Mike refused to speak to his wife Laura for weeks at a time, and by the time she dragged him to my office she was at her wit’s end: “What do I do if he refuses to speak to me?”
They told me their issues, which weren’t that complicated or major, but could not be resolved because Mike always clammed up whenever his wife approached him with her criticisms and complaints. Mike refused to talk because he said his wife was witchy when she came after him and once he responded he couldn’t trust how she’d react.
“Doctor Becky this woman is like a damn drill sergeant,” he said as he glanced at Laura. “You have no idea how impossible it is to get a word in with her, so I have chosen not to even try.”
“From this day forward,” I said to Mike. “You need to know that it is never acceptable to give your wife the silent treatment, no matter what she says or does. You may never go mute again, get it?”
He nodded, but said, “What do I do, then? She might bite my head off. You don’t know what she’s capable of.”
“No matter what she does or may do, talk to her like an adult when she approaches you with a concern. Stay calm, and no matter what she says or does or how she does it, YOU will respond with calm words, you will be an adult, OK? You need to know that it is childish to stop speaking to your spouse. It is not relational.”
I then turn to his wife, Laura. “It is also not relational to chew a person’s butt out with criticism and harsh complaints. What you are doing is childish, too. You can’t play the drill sergeant anymore. You must find another way to approach your husband with your needs and wants.”
“Well how do I approach him, then? He’s not a great listener.”
“I don’t listen because of how you approach me,” Mike said.
“You have a right to make a request,” I said. “Adults know they can’t control their partner, so they don’t demand, they make requests. Like, ‘Would you mind turning the TV volume down, please?” Or, Honey, ‘If you find it difficult to pay the bills on time, would you mind allowing me to take charge of it?’”
“What you don’t do is walk in and tell them what a loser or jerk they are, or how badly they screwed something up, cause if you do then they’ll shut you out,” I said.
One term I use a lot in my private practice as Marriage & Family Therapist is: being relational. I think it is a pretty huge concept that everyone should be aware of – here is how it works: Most couples that come into see me are behaving in ways that block relationship, or back-and-forth healthy interactions. They do this by being verbally aggressive or harsh on the talking side, and defensive or shutting down on the receiving side – a couple cannot communicate if this is what is going on. What we need in a relationship is for both partners to be able to keep their emotional walls down so they can communicate and connect on an ongoing basis. You do this by being respectful and making it safe for the other person to talk to you by remaining calm and adult-like in what you say, and in how you receive information.
Here’s a few rules of thumb on how to do this:
• When you become aware of an issue with your partner, don’t let it sit too long.
• Choose the right time for the conversation. Don’t ask to talk on the last win-or-lose play of the Super Bowl. Wait until you both have some relaxing space and time and then softly and gently request a conversation.
• The conversation. Your tone and body language must be soft and non-intimidating and your best self must be in charge. Tell your spouse how you feel about a certain situation, then make a humble request that you two work out a change or compromise. Ex: “Honey, it hurts my feelings deeply when you talk to your mother negatively about me. It has a feel of disloyalty to me, so I really need to make a request that you not talk to her about me. Would that be OK? I really need this from you.” If your spouse refuses to cooperate after such a reasonable request, you probably have deeply serious issues a therapist could help you with.
• If your spouse approaches you softly for a conversation, then you as the receiver need to be open and soft in return. Sit in a relaxed, non-defensive position with your best self firmly in control. Make sure your facial expressions and body language are open and relaxed. No matter what your partner requests, promise yourself you will make sure they feel heard by validating their feelings, then respond calmly and respectfully. Ex: “Wow, honey, I see that my confiding to my mother in a negative way has really hurt you and caused you to feel I am disloyal. That is not the kind of husband I want to be. I will not speak to her again. You can be sure of that. I am there for you and I want you to know that. I am so sorry I did something that hurt you so much.”
Remember, the idea in these conversations it to be, kind, soft, respectful and recognizing of each other’s feelings. This is what being relational is. It is creating a peaceful and safe environment so you can talk about your feelings and concerns without fear, and controlling your responses and reactions so your partner can say what they need to say without fear, too. The next important step is to be responsive to what your partner is requesting, so long as it is reasonable. Honoring your partner’s reasonable requests and needs is a very important piece of being relational. You bend, and they bend for you.