Monday, December 04, 2006
Dismaying Story #89: Learning to Fight Fair
My husband and I cannot manage to resolve conflict. He has this passive aggressive strategy of dropping little verbal bombs, then denying he is even angry and not acknowledging there is a conflict then refusing to discuss the fact that now my feelings are hurt. This hurts my feelings further because I feel as if he does not give a hoot that I am upset, because he refuses to discuss the circumstances to a resolution. On occasion I will get a solicited, "Well then I'm sorry," which is very shallow and insincere.
I am getting tired of being beat up by him and having to "let it go" to keep peace in my marriage. I think one of the reasons he refuses to discuss anything is he rarely admits when he is the source of a mistake or may have been behaving inappropriate. I on the other hand am the type of person who does not sit well with conflict and prefers to confront the conflict, try to understand the other person, express myself so I feel I have been understood and then move forward.
Here is an example. Yesterday morning my husband told me we would be leaving for his brother's house at "about 12:30." To me this means give or take 15-20 minutes. I came downstairs at 12:50, ready to leave. He is sitting on the couch, visibly angry. I say, "Are you ready to go?" He responds, "Yep, I have been ready." My husband stomps around the house and gets in the car. On our way he expresses his irritation that we are late. I tell him you told me we were leaving at about 12:30. It is now ten after one, twenty minutes after I came down because the kids were not in the car and he had to collect his stuff. Now he denies ever saying that. He asks the kids what time he told them to be ready, ooooops....they say 12:30. Still nothing from him, pissed off mode. I say, "You said 'about.' If you meant pulling out of the driveway at 12:30, then you need to tell me that."
He says nothing while he can still affect the course of events, angrily comments after there is no turning back, lashes out at us all because we don't read his mind, then never apologizes and doesn't give a crap he hurt my feelings. That is the kicker of it all, he simply doesn't care that my feelings are hurt, and just expects me to "let it go" to keep peace.
This is very typical. He tries to appear very passive because he will never acknowledge his feelings and therefore he sees himself as very easy to get along with. I on the other hand find him somewhat impossible to get along with where conflict is concerned because he refuses to address it by simply refusing to talk about anything. My attempts to seek reconciliation are perceived as bullying. I back off, and nothing gets addressed. Even if I wait hours, days, weeks, we will not address the circumstances further. I cannot think of one time he has initiated a discussion with me to resolve a conflict. I have to drag him to a discussion and half the time that never accomplishes anything either because he will refuse to acknowledge his feelings. For example yesterday he said he wasn't mad, although he lashed out at me and the kids and was a total jerk.
I could use some help!
Signed, Looking to Talk Things Out
You should treat this as a project. The basic materials you will need are a good-sized piece of paper, a thick felt marker, and some tape to put the paper up on the wall. I'll get back to these in a moment.
The dynamic you describe is quite common. It occurs because without realizing it, you teach each other ineffective ways of responding to the other.
Here is how the cycle goes. You start with two people who dislike conflict intensely. That would be you and your husband. I can tell this because of the severity of your reactions. Both of you hate to be criticized and instinctively do things to avoid it. One of the issues is that your strategies for doing so are different.
You respond by actively trying to suppress any criticism coming from him, including any requests for change. (All such requests, no matter how positive and constructive, must include an element of criticism.) You immediately make it clear to him that his request is invalid, unwelcome and he is a jerk for making it. Don't believe me? Re-read your letter; you say exactly that. You are not doing this to be vindictive. Instead you feel attacked and poorly treated, and this is the way you have learned to deal with those feelings.
He responds to criticism by trying to avoid whatever instigated it in the past. As I have just described, you have taught him he will be criticized for admitting he is upset with you. He reacts by refusing to admit it. His coping strategy when he becomes upset is to deny, deny, deny, and then wait for the storm to blow over. Once in a while he becomes upset enough that he just has to say something (as in the "about 12:30" incident) but then he gets reminded rather quickly that this causes him to be criticized, so he retreats back inside his protective shell. Apologizing would mean admitting he is upset, which is inconsistent with his instinct of deny, deny, deny.
This teaches you that you will be punished for trying to talk out any issues. The punishment happens when he retreats into his uncommunicative shell and shuts you out, all the while making it abundantly clear with his nonverbal communication that he is galactically ticked off. As a result you have learned to "let it go" to "keep the peace." There is not really any peace to keep in that situation, though. You are both upset. You both desperately wish there were some way to make the issues go away, and you are tremendously frustrated that nothing seems to help.
Both of you are misinterpreting the actions of the other. He sees your reactions as aggression, not realizing they are really a manifestation of your insecurities about being criticized. Many people in your husband's position are simply astounded when they learn that their spouse's actions come from vulnerability, not a desire to dominate. A husband who believes his wife wants to dominate him will tend to resist, while one who is aware of his wife's vulnerability is more likely to want to protect and help her.
You believe his silence means that he doesn't care about you. As I have already described, this is not at all what causes his behavior. Like you, his self-esteem takes a hit when he gets criticized, so he tries to avoid that. His actions are the result of vulnerability (again, just like you), not callousness.
By not understanding the vulnerabilities involved, both of you become firmly entrenched in your criticism-avoidance strategies, and become even more convinced that the entire situation is the other person's fault. If you look at your letter, you will notice that you lay the blame at his feet and say nothing about the possibility that your own actions may be contributing to the problem.
This is not his fault, nor is it yours. This is a matter of the two of you not understanding each other and not knowing what to do. With a little insight and patience, you should be able to turn this around.
Since you wrote to me, you are the one who has to initiate the solution. You need to be the hero, the first one to swallow your pride and take action. So here is what you should do. Start by popping the cap off that felt-tip marker and writing this on the paper: It takes two to tango! Then tape it up where you have to look at it every day. In other words, you need to buy into the concept that this is not a problem with him, but rather with the two of you. You need to take ownership for your role in the relationship. That's the internal part.
Externally, you need to change how you react to your husband. Instead of explaining to him how he is wrong to be upset with you (which is how you describe your actions in your letter) you should first consider whether he might have a point, even a partial one. The 12:30 incident involved a two-way communication breakdown. Sure, he could have been more clear in explaining his expectations. On the other hand, you found his request to be vague and yet you did not admit that up front. You simply made an assumption about what he meant, one that met your own needs, and then went with it. You both had a role in the miscommunication.
You could have smoothed the water considerably by admitting your part in this and apologizing, without also explaining his mistake to him. If you do this consistently, he will soon come to trust that he will not get backlash for mentioning things to you. His tendency to retreat into silent mode will decrease. You can even do this when he lets you know with body language that he is upset. The more times you behave like this, the more quickly he will learn and the sooner he will become more communicative. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge your part and criticize him back, then you lose the benefit.
Going along with that, tell him that you now realize how your reactions have been affecting him. Apologize for this general trend. Tell him that you really weren't trying to be aggressive, you are just sensitive about criticism and you will try to do better.
No doubt your instincts are screaming at you right now. "But that's not fair," they are saying. "Why should I have to give in? Then he can just lord it over me." Here's the thing; apologizing is not giving in. It is simply acknowledging that you had a role in whatever happened and that you are a big enough person to admit that. Apologizing is really a way for both of you to win, because you can stop spending your time being resentful of each other and start building a loving bond.
Then your delicious surprise should happen. When you change how you react to him, he will start changing how he reacts in turn. Once you have admitted your part and apologized (in other words, once you have been the hero) his natural reaction is to reciprocate. He will start saying things like, "Well, I guess I could have been a little clearer in what I said. Sorry about that."
Now you're on a path where you can start to trust how the other will react, and how they are feeling inside.
Two words of caution. First, don't be discouraged if it takes more than once for this to work. You have been teaching each other for a long time; it may take a while before you each stop expecting the other to react negatively. Have a little patience.
Secondly, at some point you will have the breakthrough two-way apologies and it will feel great. This is a surprisingly dangerous moment. You have both had specific complaints on your mind for some time that you have been dying to unload on your partner. This may seem like an opportune moment to do so, when the other is in a receptive mood. You should resist that urge or you may be right back where you started. Forget the past grievances, because you now know the reasons and are starting fresh. And don't be surprised if he picks that moment to voice a criticism. I have warned you this may happen and explained why, so you can choose not to react negatively. Simply be the hero and apologize once more.
All the best,