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April 18, 2016

Sooner or Later, We Need to Talk

My work friend "Nina" told me about the night she decided to leave her husband.

There were a lot of problems in the marriage. Individually, most of the problems weren't serious, but some were, and except for the occasional pointless argument, nothing was being discussed.

Nina had decided that it was time to resolve some of the ongoing issues.

She waited until the kids were in bed. It was after 11:00 pm. Her husband was downstairs.

Nina went down to the TV room, where her husband was leaning back in the recliner, sipping a beer and chuckling a little at a sitcom. She said that she wanted to talk to him about something important. He said, probably with a touch of annoyance, that he would talk to her in fifteen minutes, as soon as the show was over.

At that moment, Nina realized how outrageous it was to be in a relationship where she was less important than an old rerun of a trivial TV program.

This wasn't an isolated incident. There was a long history of words and actions that had left Nina feeling ignored and devalued. She was tired of being pushed aside while everyone and everything else got her husband's attention. Their relationship didn't seem to be a high priority for him. The situation wasn't getting any better, and she had had enough.

I sympathized with Nina. At the same time, I knew how demanding and impatient she could be. She had once nearly gotten us thrown out of a deli during a very hectic lunch hour when she tracked down our busy waitress and tapped her on the shoulder, complaining that the mustard she wanted hadn't yet been delivered to our table. Nina was hypersensitive to disrespect and would often take offense at offhand remarks that were intended to be lighthearted, not insulting.

It was easy to imagine her husband's point of view. He worked hard all day, and just wanted to relax a little bit with some harmless TV. It didn't seem too much to ask for just a few more minutes to see how the show ended. Especially since the upcoming conversation wouldn't be pleasant.

And still I understood Nina's point of view. There were so many things that needed attention, and her husband always had an excuse to put her off. It didn't seem too much to ask for an acknowledgement that her concerns were important, along with an opportunity to talk things over at a more reasonable hour.

I don't know whether Nina's marriage could have been saved. She and her husband never tried to solve their problems, never even talked about what those problems were. After the divorce was final, the only issue that was discussed by anyone was child support, an ongoing court battle that dragged on for over ten years.

A lot of marriages end this way. While some of them really are irreconcilable, in many cases the relationship is dying of neglect because one or both partners are reluctant to talk honestly about their difficulties.

If you're ready but your spouse is reluctant to talk, there are some things you can try to get a discussion going.

  • Consider the timing. In general, it's usually not a good idea to insist on talking about problems when your spouse is in the midst of an activity. Avoid choosing a moment when one or both of you need to get to work or rush off to an appointment. Late at night when you both need sleep is usually a bad time, too. Try to find a moment when you have some free time and can talk without being overheard by the kids. If it's difficult to find the right time spontaneously, then try making an appointment.
  • Don't overwhelm yourselves by trying to talk about everything all at once. It may be tempting to present your spouse with a long checklist of problems, but this approach usually means that nothing gets solved. It's much easier to solve problems when they are handled one at a time.
  • Be gentle and calm. If you start by blaming and criticizing, your spouse will probably become defensive, or may simply shut you out completely. Talk about the problem without making it an attack on your partner's character. ("The garbage is piling up in the kitchen" rather than "You are too lazy to take out the garbage.")

Are you the one who always avoids the conversation? Here are some thoughts on that.
  • Ignoring a problem won't make it go away, but it might make your spouse go away.
  • Ten years from now, you won't regret missing that Gilligan's Island rerun, but you will regret the loss of your marriage, the emotional and financial misery of divorce, and how it affects your kids and your relationship with them.
  • Most problems are solvable, and many are much easier to deal with than you think. The right kind of conversation will define the problem and then come up with a plan to handle it.

Talking about a problem is the first step toward solving it. Conversation often reveals that problems are more manageable than they seem; the only way to find out is to start the dialogue. For detailed help on managing conflict and building a more harmonious marriage, the Gottman Relationship Blog has some great advice.
 

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