In this third in a series of blogs on communication between husbands and wives Dr. Wall gives advice to the partner that tends to want to talk about issues more than the other and suggests using the indirect approach. The direct approach usually escalates things. For Part One in the series click here. For Part Two click here. For the entire series click here.
Johnny Carson used to say (he was quoting The Preacher in Ecclesiastes) that timing is everything. He was referring to the timing of his jokes, but the principle is broader than late night television. When it comes to communication between a husband and wife, timing is everything.
There are good times to talk about things and there are bad times. If you force a conversation with your spouse when the timing is bad, you are begging for trouble. If this happens too often and you end up with crazy, mean things being said by both parties, this just gets both of you rattled and will cause one or both of you to doubt the integrity of the marriage: There must be something the matter with us.
And then you will be tempted to think that the two of you aren’t good for each other, which will open you up to the possibility of divorce or the reality of divorce or the actuality of a divorce and thoughts like that will lead to the eventuality of divorce on the one hand or the potentiality of an affair on the other (I’m planning on getting a divorce anyway!) and then you’ll divorce your current spouse and get married to some other person to whom you can really communicate. Whew! Good for you (you think) and then the same patterns emerge, because you really didn’t learn anything about communicating in your first marriage and now you are making the same mistakes all over again.
Let’s get this right the first time.
In my last blog I chided the withdrawer and wrote that shutting down wasn’t bad in and of itself, unless the shutting down went on for too long. Let’s keep the shutting down and the calming down and the regrouping to about a half an hour tops. And don’t just shut down. Tell your spouse you need a little time to put yourself back together. If you go longer than that you are begging your spouse to loose trust in you as a viable partner. Shutting down for a day or more on a regular basis is a down and dirty and quick way to destroy your marriage (and if you do it do your kids, too, they will all grow up to be crazy, literally, and they will need lots of therapy or lithium or both or they will sit in an institution somewhere for the rest of their lives, rocking back and forth and saying to themselves, “it’s all my fault,” “it’s all my fault.”).
Better yet, know yourself well enough that you don’t have to shut down at all and find a way to signal to your spouse that you are headed down that path and the both of you work together as a team to keep anyone from having to go so far that the withdrawer gets lost in a vortex of adrenaline and rapid heart rates and faster breathing and before you know it one of you explodes into a god-forbidding rage and the police are called to protect your family from you because your job is to protect your family and if you don’t the police will come to make sure that you do or they will protect your family from you! This is not the option of choice.
We have these two parties: The pursuer and the withdrawer in most marriages, and if they are not careful, they unwittingly egg each other on. The pursuer wants to talk about things, get them aired, get them discussed and worked on so the relationship can improve and God bless them for that. And the withdrawer wants things to be safe and doesn’t want to fight or say mean things or get rattled or rattle the other and God bless them for that.
But if we get these two going we’re entering a danger zone. The more the pursuer pushes for a topic to be untangled, the more the withdrawer feels attacked. The withdrawer starts to get upset and not talk and look away. This gets the pursuer more frustrated, feeling her spouse is poopooing her, ignoring her, scoffing her. She’ll get more animated to let her husband know how important this is to her and the more the pursuer pursues, the more the withdrawer withdraws and the more the withdrawer withdraws the more upset and determined and focused the pursuer gets until one or the other, loses it.
This is where we get the lion’s share of domestic violence. It’s usually the withdrawer that uncorks into no-man’s land, but the pursuer can say some pretty mean things on the way to that territory. If the pursuer can’t get the withdrawer to say something by the pursuer being nice, then the pursuer tries being sarcastic or mean or downright nasty and then if the withdrawer is just sitting there or looking up at the ceiling or down at the floor or out the window, or leaves the room altogether, the pursuer feels totally neglected and slighted and ignored and abandoned and the pursuer will open the floodgates of insults to get the withdrawer into the program.
This, of course, is not the road to happiness for pursuers or withdrawers or for the kids of these people. If they do this too often, one or both will start to entertain the notion that they aren’t good for each other and divorce becomes the treatment of choice. Then it is curious that quite often in their next relationship the pursuer becomes a withdrawer or the withdrawer becomes a pursuer, because both of them saw that their respective withdrawing or pursuing didn’t work in their first marriage, so they very well might try the opposite in their second.
Or the pursuer pursues even more in the second because she thinks she didn’t pursue enough in the first. Or the withdrawer ain’t gonna take no crap either and withdraws at the drop of a hat in the second.
People in second marriages have less resistance to these patterns and they have antennas out looking for inequities because they’ve have their fill of hurt already in their first marriages and are hypersensitive to it in their second, third, etc. So if they had difficulty in these areas in their first marriage, it’s likely to be an even worse pattern in subsequent marriages.
But neither withdrawing nor pursuing work in first or second or third or whatever marriages. So in therapy we look at not getting each other worked up so much and if one or the other is getting hot that they need to calm it down ASAP before it reaches the boiling point, so the two of them can actually work things through.
Since my last blog zeroed in on the withdrawer (extreme versions of) I thought that in this blog I’d focus on the pursuer. Withdrawers as a whole (most of them are husbands, but wives can do it, too) don’t want to be attacked and put on the spot. The direct approach just gets them upset. So, if you are the pursuer, the one who brings up issues to discuss and think things through, you are going to have to be a little more subtler than that. Here’s a hint from the Bible:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
Deuteronomy 6: 6-7
Now your spouse isn’t your child, but the principle is the same, that the best time to talk about important things is when you are casually doing other things. Francis Schaeffer, the well-known Christian apologist of the 1960’s and 1970’s, actually used this as a teaching technique. He’d take the young college intellectuals that visited him at his chalet (called L’Abri) in Switzerland on walks in the beautiful Swiss alps and as they went on walks in the midst of all the overwhelming beauty, he would ask them questions about the meaning of life or they would ask him questions about the absurdity of it all and they would talk about God and philosophy and theology and the monolithic (He used the word monolithic a lot in his writing.) culture of the day. When people are on walks and looking at beautiful nature and NOT looking each other in the eye, it’s a lot easier to talk about difficult subjects. This not only works with your children (as in the verses quoted above), and with budding intellectuals, but with your spouse. Timing is everything.
So suggest you take a walk or go for a drive and keep the radio off and look at the scenery or the crops or the deer or the changing colors of the leaves and the blooming flowers or the scurrying squirrels and talk about this or that along the way, not looking directly in his eye or chat while you are working on a project together like cleaning the garage. Or have some pillow talk while you cuddle at night before you go to sleep and the lights and TV are off and just chat about your day and keep it calm and keep it simple and see if, dang, he doesn’t open up after all.
Remember when you were a kid and you and a buddy were in sleeping bags in the backyard and this one night you didn’t have a tent and you just laid there looking at the stars and the two of you talked into the wee hours of the night about the scary things and you talked about your problems for the first time and you felt heard, like someone actually understood you? Or you and a couple of friends sat by a campfire after everyone else went to sleep and you expressed thoughts you’d never thought before, all while you all are just fiddling with the fire and are mesmerized by the marvel of the mysterious dancing flames, never once hardly even looking at each other? Ah, now you are getting it.
The key ingredients here are informality, nonchalance and chatting. And timing.
Don’t stand there glaring at him with your hands on your hips and your chin butted out and your eyelids all ferruled and lips pursed. And keep the sarcastic comments out of the conversation altogether. Just chat. The research on this is clear: Withdrawers WILL talk if they feel it is safe. Start attacking and accusing and evaluating and dissecting his personhood and his motives, start reading his mind and telling him what he thinks and feels, being sure to put a negative spin on it and then absolutely not being open to his point of view when he tries to say he doesn’t feel or think or even ponder that way at all and you can expect your withdrawer to shut down like lockdown after courtyard time at the federal prison.
And then that will really get you going and you’ll be off to the races again, but no one will ever win.
For Part One and Two of this series on communication between husbands and wives see:
In this first blog on a series on Communication Dr. Wall looks at the current research about how we can read (or not!) each other’s minds. He probably lets his mind wander just a tad too much.
In this second blog of a series on communication Dr. Wall ponders the messages we convey to our spouse when we shut down and won’t talk. Communication is occurring in spades, but it might not be the message you intend to send.
Dr. Wall continues his series of blogs on communication by cautioning about using anger as an everyday communication tool. It’s better left for emergencies.
In this fifth blog in a series on communication Dr. Wall piggybacks on a cartoon by his son, Marty, on the importance in marriage of being able to work through your problems.
Dr. Bing Wall is a marriage therapist with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa. To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473. For more information about Dr. Wall click here.
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