the mother-in-law’s sleeping arrangement, nor to a list of other conflicts. From his words, my dad considered the conflict to be an either-or choice. His way or her way, and as time passed Dad concluded that Mom won and he lost. Neither appears to believe they could come up with a solution where both exclaim, “That works for me!”

Interestingly, over the years, I recall my dad mouthing dozens of times to me, “Never let your mother-in-law move in with you.” At those moments, some conflict had risen between my dad and mom that triggered him to tell me this, but I do not recall the trigger. But based on his comments to me, Dad never let go of that mother-in-law disagreement and resented Mom for getting her way on this, which may have been the first major conflict they had, setting the stage for the rest of their marriage. 

Of course, over the years when he commented about his mother-in-law, his words meant little to me since Mrs. Stemler had moved out before my birth and died when I was five. But from the letter to his grandmother, Dad displays fond feelings of affection. I do not believe he would have resisted an arrangement where he and my mom could take care of her mother, given that arrangement did not put him out of the bedroom with Mom. Hundreds of millions of families have housed the in-laws. This arrangement works, given two people think of ways to navigate a solution instead of becoming “bullheaded.” But Mom and Dad both put their heels in, and both suffered for most of their married life. They chose to live separate lives because they did not step back and see the pink and blue disagreement about an in-law as an opportunity to find a mutual agreement. For some reason, they did not believe that to be a possibility, or once a spirit of stubbornness entered the marriage, they no longer had an appetite for negotiation. 

When coaching couples at odds with each other, I will ask, “Can you recall an event when everything in the relationship seemed to change?” I will then say, “When I proposed to Sarah, I did not say, ‘I hate you and you hate me, so let’s get married.’ No one starts that way. We love each other, given this is not an assignment marriage. So, how do some people derail?” I then ask again, “Do you remember anything that happened which changed how you felt about each other?” Over the years, most will immediately say, “Yes” to which I invite them to tell me. These couples can almost recite time and date when the marriage jumped the rails. If I had asked my dad this question, he likely would have asserted, “When her mother moved in with us.” 

Truly, some couples do not find mutual agreement in their marriage over the decades, not in healthy ways, because they did not find win-win on their first big, out-of-the-gate, emotional issue.

But it is never too late. With a little knowledge and skill, a couple can move forward unless they hold on to what my dad wrote: “I’ll be danged if I’ll give [in] & so will she.” When a person is bitter and sees the resolution as having to give in and losing, then they’ll resist any appeal to find a win-win. Emotionally they do not want to go there, and practically they do not think they even can. 

If they are open to the idea that the anger between them resulted more from their lack of know-how in finding a solution than from either of them being self-centered and selfish, then it can be a new day. But someone like my dad needs to discern that my mom wasn’t consciously and willfully trying to deprive him at the beginning of the conflict. She was focused on her mom. She wasn’t trying to use her mom to neglect him. 

At the same time, Mom failed to do a good job in explaining her goodwill toward Dad, and her desire to meet his needs. I believe that even if Mom had asked him for his counsel on how they could serve her mother and how Mom could make sure she never neglects him, Dad would have found a solution. 

Too many women would immediately conclude in this situation, “He doesn’t care about my mother.” Sadly, once two people let themselves be overwhelmed by hurt, frustration, and anger, and persuade themselves their interpretation of the conflict is correct—my spouse doesn’t care about what I desire and need—they will not soften to the idea that there is another way to look at what just happened. Depressingly, my mom and dad did not spend enough time figuring out ways to mutually satisfy, protect, and agree. They defaulted to stubbornness for the next two decades, until they came to Christ. 

I beg you, don’t be “bullheaded” like them. Don’t waste two decades (or even two weeks) missing out on the win-win marriage God intended you to have since the day you said, “I do.” It only takes one of you to decide that instead of being bullheaded, you will be the mature one and initiate the win-win dialogue. Will that be you?

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. Emerson said that his dad “considered the conflict to be an either-or choice.” When in disagreement with your spouse, do you usually see it as an either-or choice, or do you consider there may be a “both-and”? Explain.
  2. How would you answer Emerson’s question “Can you recall an event when everything in the relationship seemed to change?”
  3. Think back to some of your early out-of-the-gate disagreements with your spouse. Are there any that you believe set the tone for how you handle disagreements still to this day? Explain.
  4. When in disagreement with your spouse, do you believe he or she is not consciously and willfully trying to deprive you? If you said no, how will you give them the benefit of the doubt next time and move toward finding win-win?