What Every Husband Ought to Know about Marriage Conflict

Nobody likes to hear someone close to them be critical, blaming or shaming. It feels bad. And sometimes scary. It turns out that when women talk like that to their husbands, contrary to popular opinion, most men feel this intense criticism very strongly in their bodies. And because male bodies “rev up” faster than women’s in stress (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, tunnel vision), in order to protect themselves and their relationships from too much emotion, men frequently, readily, as a default, go into Defense mode.

It’s vital for happy, flexible marriages to have partners who know how to manage difficult conversations. There will be many of them over the years.

As I said in my last post, women have to learn how to bring up their complaints softly, gently, and with a caring touch.

Men need to recognize their usual default of Defensiveness, and learn to lower their emotional walls quickly.  If men can do this, while at the same time women practice being more gentle, the best situation for a positive interaction around difficult topics happens.

The most successful couples work on this communication posture change together. Trusting that the other is doing their best to move out of their “automatic” thinking/behavior/posture and tone to a more couple-friendly communication strategy.

Because I talk about these automatic couple missteps every day in my therapy practice, I know this is one of the most common couple problems. No one part of the couple can fix the problem completely on their own : each person in the marriage has a piece of the solution!

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What Every Wife Ought to Know about Marriage Conflict

If I had the opportunity to share one essential marital tool with every wife in America, I know exactly what I would say:

Learn to bring up difficult topics with your partner in a calm, quiet and focused voice.

Marital researcher Dr. John Gottman has studied tens of thousands of marital conversations over 30 + years. He has found that there are 4 distinct communication habits that are poison to happy relationships. He calls them the “Four Horsemen,” like the biblical horsemen that bring in the end of times in the book of Revelation.

He has learned that men have a faster body response of adrenaline (increased heart rate, blood flow to the extremities, tunnel focus of attention) than most women to partner conflict. That means that when many women are just getting into the meat of their problem, their partner has become ready to run, fight and defend. It makes it very hard for men to stay focused and listen calmly without enormous effort.

If every woman could develop the personal skill of bringing up difficult discussions with their partner in a calmer way, their male partner is less apt to “flood,” focus and defend. And the conversation is more likely to be productive and problem-solving.

It’s a skill we practice in therapy all the time. Are you able to bring difficult topics up to your partner in a calm, cooperative way? If not, you may want to start working on this skill.

What is it that I wish I could tell every husband in America? Well, that’s for next time.

When To Get Marriage Therapy

Most couples come to therapy when they have completely run out of steam. While there is a great deal that MFTs can do to help, it’s not a time in the family when people feel resilient, optimistic or energized. In order to create permanent change, one needs a good deal of hope and energy. And so does one’s partner.

I’ve observed that for many couples (especially those who have had a less-than smooth relationship history, full of stops and re-starts, difficult emotional turmoil, previous long-term partners and/or huge life stress) there are much better times to come to couples therapy and have a much bigger chance for successful growth.

They are:

1. Before marriage. PLEASE consider pre-marital counseling, whoever you are. There are fabulous tools available to me as a therapist to assess your relationship as it is now, help you understand your unique partnership in basic system and personality terms, and help you enter the marriage more awake to your strengths and weaknesses.

2. After the FIRST really big, painful, emotionally threatening argument. Happier couples, those whose likes and dislikes, personality styles, family of origin patterns and conflict themes are more similar to each other may never even have one of these blow outs. Ever. That would be ideal. The moment a frightening, threatening, abusive fight happens, think: Help. We need help.

3. When one of you feels as if you are drifting away from your partner and couplehood in a big way : a job that takes you away from home for days or weeks at a time; when new parenthood strains the closeness; a crisis of faith or health or employment. Couple relationships are always managing their own sense of healthy emotional distance from one another. But the marriage should always feel quietly, confidently connected. If it doesn’t, don’t let it drift without comment and professional support.

These are the times I have noticed in marriages of change and opportunity, when both partners may be open to learning new things about each other and themselves, and still see the relationship as positive, life-affirming, permanent. These are the points at which relationships can be strengthened, renewed, matured. Don’t wait until you can’t stand it any more to reach out for counseling. Chances are, your chances of recovery get lower with every week you wait.

We Can’t Choose our Parents

It’s true; we can’t choose our parents.

Whatever skills or deficits they possess as people: their readiness or disinterest at caring for us, their physical and mental health, and their ability to meet basic needs for food, shelter and safety have an immediate and lasting effect on our own development. The human brain is shaped every day by the way we are cared for by those closest to us, and grows fastest during the first two years of life.

If a child is born to a parent who neglects their needs, is addicted, or who is violent, abusive or mentally ill, the effects are devastating. A human mind can be ruined if not helped and supported to develop in a healthier, more stable and flexible way.

It’s also true that in America the first time a failing family may come into contact with an institution that could help it recover is with the justice system or the public schools.

In this wonderful episode of This American Life radio show, stories are told of educational and therapeutic systems that work to re-parent our cultures disordered parent-child relationships.  If you’ve ever wondered how schools cope, or how family and in-home therapy works, take a listen. It’s great.

The American Life : Back To School, Episode 474