QUESTION: I am recently married and
love my husband very much but I worry about our communication skills.
We both came from troubled families so I am sure that has a lot to
do with it. We seem to only be able to bring up problems, but nothing
ever gets resolved. He gets angry and I back down. My problem is that
I don't think that we can work it out without help and he refuses
to seek help. Should I go to therapy on my own? Could that ever work?
ANSWER: While it is true that you have
work of your own to do, it is important that your husband not view
your willingness to seek your own counseling as an indication that
you are the "problem" in the relationship. The fact that you both
come from "troubled" family backgrounds does suggest that your difficulty
is likely rooted in unsatisfying relationship patterns learned in
childhood. Although it would be preferable for your husband to be
a part of the solution from the start, it is also possible that he
will respond to the growth and new communication skills that you introduce
to the relationship.
Any change in your capacity to interact which positively
"contaminates" the relationship will inevitably challenge him to respond
in new ways. You upset the "status quo" when you initiate change in
your response to your husband. If you find ways to calmly continue
to assert yourself, rather than merely "backing down" in response
to his anger, he will be forced into new territory. But much will
depend on his respect for your leadership in this area and his willingness
to learn from you in the midst of struggle. If he disrespects your
insight, expect things to get worse, before they get better!
Let your husband know that you are willing to seek
your own help, but that it will take both of you to work on the marriage!
If he chooses not to accompany you to counseling, ask him in what
other ways he will be working on improvement in the relationship.
Ask him to do something towards his own contribution to the problem,
such as reading Harville Hendrix's "Getting the Love You Want."
Ask your spouse for some specific effort towards safely
sustaining the discussions you are currently aborting together. Point
out that you "back down" to his anger which stops the discussion.
Let him know that you will be working on continuing rather than "backing
down", and perhaps he can begin to look at why his anger results in
intimidation rather than discussion. His willingness to accept your
retreat reflects that he is willing to get his way by being angry!
Perhaps your husband does not yet see the price tag attached to "getting
what he wants" in this manner. His ability to intimidate you will
cost him affection in the marriage. For intimacy is damaged when either
partner experiences negotiation as "unfair." And "backing down" creates
a backlog of silent resentment which cools the passion in any marriage.
Use your individual counseling to explore why you
stop yourself in your discussions with your husband, and identify
effective ways to get your messages and needs across in your marriage.
Reflect on patterns you may have learned from your parents' interactions
that may be contributing to your own "backing down" in your relationship.
Whether it be developing skills in communication,
showing empathy for your husband's position or articulating what intimidates
you about his expression of anger, there is something that is stopping
you from finishing the discussions you begin. Try to get underneath
why the effect of his anger is causing you to react by truncating
the discussion. Are you afraid of his anger? Or are you afraid of
expressing your own anger? What frightens you? Find out what his anger
symbolizes for you.
Perhaps you are reacting to fears of what occurred
in your parents' arguments. But avoiding conflict will not solve the
problem anymore than ineffective escalation. Perhaps you and your
husband are avoiding finishing discussions because you fear a negative
repetition of your respective parents' marriages. If so, you get credit
for trying to do something different! However, it is not enough to
protect by avoidance. Increase your own capacity and skills to fully
express yourself, and ask your husband to simply listen and understand.
Then listen to his full expression and attempt only to understand,
rather than "fix" the problem. Through empathy, you are more likely
to achieve a successful compromise.
Research reveals that most couples divorce due to
prolonged unresolved conflict. Couples also report that what they
want from their spouses more that anything is "understanding." Successful
negotiation and empathy are critical ingredients in a satisfying longterm
partnership. And communication skills are not a luxury, but essential
tools for keeping your marriage healthy. Invite your husband to be
a part of the solution, rather than a possible marriage statistic!