A mature story about blowing up the dysfunction of a marriage and learning to communicate.
In a comment left on a previous GMP piece about marriage, I mentioned my own experience as a husband who felt like he had to cave in all the time in order to maintain domestic peace. I am no longer that kind of husband, thanks to some grueling and rewarding inner work on myself, my wife’s work on herself, and our work together as a couple on a very different relationship.
One of the contributors to the site asked me how I figured out when to give in and when to stand my ground. Presumably I have some knowledge to share with other husbands so they know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
The honest answer? I don’t know what to tell you. The first step to wisdom is admitting that you may have no effing clue. That’s the first step to relationship wisdom as well.
My wife and I went into our marriage, what we now with humor and relief call our “Old Marriage,” without much thought or understanding about the most effective ways to communicate. We had few good ideas about what our roles as partners really were. We both tended to duplicate the behavior in our parents’ marriages, even though, of course, each of us was convinced, totally self-aware to NOT be like our parents, never ever to have their marital problems. It’s clear in hindsight we were both acting like our fathers. And hey, our sets parents are still married, so their marriages are successful, right?
It takes two to ruin a marriage. (I’m not talking about full-on abuse here, just run-of-the-mill dysfunction.) It takes two to make an “asshole husband” or a “bitchy wife.” It takes two to make a “yes, dear” husband who keeps his head down and soldiers on. I had responsibility for undermining that marriage, and she did, too; we both did together. What exploded that marriage in the end, the final combustion, was my own irresponsible behavior, but it was a powder keg we both packed tight over the course of several years. We have taken responsibility and also cut ourselves some slack for not having the skills we developed later. We did bad things and the best we could at the same time.
My unspoken assumption at the time was that my role as the husband was to be the Good Soldier, the rock, the unemotional one, the rational one, the butler/therapist, the one whose feelings were secondary, insofar as my feelings mattered. In any emotional conversation between us, I felt like my feelings were the less important ones. Her feelings were paramount, and I had to make myself as comfortable as possible along the way. I had to make sure she was happy, but if I was unhappy, that was strictly my problem to deal with. Any attempt on my part to begin to raise an issue of my feelings almost immediately became a conversation about her feelings instead. At least, that was my perception – from her perspective, what she was trying to do was reach out to me.
A great example: I was getting a complicated promotion at work, and I had mixed feelings about it. It was actually contributing to something of an existential crisis for me. So, here’s the conversation:
Me: I’m dreading some things about my promotion.
She: You’ve worked really hard. You should be grateful to have this job.
What I heard: Your feelings are not valid. Change the way that you feel. Act grateful and shut up.
What she was trying to get across: I want you to feel better. Here are some things that might make you feel better.
Result: My tight-lipped silence on this subject and an attempt to change the subject to something else. In the meantime, I was fuming deep down that my feelings didn’t matter. Meanwhile, she got angry at me for closing myself off.
This created a pretty consistent pattern that would be comical in a “Who’s on First?” kind of way if it weren’t so tragic. Of course we would never be like those dysfunctional couples who can’t communicate, right? In fact, we did the classic Chase/Retreat move. She had some feelings she wanted to share; I kept my head down and said yes, dear, which she interpreted as hostility, so she tried harder, which made me retreat even more. She was a “tyrant,” and I was a “coward,” and those roles just intensified over time. She pressed the accelerator harder and harder, and I pressed with even greater force. It resulting in a lot of smoke, noise and spinning in place.
Maybe the “Good Soldier” role works well for some men in their marriages. I know it’s very familiar territory for a lot of men and works well sometimes in the short run. I can’t tell you not to do it. All I can say is that it was disastrous for me. I am not wired that way, and it turns out that’s not what my wife had wanted from a husband.
We were both panicking at the slightest hint of the other’s discontent, just panicking in different ways. I panicked by avoiding any disagreement or argument (I’m “the rational one,” so I guess I have to be the voice of compromise). Meanwhile, she panicked by trying to head off, squash, or control any unhappiness on my part (he withdraws when he’s unhappy, so I better not let him be unhappy).
I thought I was just accepting her for who she was and just being realistic. In fact, I was not really accepting but being resigned and resentful. Every time I went along in silence, I felt like a little piece of myself (a piece of my self) got chipped away, like shards off of a piece of flint. They whittled away—chip chip chip—until there was only a tiny piece left of this thing that is me and only me. Finally, in total fear that the last bit would soon be gone, I imploded and exploded at the same time. Kablooey. Total breakdown.
At that point there was no recommitting to our marriage or tweaking the relationship or just clearing the air a little bit. It was either tear down whatever’s left and start over from square one or get divorced. That day, on a day-by-day basis, we decided to try to start over from square one. I wish I could say we started over then because of our commitment to a long-term vision or something noble like that, but it really was in a “today I feel like I want to be with you today and probably tomorrow”. We put together the long-term vision as we went along.
The solution is not necessarily touchy-feely New Age chakra alignment stuff. We didn’t synchronize our auras with the ebb and flow of each other’s energy fields. Actually, with the help of a very good counselor over the course of a year or two, what we started with was extremely literal, a handyman’s nuts and bolts, simple yet difficult. For example, “When I hear you say that, I feel anger. My interpretation of that is ____.” That’s actually concrete stuff — “I have sadness about my career” should be really as straightforward as “It’s raining outside.” “I have some fear about that” ought to be as simple to say as “the car is low on gas.”
(She had to learn these skills, too. It turns out, contrary to my assumptions, that women are not actually masters of emotional communication just by being women. Being female does not automatically grant you communication skills or any emotional intuition at all. Being a grown woman is no guarantee that you will not be an emotional bully. That surprised both of us more than it should have. Each of us was less skilled at communicating than we thought.)
In our earlier marriage, I caved in and went along to get along partly because I had virtually no language skills when it came to talking about my feelings. I’m talking about basic stuff we all should have gotten in kindergarten and should be able to use every day. There are basically four major feelings: mad, glad, sad, afraid. Just hearing that was revolutionary for me. Before, I could not even muster the presence of mind to say something simple like “I feel sad about that.”
The other simple square one approach, scary and difficult if you’ve never done it before, is to check in once in a while with motivations and perspectives. Keep in mind that you could be misinterpreting what you think you are hearing. This is why active listening is so important. Not reacting to what they say right away, but trying to clarify in the spirit of curiosity to make sure you’re not misinterpreting. “Now, when you say ____, do you mean….?”
My squirrelly conclusion is that there is no caving in or standing your ground. There is negotiation, which requires some real skill, and the goal of negotiation is to reach an outcome that is satisfactory enough for the two of you. That may require giving up something big in exchange for something else. What grated on me most was not the compromising so much as feeling like I wasn’t even a voting member. Let me sit on the two-person steering committee for the relationship and I feel a lot better about compromising. I’ll happily volunteer to make some big sacrifices in that case, if I feel like an equal.
A man may find that his wife is not actually asking him to choose between “stand” or “flee,” but is in fact asking, at her own level of skill, something very different. Before choosing between fight or flight, make sure you’re answering the real question. Besides, when you do something that you think is caving in or standing your ground, there’s an excellent chance she sees your actions as something completely different. Then, what you’re left with is another timeless Old Marriage exchange:
Me: “I’m tired of caving in all the time to your demands.”
Her: “You’re tired? I’m the one who always caves in to YOUR demands.”
Then, it’s like a starter’s pistol and you’re off to the races. Chase, flee, blame, blame, lather, rinse, repeat.