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Partners Don't Communicate Effectively

QUESTION: My husband and I aren't communicating effectively. Small things get blown in to big things because my husband doesn't address things when they are a problem. He waits till they are long past, and adds them with everything else that may has bothered him since the last argument. This makes for an unfair playing field. We may be arguing (disagreeing) about our plans for the weekend, then he brings up all of these other petty things---thus making him feel he should get his way. It also seems to happen when he's done something that upsets me, and unfairly brings up everything I've done instead of dealing with the issue at hand.

I've insisted we get help since we've only been married for 5 years (and have a 2 1/2 year old & 12 wk old) but he thinks we can work out our communications problem, he doesn't want anyone else knowing we have any problems. Since this isn't presently a problem that is finishing our marriage, I still am concerned that one day when we really need to deal with a problem that's much bigger than petty things, we won't make it through!

Can you give me any suggestions? I try to apply our Marriage Preparation arguing technique by not placing blame and only pointing out how I'm feeling about a situation. It doesn't seem to work, he always feels someone is right and the other is wrong.

ANSWER: Your husband's over riding shame about needing outside help is understandable if he came from a family where perfectionism ruled. It is also ingrained in our culture that to be a "man" is to be in control and autonomous; to not need directions! But his manner of negotiating with you is taking a negative toll on the marital relationship. Clearly he could benefit from seeing things more objectively. His adherence to being "right" in an argument leaves little room for individual differences and will cost him your affection. Intimacy diminishes in the wake of coercion.

Be clear with your husband that you will listen to him and discuss matters as they come up, but you will not respond to "guilt tripping". Anything he agrees to do in the past for you is a done deal. He may be over accommodating you until he cannot tolerate it anymore, and then expects this to justify getting what he wants later. This may have worked in his family as a form of negotiation, but it simply does not work with you.

Part of forging a strong couples' bond is creating patterns of interactions and processes that you can both agree to and abide by. You must create together your own "culture" based on what is acceptable for the two of you. Start by reviewing the ways negotiations took place in your childhood. Did people speak directly to each other? Did they talk things through, or did one person dominate in getting their way? In other words, was negotiation achieved through relating or through controlling others (or manipulating) in order to get what was wanted. "Guilt tripping" is a manipulation.

Family relationships fare better when members achieve resolution to problems by relating to one another. When control or manipulation become the key to resolving conflict, intimacy suffers. It is difficult to feel affectionate to someone you feel guilty towards. And guilt breeds resentment.

Let your husband know that the manner in which the two of you are negotiating is eroding the very love your relationship is based upon. And let him know you are also interested in his feedback about the way you may be contributing to the problem. Ask him to tell you if there is any way in which you intimidate him in the moment when he does agree to something. Is there anything he can identify that you might be doing that encourages him to capitulate to your wishes in the moment, only to later use his cooperation as a weapon against you?

There likely may be some way he feels "guilt tripped" by you. Explore this. Can he say "no" to you when he needs to do so? If not, why not? It is important to keep an open mind to what his experience of you is in this process. Reflect on whether you put pressure on him in the moment to defer to your wishes. And be open to the strange way it will feel if your husband begins to express himself more directly, as you are requesting. You will both win if you are able to identify what each of you contributes to the problem, and what each of you can do to take individual responsibility for creating a "level" playing field.

If you feel it is important to the marriage, tell your husband that you are going to make an appointment with a marriage counselor and that you would like his input into choosing someone. Let him know that you consider your marriage to be in serious trouble. If necessary make the appointment and invite him to it. Make it at a time you believe he can make and tell him that you expect him to come for the sake of the marriage. Remember that it takes two people to make a workable marriage, but only one to initiate a divorce.


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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