Saturday, October 07, 2017

Dismaying Story #146: Learning to Fight Fair

Dear Andrew,

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 beaten 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 inappropriately. 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 the 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

Dear Looking,

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.

Good luck!

All the best,


  1. Anonymous8:36 PM

    I can't resist this one. Passive aggressive communication usually stems from learned behavior in the childhood home. Whenever you have a seemingly calm conflict avoider in a relationship, you are dealing with someone who probably suffered consequences from sharing their opinions when they were young. This tends to perpetuate through life and leaves the individual capable of only a limited number of obvious emotions. Inside they go through the whole range and the inability to release it tends to create frustration that comes out in an inappropriate and childish way. Trying to have a rational debate with this personality type is extremely infuriating to the one on the receiving end as there is NO way to win an argument with this type. Remember, you cannot have a rational argument with an irrational person and he is in an irrational emotional cage.

    Andrew’s advice is solid and I agree with all he recommended. I suggest that you realize you are dealing with someone who desperately wants his feelings to be known but feels it dangerous to do so. When you challenge him it reinforces that anxiety and makes matters worse. My recommendation is understand you are dealing with a struggling communicator and you must slowly make the environment safe them to finally feel free to share. The current situation may feel as though you are suffering through lack of communication, but I suspect he suffers quietly much worse and wishes he could be more genuine.

    Be patient, do not challenge and be very careful not to insult or condemn a passive aggressive, as this takes them back to the source of the issue and creates a reliving of the trauma or environment that created them. Be yourself, communicate clearly, own you part in any situation but do not be a doormat. As he sees you become a safer and more approachable partner, he will come around. If he does not, he may need the services of a communication coach or therapist to break him out of his shell and relieve his anxiety.

    Thomas Matthews
    Speak For

    1. I find this analysis of yours very helpful, and gives me the ability to be more patient. It gives me a way to understand what he is going through, which gives me the ability to let certain things slide --- and reinforces the need for me to apologize for my role, hoping eventually he will feel safe enough to do the same and be vulnerable one day.

      I know my boyfriend had some kind of rocky history with his now-deceased parents and he does not like to talk about it. I suspect that your analysis of his childhood may very well be true.

  2. Anonymous10:11 PM

    The interesting thing this letter pointed out is how people avoid communicating in favor of playing power and blame games. If people concerned themselves more with the goal of clear communication rather than in displaying grudges and temper in a thinly-disguised fashion, they'd find they'd fight a lot less often.

    The whole situation could have been avoided by clarifying what he said with a simple question, "would you prefer that we leave at 12:30 exactly or is any time, give or take 15 minutes, around 12:30 okay?" Why didn't she ask this question? Maybe it didn't occur to her or maybe she wanted this conflict to happen so she'd have a chance to criticize her husband for being vague.

    I thought your advice was excellent, Andrew.

  3. I am amazed. The insight into this situation that you have given us is truly incredible.

    It's unbelievable how often we humans miscommunicate, and perhaps even more so when we are of different genders.

    I love this advice. I bet most of us can take at least *some* element of this away to improve our relationships. Thanks Andrew!

  4. Anonymous10:24 AM

    That's a very well thought out response,
    I would have jusr said her husband need and anal prob to see whats irritating him.
    Some people are just to grumpy and cause most of the problem.
    This reminds me of my father but my mother gets in his face and doesn't let him get away with it even if it ends up in a shouting match.
    I remember once she wanted to go shopping and he had agreed and 4then changed his mond.
    She doesn't drive.
    She had gotten ready and was waiting when he told her.
    She said fine and called me up to drive her.
    I have no car.
    My father got pissed off and said it was his car and he wasn't going to lend it out.
    She told him she paid for it to, to pass the keys over and shut up.
    We went shopping.
    Sometoimes you have to get in you partnewrs face or become the rub they walk on.
    The choice is yours.
    Have a nice day Andrew

  5. I saw a lot of myself in this womans words. Always being the peacemaker can be tiresome, but conflict is even more so.

    What is so amazing is this: Why do we let little things like this get the hair up on our neck?

  6. Anonymous11:49 AM

    love your answers - and so right on target

    mis-communication is the number one problem i see in relationships....i know for my ownself that i had to learn how to better communicate my needs without giving the silent treatment and then lashing out...

  7. My husband is very passive aggressive but he doesn't hold a candle to his father. His dad takes it to a whole new level.

    His dad's strategy is to never be the bad guy. He controls the family through little asides but always manages to make everyone else the bad guy. He and the wife are having serious marital troubles after 34 years and he refuses to go to counciling. He refuses to communicate with the wife and basically refuses to take any action in any direction. I think he's hoping she'll get frustrated and leave, and then he can sit there and say "she left, not me."

    I don't think there's any way my mother-in-law can fight fair in this situation because he refuses to even engage in the situation or deal with it.

  8. It so makes me wonder, why are we so quick to anger and yell at those we know and love the most? When we treat total strangers with a bit more reserve.

  9. Anonymous12:49 AM

    I am anonymous. I really appreciate your suggestions. I need to read them more, and the blog comments so I can think about what you have all said.
    One of the comments asked why I didn't clarify what my husband meant by around 12:30. I have been married to him for almost 20 years. I have years of experience with about 12:30. It means close to that time, within 20-30 minutes. I think my comments sound sarcastic and I really don't intend them to, you can't hear the inflection in my tone while I write this but I don't mean to sound like a smart alec. I really thought I knew what about 12:30 meant.
    Come to find out, even after I forwarded my ranty note to Andrew, that he seriously made a mistake when he made the arrangements for our visit as the time he arranged for us to attend was really cutting it short with the time the family was going to eat (we were to leave to go to another home). I didn't know all this until after I wrote Andrew even. I can see why he was wanting to arrive earlier, I just didn't know this.
    I could have easily sped up my ready to go time by 10-15 minutes had I known he wanted to leave at precisely 12:30, I was hanging clothes up, putting laundry away and cleaning my bathroom. Not to sabotoge him, but because I thought I could take until 12:45-1:00 or so before he expected to leave. Neither of us are chronically late people. Both of us are very timely people, if I had known he wanted to pull out of the drive at 12:30, I would have been there. I can't decide whether I didn't explain my problem clearly or I don't really understand what my role in this is, but I am going to read more about what you have all said so I can understand how to prevent this.

  10. Anonymous6:58 PM

    Andrew, you are so good!!!!

    Love your advice on this subject.

    The only thing I would expand on is that it is important that you become an active listner, meaning when he says something like "I would like for us to leave around 12:30" You say, "What do you mean by around 12:30? Does that mean you want to be on the road at 12:30 or are you okay with leaving as late as 12:45?. This will accomplish two things, one it will force a specific understaning from both of you and by becoming an active listener you will be perceived as more caring. Listening equals caring, that is how you will be preceived and as Andrew said your husband will learn to respond in kind. Good luck.