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Marriage Turning Bad Due to
Inability to Discuss

QUESTION: My husband and I have been married for two years . We are not communicating the way we should . He feels that I am "against" him having anything he wants. When I try to discuss this he gets mad and he wants me to completely drop the conversation , which is something I can't do! We are in the middle of a crisis over the purchase of a snowmobile and again he won't discuss the issue. How can we resolve our continuing conflict?

Half of all marriages end in divorce due to unresolved conflict. Research shows that partnerships dissolve not because spouses stop "loving" one another, but because they cannot succeed at conflict resolution. You and your husband need to develop skills which allow you to have, rather than abort, discussions. Being able to carry discussions to full term increases the possibility for empathy as well as the probability of giving birth to creative solutions.

Start by looking at your respective parents' marriages. How was conflict resolved in your family? What roles did men and women have in relationship to their ability to negotiate fairly? We learn most of what we know by imprinting on the patterns with which we were raised. Your husband's "all" and "never" statements and his walking off without resolving conflict effectively blocks communication pathways. Certainly there is no way his desires can be considered if he is not more proactive on his behalf in discussing his needs and how his goals might realistically be achieved.

Why does he feel so helpless? Are you "steamrollering" the discussion or "dismissing" or "minimizing" his feelings which does not allow for an even exchange of views? Couples want and need to be understood by their spouses. It is usually out of empathic sharing that husbands and wives find their way to true and fair negotiation. Marriage is a two way street. Each partner gains from the goodwill their spouse experiences. Give and take is necessary for your relationship to thrive. But how do you get there?

Ask your husband to sit down and discuss the snowmobile with you. Find out how he feels about it and what it means to him to acquire one. See if you can catch the true essence of his desire for it, rather than whether or not the two of you will get one together. Reflect his feelings to him. Let him know that you understand his experience. Then, using "I" statements, use the formula, " I feel _____ when you______ and I imagine ______." Fill in the blanks appropriately, for example, "I feel frightened when you express a desire to spend $500 and I imagine that you are not realistic about our financial situation." Or: "I feel frightened when you say you want to buy a snowmobile and I imagine that we will not have any time together on the weekend at all." By expanding your sentences to include three parts: feelings, the triggering behavior and the imagined consequence, you may find that you are better able to sort through your discussions and their solutions.

When you are able to have a discussion, you will be faced with developing empathy for your partner's experience, separate from your own response. You will also be faced with a reality check regarding facts (such as resources of money or time) which must be addressed for the issue to be truly resolved between you. Marriage is a partnership. It is not magical. In other words, if a partner is unconsciously looking for the other to unrealistically give to him or her what they do not in reality have (money, better job, complete happiness) this will be exposed through non-blaming discussion. It is up to each partner to examine whether their needs are reality based and to withdraw any projection of their partner as Santa Claus. If, however, there is a difference of opinion on how to relegate resources, (rather than a lack) it is up to the two of you to negotiate a resolution in which you both feel equal control and power in the relationship. When partners feel powerless in their marriages, trust is damaged and intimacy suffers.

Marital union often triggers unresolved childhood wounds and spouses can unwittingly project the wish for the "perfect parent" onto their partner. It is important for spouses to be able to see themselves as equally responsible in filling their own and their partner's needs. Where these needs conflict is where growth happens in marriage.

Ask your husband to consider developing the needed skills to have discussions which lead to empathy and eventually successful negotiation. Let him know that you are learning too. Invite him to be proactive in getting your marriage back on track. It takes both of you to make a marriage work. It takes only one to file for divorce.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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