I never feel more apologetic than when I clean the back seat of the car. In those moments I apologize to my car for having children. Last summer our car smelled. Bad. Upon further investigation we discovered a long hidden sippy cup lodged under the seat. It had been filled with milk and given to one of our sons and at some point in the chaos of child transport it was forgotten. Until the smell. The first day the smell arrived it smelled like something had died along the road, like we passed roadkill along the way. The smell was disregarded as we got out of the car. By the second day of the smell it was clear the roadkill was somewhere in the car. We cleaned the car and found the cup. The sour smell was overwhelming and the sick feeling was made worse when we discovered the smell was not only from the cup of sour milk but that the milk had spilled onto the floor of the car. We scrubbed, we removed the seats, we scrubbed and washed and air freshened. Eventually the smell diminished but the smell still lingers in my memory.
The sour milk tragedy reminds me of the interaction cycle of some couples. In life and marriage not everything works out perfectly. Mistakes are made, miscommunication happens and hurtful words get flung around. For healthy couples these difficult times are no fun but they are quickly resolved and connection is restored. Unfortunately, some couples ignore the mess and conflict hoping it will go away. Their conflict continues and their connection suffers until the smell becomes unbearable.
To avoid a sour milk marriage:
- Risk making a mess. First of all it’s okay to really engage in your relationship. You must risk vulnerability to connect well in your marriage. We are okay with living in our car. We want to engage with our children in the car which means risking spills and crushed fish crackers in the car seats. Don’t be so scared of making a mistake in your relationship that you suffocate authenticity.
- Take care. Although we allow our kids to eat in the car we also teach them not to be careless. We don’t expect them to never spill but we do expect them to learn. Invest in your relationship. Learn how to avoid relationship injuries. Talk to your spouse about ways you can reduce conflict. Get expert help when you are not sure how to connect well without fighting.
- Stop criticizing. It would not have helped to yell at our kids for spilling the milk. In your relationship it doesn’t help to shame your spouse. No matter how much you know about your spouse of how careful you are arguments will happen. Criticism destroys the foundation of trust in relationships.
- Clean up quickly. The main problem in our car was not that milk was spilled but that we didn’t clean it up soon enough. The warm summer days took our neglect and punished our sense of smell. When fights and arguments result in hurt feelings don’t just let it sit. You can take time to cool off if your argument gets too hot but don’t let it go days without working to resolve the tension. The longer you keep unaddressed conflict in your marriage the nastier it gets. Healthy couples quickly clean up the spills of relationship injuries.