Joe is taking out the recyclables on Monday morning. As he rolls the large green container to the curb, his mind is turning over bitter, disappointing thoughts. These thoughts are about his wife and her behavior the night before.
They had some friends over and shared some beers, normally a relaxing thing, but Joe was bothered by his wife’s comments over the course of the evening. She made a snide comment about their sex life and a couple of disparaging general comments about men. He thinks that she would not normally run her mouth in such a way, except that she was drinking more than normal. He thinks about talking to her, but quickly dismisses this option, as he recalls the last argument they had. He tells himself that it would just cause them to stop speaking for a few days. As he turns the matter over, he recalls some of her unfortunate comments at social gatherings over the years. He compares her behavior to his own and finds that he cannot recall the last time she chided him about a loose tongue. He tells himself that this is not the first or the 10th time they have discussed her comments over their 25-year marriage. If she just wouldn’t drink so much sometimes. He is feeling frustrated, but finally settles into despair, as he thinks to himself that he does not deserve such disloyalty in a wife, as he has always been more discrete and careful about what he says in public. Why can’t she just shut her mouth?
How can you not feel empathy for this nice man? After all, I didn’t even mention that he was taking out the recyclables without being asked! Joe and his wife might be headed for trouble, though. Joe is doing more thinking than talking. The solutions to this issue lie with him and his wife. But, without her input and her knowledge of his feelings, how can anything be different? This pattern may just continue with the couple, leading to buried truths and growing resentments. Perhaps Joe becomes reluctant to socialize with their friends. Perhaps, he talks more to the pretty neighbor at future gatherings. Worse yet, what if Joe shares his feelings with a kind, empathetic co-worker (also sharing discontent in her marriage) rather than letting his wife know what is bothering him?
Once we begin sharing our resentments of our spouse with people other than our spouse, we are violating a boundary. This is a boundary that can and should be violated when our spouse is cruel, violent or controlling. And, frankly, we all need a solid sounding board every once in a while – to find out if we are expecting too much of our spouse, or if our troubles are normal. However, if we talk to others INSTEAD of our spouse, we are leaving the most important person out of the loop. And the resentments can grow until we talk ourselves into leaving, or having an affair or shutting this person out. I would much rather see a couple who argues honestly than a couple who never addresses conflicts with one another.
Joe started rehearsing his wife’s faults and searching for evidence to back up his feelings. Though we all do this, it can alienate us when we keep it to ourselves, or fail to realize that we are justifying our anger. It can become a habit to feel superior to our spouse, even martyred in our marriage. We compare ourselves to our spouse and come out looking better. I am pretty sure that no one is an absolute joy to be married to! Another thing that Joe did wrong was dismiss the option of talking openly to his wife. Our fear of how a discussion will go wrong is not a good reason not to have the discussion. We must face our fears when it comes to arguing. Otherwise, we hide our feelings, do spiteful things, fall back on sarcastic remarks that only create enmity in our spouse, or begin to criticize excessively.
John Gottman, an acclaimed marital researcher and clinician, talks about the three choices we have in communicating with one another. We can turn away, turn towards or turn against our partner/friends. Being open and respectful about what bothers you is a long-term strategy that counts as “turning toward” another person. If you talk to yourself or others about your pet partner peeves, you may be turning away from or turning against your partner. Remember to accept conflict as a part of that honesty and take the risk to help the one you love to know you better.