It’s amazing how often conversations between people who truly love each other get totally confused. Most of the couples I work with are in this predicament, regardless of what else is going on.
Sometimes they wait a long time to come for counseling, because one or both of them is scared about what’s going to happen in that mysterious place, the counselor’s office. You may even be wondering about what actually happens in a counselor’s office yourself.
This couple gave me permission to report on their conversations with me. He is a respected professional, and she has been a stay-at-home mom until recently when she took a part-time job. They have two children, a teenager and a nine-year-old.
Good relationships are built and rebuilt one conversation at a time. This is one of the many conversations we’ve had, rebuilding their relationship after they came close to ending it.
She: We had another argument. We got through it but I want to talk about it.
Me: OK talk to each other.
He: I hate it when you get mad at me at night over little things I don’t even remember.
She: Sometimes you do such nasty stuff. It makes me feel like I hate you. Remember, like dumping the neighbors dog’s poop off our lawn and back into their driveway instead of just cleaning it up. When that happens, I wonder why I married you.
He: (with a slight grin) They deserved it.
She: You don’t have to do stuff like that.
He: I was teaching him a lesson. He should control his own dog.
She: And you do stuff like that with the kids too, and I see people look at me. They wonder why I put up with you.
Me: You don’t feel that way all the time, do you?
She: (completely changing her angry position) Oh no, deep down inside I know he is kind and loving and really cares about me. (Smiling) I know that!
Me: But you’re really angry about some of his behavior aren’t you?
Me: What do you actually do at the time it’s happening?
She: Sometimes I tell him how stupid he is to do it.
Me: Is that later, at night?
She: Yeah, when no one else is around.
Me: What about at the time it’s happening? Do you tell him to stop right now? Or do you ever tell him that you hate the behavior the same way you tell one of the children that you’re angry?
(I know she has great parenting skills.)
She: No, I go back and forth between trying to be nice and being scared.
He: If you told me to stop, I would stop.
She: It’s a habit to grin and bear it till later. That’s usually when I finally get mad. I learned to be nice, especially in front of other people.
Me: It’s OK to tell him you’re angry when you’re angry — especially if you do it the same way you do when you correct children.
He: I really would stop.
She: I’m not really sure I can.
He, I really hate being surprised by you being angry at me when I thought things were OK.
She: OK I’ll try, but sometimes it’s really awkward. Like at the block party. I wondered what the neighbors thought when you just followed me to the picnic holding your back while I staggered in carrying the heavy cooler. I just knew they were thinking what a dork you are and wondering why I put up with you.
He: (whining). Well, my back hurt!
She: And you just sat on the cooler the whole time and nobody could even get any drinks out of it.
Me: (to him) What did you tell the neighbors?
He: (defiant) Nothing — they could see that I was hurting.
She: I don’t think so! They really think you’re a jerk, and I’m stupid to stay married to you.
Me: It really would help if you told people that there was a reason for how you were acting. They don’t know your back hurts, unless you tell them.
She: It happened at your company picnic too. When I asked you to hold the play equipment so (their nine-year-old son) wouldn’t get hurt, you sort of groaned and said you’d try. When you left, I told your partner got your back was hurting. She told me, “Oh, I just thought he was being a jerk.” People really do think you are a jerk!
He: They know I’m really important to the company.
She: Yes they do but they really feel sorry for me.
Me: What if you both told the truth and talk about what’s happening when it happens?
He: (finally getting her point.) OK, I’ll try it. I’ll tell them when I can’t do something because my back hurts.
She: (relieved) I’ll try to tell you at the time when you’re doing something I hate.
What’s Really Happening
This is really just a snippet from an ongoing series of conversations. It lasted only a few minutes.
We’ve agreed that my job is to help them have effective conversations with each other to improve their relationship. The argument they told me about is a symptom of an underlying pattern that I must help them change.
Each of them is doing things based on old information about the proper way to behave. Each hates what the other is doing. Instead of looking at the pattern, they tend to look at each individual incident and argue to justify their own unskilled behaviors.
He learned to expect others to take care of his needs without taking action to ask for help or to negotiate. When an adult acts that way he can be seen as an inappropriate jerk—no matter how smart and important he may be.
She learned that acting angry is forbidden. Since it’s almost impossible to never show anger, she saves hers until she can no longer contain it and it spills over in private. By then it is usually too late to do anything to solve the problem she is upset about.
As they both practice their conversation skills in my office, He is learning about the impact his behavior has on her. He genuinely loves her and is appalled that he has hurt her so often. She is learning that it’s far safer to express her small annoyances than she ever imagined, and her angry outbursts are decreasing. Their relationship grows stronger every day.