Welcome to another installment of the effective couples communication blog series!
“I’m not giving in to her no matter what! She’d better apologize, or else…” ~Jefferey
To say that Jefferey was angry is an understatement. In fact, he didn’t speak to his wife for two weeks because he was waiting for her to make the first move toward relationship reparation. He had a long list of grievances that supported his position. And as a result of his wife Michelle’s “insensitivity” and her “lack of understanding,” Jefferey felt indignant and one hundred percent justified in his position. He needed to prove a point, and in his mind he did: He out-lasted his wife in the game of cold silence, and she finally caved.
When you hear Jefferey’s story, you’re convinced that he’s been the victim of a self-absorbed wife who never thinks about her husband’s feelings. When you listen to Jefferey’s version of their relationship mishaps, it’s blatantly obvious (to anyone who listens to his perspective) that Michelle needs help if this marriage is going to make it!
I finally reached out to Jefferey for my own sanity. The unspoken hostility and vitriol from both of us was making me ill…” ~Michelle
Michelle does anger just as well as her husband, and she drew her own line in the relationship sand: “I was ready to move out. I can’t believe the way he invalidates me, and it’s getting worse.” She had a list of grievances just as long as her husband’s, and just as convincing! Her top criticisms are that Jefferey often acts like a self-centered, overly-emotional man who has difficulty acknowledging other people’s perspectives and feelings.
When you hear Michelle’s story, you are certain that she’s the real victim of a narcissistic, immature husband–it quickly becomes clear to anyone who will listen that her husband is the one in need of help if this marriage is going to survive!
Relationship Help: When Everyone Is Right, the Relationship Loses
The truth is that Michelle and Jefferey are both convinced they are “right” and they are also very convincing when they share their version of the ongoing unfairness suffered at the hands of the other. Listen to Michelle and you’ll think, “Her husband is so insensitive; she can do so much better!”; Listen to Jefferey and you’ll think, “Wow, he should cut his losses and end it!”
Couples fail to recognize that the “right” versus “wrong” mindset assumes one absolute, objective reality. So if I’m right (or more accurately, if I “feel” that I’m in the right), then my partner must be wrong—and if they think they’re in the right, they are simply misinformed or even delusional.
But like with Michelle and Jefferey, who’ve been struggling with unresolved marital conflicts, it’s important to highlight that it is your idiosyncratic perception(s) that dictate your viewpoint (your reality) and sometimes (maybe even often), your reality might diverge significantly from your partner’s. When this occurs (and both partners feel totally in the right), it’s the relationship that loses.
What Does This Mean for Your Marriage or Relationship?
Of course there will be times when one of you mis-communicates or acts in some way that causes the other to be upset. In these instances, it’s important to take responsibility for the mistake, to show empathy for the hurt you caused, and to act in ways to remedy what has occurred. We need to take ownership of how our words and actions affect others (even when we did not intend to cause harm!). If you cannot admit your shortcomings, then you’d be better off with a pet than a spouse/partner.
Relationships and misunderstandings, however, aren’t always so black-and-white. At times, you may find yourself at odds with your partner’s perspective about a particular marital or relationship issue (just like our couple above)—in these instances, your and your partner’s shared sense of righteous indignation only leads to further frustration, stagnation and ultimately, estrangement.
The solution to this relationship dilemma?
Replacing the “right-wrong”/“win-lose” view of reality with the mindset of “divergent realities.” When you remain open to accepting that divergent realities or perspectives are possible, defending your “rightness” no longer takes precedence in the relationship. In its place, a mindset of mutual understanding now takes center stage—efforts to understand each other’s perspective—each other’s truths—without necessarily sacrificing your own truth-perspective.
The goal and realization of mutual understanding has transformative potential: Anger and hostilities often dissipate when we are faced with someone trying to understand our position, the channels of communication remain open for further discussion and exploration, and couples come away feeling validated and appreciated (even in the face of having different viewpoints).
Here’s to making effective communication a regular part of your relationship!
Dr. Rich Nicastro