She Yells, He Withdraws
- Dr. David Hawkins Director, The Marriage Recovery Center
- 2009 23 Feb
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“I am just so angry with him,” Sarah said, glowering at Kyle, her husband of fifteen years. Visibly shaking, Sarah continued. “He won’t listen, so I know I scream and raise my voice. I can’t help it.”
“Any then she expects me to listen,” Kyle said hotly. “I knew I was going to get beat up on, and that’s why I was really reluctant to come to one of your Marriage Intensives.”
Sarah was crying now, holding her face in her hands.
Lifting her head, Sarah continued. “I don’t want to make him afraid of me. I just want to make sure he hears how important this is to me. Things have got to change. I’ve got to make him understand.”
“Listen to her now, Doc,” Kyle said, leaning back in his chair. “Even sitting here, with you as a referee, she’s coming at me. Do you really expect me not to be afraid?”
Kyle and Sarah had flown in the night before to the The Marriage Recovery Center as a “last ditch hope” to save their marriage. Both were understandably raw and wounded. Both harbored mounds of resentment, spewing venom at one another without restraint.
“I don’t blame either one of you for your feelings,” I said. “But clearly this pattern of relating isn’t working, and like most couples, the process is the problem. Since that is what is wreaking havoc in your marriage, we’ve got to change the process. And we can!”
“I don’t know how to do that,” Sarah said, still notably angry. “I’m still so upset and I know I push him away when I’m this mad. But, I can’t change it. I try to talk to him about anything, and he pushes away. He just won’t listen.”
Sarah spent the next few minutes complaining about her husband’s lack of understanding about how she wanted him to treat their seven-year-old son. She felt that he was too harsh and wanted to make sure he understood and changed.
“Sarah,” I said slowly, “do you think his detachment may have something to do with your approach?”
“I know it does,” she said firmly. “I can be horrible at times. I’m ashamed of myself. But, I’m telling you, I can’t help it. He won’t listen to me, and I’ve got to make him hear me.”
“Great way to make me hear you,” Kyle said sarcastically.
“Folks,” I said. “We’ve got to agree on something. All three of us have to agree on something before we can go any further.”
“What’s that?” Kyle said.
“Well, you’ve got four options as far as I can see. Let’s consider what you want to do. But, I encourage you both to think through these four options extremely carefully.”
“One, you work with me individually for a while to drain off some of your angry venom. This is a very reasonable approach, and once you’ve drained off some of your anger and hurt, you may be better able to sit with your mate and engage in therapy.”
Both nodded and felt like this might be a good idea. Kyle noted that he thought Sarah needed individual work, and not surprisingly, Sarah felt like Kyle needed individual work. I saw this as simply more blaming of each other.
“Two,” I continued, “we can create a time where you simply vent your anger and hurt at the other, while your mate develops a layer of Teflon so they don’t take everything you’re saying personally. This is your chance to 'therapeutically vent,' prior to moving into a more therapeutic level of communication.
“He’s already got on five layers of Teflon,” Sarah said sarcastically. “I don’t want you spraying any more on him.” Kyle rolled his eyes as I called her on her sarcastic and biting words. She apologized.
“Our third option,” I said, “is to try to continue on with couple’s work, while you work very hard to put everything you say through Ephesians 4: 29—Letting no unwholesome word proceed out of your mouth, except that which is fitting for building up others according to their need.” Both echoed the Scripture with me, obviously having learned it before.
“Finally,” I said, “you can continue to do things the way you’ve always done them. But, I doubt you’ve flown across the country to simply keep practicing techniques that destroy each other and your marriage.”
“As you decide what you want to do,” I continued, pausing while looking at both of them overwhelmed with feelings of hurt, “let me remind you that both of you are hurting and want relief. You’re both stepping on each other’s air hose, and you’re both grabbing at each other seeking relief. Consider seeing your mate as someone who wants relief, and consider seeing yourself as someone who can give that relief.”
Sarah looked at Kyle for a few moments while dabbing at her tears, and then looked down. Kyle stroked his beard and continued looking at Sarah.
“One more thing,” I added. “You can’t make the other person understand you. That kind of manipulation is easily seen by the other, and they will resent you for it. You can ask them to engage in a dialogue about issues, but you can’t push them to see things your way.”
Looking at his wife, Kyle responded. “We both have to change our patterns,” Kyle said. “This isn’t easy, but I’m willing to ‘lean in’ as Doc says. Will you go easy on me?”
“Yes,” Sarah said softly. “I see you trying, and that’s all I ask.”
“So?” I asked. “What option are you taking? I’d like you to spend a couple of minutes deciding how you want to handle our time. Options one, two and three are constructive. Option four is very destructive. I’d like you to talk about it.”
I watched as they carried on a constructive conversation, discussing the pros and cons of each option. After about five minutes they looked at me and announced their choice.
“We both want some individual time with you while we vent our frustration. We want to then try to come back together and talk to each other with respect, not trying to manipulate the other into seeing things our way, or doing things the way we want them to do them.”
Coercive communication---where we try to force our mate to subscribe to our view of the world—is a very destructive force in many marriages. Many have trouble understanding we can invite our mate to see our point of view, encouraging them to share with us, but we cannot force them to do so. We can share our feelings, but cannot push our opinions onto others. To opinionate our mate is to actually engage in a form of violence.
Consider how you share with your mate. Reflect on how you approach hot topics—and every couple has them—and ask yourself whether you are approaching them with “an Ephesians 4: 49 attitude.” Back off, invite conversation and see if they don’t begin to feel safer, being more willing to engage in discussion about issues. Stop seeking to be right, and rather seek relationship.
Many relationships can be saved if the warning signals are heeded.
Published February 24, 2009
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. 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. I’d love to hear about your success stories or areas of struggle. You can contact me at [email protected] and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website, www.YourRelationshipDoctor.com.