We have a communication problem.
This is, by far, the most frequent complaint stated by couples when I ask why they are seeking help. In some cases, its a very literal problem. The couple does not spend enough time talking to each other and have lost being best friends.
Often, however, the complaint has other meanings. He doesnt listen to me. She doesnt understand me. In this case the couple is saying talking more wont help. We end up arguing about the same things over and over. Nothing really changes.
This statement, that nothing changes, is accompanied by deep feelings of sadness that is most often expressed in the form of anger and blame. It seems to be much easier to get mad at ones partner than to express how lonely you are feeling. There is an element of hopelessness here that contributes to each spouse feeling trapped in a bad marriage. This sense of being trapped stems from a perception that the problems are the result of the other partners bad character and, therefore, it will never change. Most of the couples communications become characterized by each focusing on the need to fix the other persons problems. Or, at least, to get their partner to accept responsibility for the problems and fix themselves.
Bill and Susan (not their real names) offer an example of this problem.
He comes home from work late. He never calls to tell me when hell be home. Then he walks in, picks up the mail, heads right to the den, and turns on the news. Hes so wrapped up in himself so selfish. I feel like Im invisible. Sometimes I dont think he cares about any of us.
I used to try talking to her when I came home. But she didnt really seem that interested in the politics and frustrations of my job. Besides, if I talked about problems at work she would become anxious that I might lose my job. She gets too upset about things, too emotional. Just like her mother. I need to unwind, not to feel more tension. She needs her own therapist.
Look at the words this couple is using: never, selfish person, always, too emotional. They have separately reached similar conclusions that the other persons unchangeable character flaws are the cause of their marital problems. Each develops a pattern of defensive, distancing behaviors to avoid discussing important issues and, in general, gives up trying to have a more intimate relationship. This includes having little, if any, sexual relations. It often means going to bed at different times, arguing about parenting issues, developing separate interests, and/or a reduced social life. Instead of growing closer over time, they are growing more distant.
To change things, first Bill and Susan must clearly state that they want to try to make the marriage work. Each must express some feelings of love and caring about the other, even if it is diminished from the past. But this provides a foundation for working on change. Often one or both partners has come to believe the other no longer feels any love for her/him. Making a statement of love and expressing a wish to stay together is often a positive surprise for the other person.
Then the couple is encouraged to change the way they are communicating their feelings so that it invites discussion and connection.
Susan restates her points. In the past I have often felt like Bill didnt care about me. In the future, if he would call me when he leaves the office, it would make me feel like hes thinking about me and is looking forward to coming home. Ill be anticipating his arrival in a more positive way and when he comes in I will seek him out and hug him and tell him Im glad hes home. If he responds to my hug with a strong squeeze, and asks how my day has gone, I will be able to give him some time to unwind if he needs it.
Bill offers the following. In the past I have often felt like Susan didnt have any confidence in me. When she becomes anxious that something bad is going to happen, I take it as a statement that she doesnt think Im doing a good job as a husband and father. I would like to hear her say she believes everything will get worked out. Its not that she cant be concerned. I just need a vote of confidence.
There are some key changes in this exchange. Each identified and shared their own underlying issues instead of focusing on the other persons alleged problems. This makes each seem more approachable. Each also offered suggestions to the other of what specific behaviors would be helpful. Also, by stating what has been wrong in the past, but focusing on how it could be better in the future, it creates some sense of hopefulness.
Of course, its not simple to make these changes. Each spouse is often so highly defensive by the time he/she comes for help that it just doesnt feel safe to share the underlying personal needs or to give up the dance that is used to protect oneself from being hurt again. It takes significant risk to really commit to making these changes and in the beginning it often can only be done in the safety of a therapists office.
Once Bill and Susan began to believe in the possibility of change, they actually began listening to each other. Susan came to understand what made Bill so sensitive to criticism. Bill learned what made Susan so vulnerable to feelings of not being lovable. Each began to feel understood and heard and paved the way for further changes in their marriage. The feeling of being trapped gradually dissolved and their marriage had a future once again.
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