How do You Know You're Fighting Fair in Your Marriage

This is a scene from a marriage counseling session

As a Marriage Counselor, I frequently hear a husband or a wife complain, “he doesn’t listen to me! I can talk till I’m blue in the face and I still get nowhere!”

I’d like to describe a marriage counseling session I conducted the other day, of course changing the names of the people involved in order to protect their confidentiality. Joan, a bright woman in her mid forties had her husband Ralph, in her cross hairs as she unloaded a good paragraph’s worth of complaint about him. Sometimes she looked at him but mostly she looked at me, as if I was the school principal and she was bringing me a bad boy for discipline.

I looked at Ralph, and saw that he had a far away look in his eyes. His body was turned away from her slightly, was bent forward, and I was pretty sure he was sad. I asked Joan if I could interrupt, as I needed to check in with Ralph; I asked him, “Ralph, what are you feeling right now? What were you feeling while Joan was talking?”

“Nothing,” he said, and remained quiet. Joan looked at me with an expression that seemed to say, “You see?” and in fact that’s exactly what she said a moment later, her voice louder than before. Ralph looked even farther away. I stopped her again, and checked in with Ralph again, this time asking him, “Where are you right now?”

“I’m in the corner of that picture,” indicating a print on the wall in back of my chair. Joan became angrier, raising her voice as she again demanded, “You see? You see? I can’t get anywhere. This is what happens at home. I love him but I don’t get anything back from him. I don’t know if he’s in this marriage or not!” With this Joan began to cry.

This is a scene from a marriage in pain. Joan and Ralph are hurt and hurting, and neither of them knows how to break the pattern of the way they defeat their wishes and needs to restore happiness in their marriage.

You may see yourself stuck in this kind of “marital conversation” or in other forms that hurt you and your partner. This couple is fighting, but not for their marriage. It is true that each partner is fighting:  to be right and dominant in Joan’s case, and to be safe and in control in Ralph’s.  Neither one of them recognizes that their strategy is failing and that it will continue to frustrate their needs to be close and to re-establish their partnership. If you do see yourself in this scene, it may be time for you to get some help to change your perspective from me vs. you, to “us.”

In order to help Joan and Ralph, what I did was to first of all stop the action, and ask each of them to look more carefully at their partner’s face and body language. I began with Joan, asking her what she saw, and again she just claimed that he wasn’t listening, that he didn’t care enough about her and the marriage to want to hear her. I helped her along a little by asking if she saw the sadness on his face that I had seen earlier. She stopped her complaint and began to study her husband’s face, and said, “I guess so.” Ralph’s reaction was to look at her, just a little, and I thought I saw some of his sadness and remoteness soften. Then, I took the opportunity of this subtle change in him to ask him if he knew that his wife was in pain. This confused Ralph, as all he had been getting from her was anger. When I explained that underneath her anger was sadness and fear of loss, Joan began to cry. This ended the impasse, and they began to move toward each other, with some cautious appealing looks and open body signals.

What would you do if your marriage was stuck like this? Remember, your goal is to achieve closeness, not victory for yourself. Above all, this principle should guide how you think, feel and act toward your partner.






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John Gerson November 30, 2012 at 08:52 PM
I often recommend that couples give marriage counseling 6 months of devoted work before throwing in the towel. Leaving your marriage, especially if you have children, means changing the structure of your family, and this of course can be very very hard. People change and develop over time, and the partners we choose early in life might not be the ones we imagine ourselves with currently; I'm thinking about this now in terms of dancing: if you and your partner danced the Fox Trot early in your relationship and one of you has come to prefer the Waltz, it may be possible for the Fox Trotter to come to appreciate the grace and beauty of the 3/4 Waltz time and for the Waltzer to remember the value and stability of the 4/4 time Fox Trot. My analogy may be a bit shaky, but the idea here is to open to your partner's change even if doing so creates some anxiety for you. Some of the fun of dancing, after all, is to let yourself be a little off balance.
John Gerson November 30, 2012 at 09:02 PM
Thank you so much for your comment, Elizabeth. I couldn't agree with you more. Unfortunately, people sometimes believe that reaching out for help is a sign of weakness; actually, only strong people can do that, and you can count yourself and your parents among that group. With regard to cost, you are right, therapy can be expensive; the stress of the expense may well be offset by recognizing it as an investment in the foundation of living - creating a relationship in which each of you is a "secure base" for the other. If private practitioners are out of your financial reach, you might call a local training institute, such as the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis & Psychotherapy for recommendations. These organizations frequently have fine therapists working under seasoned supervisors and charge very nominal fees.
Stephen Sweeney December 01, 2012 at 03:28 PM
I agree that the magic moment where everything can change is when you put yourself and your need to be 'heard' behind your partner's needs. So hard to do but very important. 'I don't care that you know, until I know that you care.' Thanks John for the great advice.
Linda Jame December 01, 2012 at 09:55 PM
Thank you, John, for your generous offering regarding the challenge and gift of the relationship crucible where learning to live and accept differences is the medium for personal growth and satisfaction within a marriage. As they say, it is not about fighting, but about emotional engagement post-fight. Nice work, there, John.
MJH December 02, 2012 at 03:55 AM
Is it possible that Joan and Ralph had checked out of their marriage a long time ago? Maybe Joan checked back in and realized the marriage was going no where. She then tried every way possible to communicate with Ralph over time. Observing included. Ralph just refused or didn't know how to check back in like Joan did. Maybe Joan wasn't fighting for dominance but for a partner. Maybe Joan was frustrated and in pain because Ralph didn't have the marriage in the same order of priority that Joan does. You'll be happy to know that Ralph has finally started to open up and put his marriage as a priority. Even though Joan doesn't agree with your dominance assessment, you are a good therapist and we will see you next week.


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