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"I'm not angry," Jed said emphatically to his wife, Jill as we all sat in my office, They had flown across the country a few days earlier to work with me on their marriage.
"I love my work, and," looking firmly at Jill, he continued, "you want to believe it's my work that makes me upset, but it's not!"
"What is it then, Jed?" the middle-aged woman said, sadness emanating from her eyes. "I suppose that means I'm the reason for your irritability. You don't seem happy, and I have to dance around your moods. But, when I bring them up, you say you're not unhappy."
Jed didn't deny being irritable or unhappy this time. He simply let her question sit in the dense air of my office. Waiting for an answer that didn't come, Jill finally looked helplessly at me.
"You see," she said, now talking to me. "This is what happens. I try to talk to him about his moods, but he either becomes even more irritable with me, pointing the finger at me and my moods, or he withdraws. Either way, we end up in another blow out. I can't stand it."
"Jill," Jed said, turning to face her. "You are not seeing your part of this whole thing. Look at the way you are right now. I can't get you to see you have just as many moods as I ever have. Why is it always about me and my moods? Why can't we talk about you?"
Jill let out a big sigh.
"We certainly can, Jack," she said slowly. "In fact, if you want to talk about my moods first, we can do that. But I want a chance to talk about your irritability. That is something I can no longer live with. I'm afraid our twenty-five year marriage is in danger if that doesn't change."
And so it went. Jed reluctantly admitted he was angry, but never fully owned all of Jill's complaints. When he did own it, he clamed it was because of Jill's moodiness and irritability. Round and round the discussions went, the whole time the level of tension rose. Each pointed the finger at the other. Each felt unduly maligned. Each was very unhappy and wondered about the integrity and strength of their marriage.
Clearly both had a point. Certainly there was at least some truth to each other's position. Sadly, the way they discussed the topic, no resolution was in sight. These are the moments that give marriage counselors fits.
Who has what problem? Is Jed irritable and possibly depressed? Does his irritability occur because he feels picked on by Jill, who won't seem to let the issue rest? Or, is the culprit Jill's depression? Perhaps her anger and irritability are at the origin of their problems? With each pointing a finger at the other, finding the true source of their problem may be less important than determining a way for them to work together to solve their relational problems. At this pace, if they cannot end their struggle and learn to cooperate, their marriage is in jeopardy.
So, let's consider a reasonable course of action. Here are a few ideas I reviewed initially when working with them.
First, they must stop fighting each other. While they fight with each other they erode their marriage, and energies cannot be used to do effective problem-solving. Every couple is well-advised not to fight each other, but rather to attempt finding a common problem they agree upon to address.
Second, each must look closely at their own issues. In this case, Jed must put aside his pride and look closely at himself to see if there are signs of depression. His irritability is a classic symptom of male depression, and he must step back long enough to consider the possibility that depression is part of the issue.
Third, Jill must recognize that criticizing Jed will not be effective in solving problems. She must stop judging Jed's behavior, and speak from her feelings. She can share her concern, but not label his behavior. She can voice being frustrated with his irritability and anger, but must do better at specifically identifying concerns. For example, she set boundaries on him "blowing up" at her, or swearing when angry. She can let him know she misses spending quality time with him and invite him to go away with her for a refreshing retreat.
Finally, both must agree to stop picking on each other, and focus on specific areas of concern. Recognize that this is likely to be a volatile topic, and they must approach the issues gently, possibly with professional support. As with other issues, if it proves too sensitive to tackle alone, don't be afraid to tackle hot topics only with professional support.
Do you believe your mate suffers from depression? Use the skill we've discussed previously—"gentle inquisitiveness"---to encourage conversation on the topic. Take care to come from a place of "constructive intent," not criticism. The conversation will flow much more smoothly.
Please send your responses regarding this article to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com and visit my website at www.TheMarriageRecoveryCenter.com.
Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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