“I know he doesn’t care….it doesn’t matter if he says he does!”
Many times a week, couples will say they are having communication issues. When I probe deeper, asking the question about conflict and how often the couple argues, the answer is usually “Oh, we never fight, I mean we don’t yell or anything, we just have trouble communicating.” Or sometimes the answer is, “I can’t say anything without it turning into a huge argument!”
Either way, couples decide there is a communication issue. Communicating is not the only issue. The issue is not being able to be understood and have your needs met. Therefore, problems remain unresolved whether you are a fighter or a non-communicator.
My client “Mary” describes her partner as being unempathetic or cold, showing little concern for her needs. She describes her husband as expressionless, cold, and translates this as not caring about her issues or her feelings. Mary tends to translate her worth or value of her concerns with her husband’s response or lack of response. Mary doesn’t feel a connection to her husband when he doesn’t share his feelings. She then moves on from the topic she wished to discuss, into feeling abandonment, guilt, shame, and maybe other negative feelings about herself. The connection Mary is desperately seeking is affecting her ability or inability to have her needs met. Mary feels hurt, shut down, and resentful, then finds herself in a similar situation several times in her marriage throughout the month.
Mary is making an assumption about herself, the importance of her issues, and her husband’s intentions. Based on her expectations, Mary is unable to have her needs met by her husband. In session, she asks how her husband could love her when he doesn’t respond to her with emotion. She feels jealous, insecure, and envious when she sees him laughing or smiling when interacting with others. Perhaps there is something going on within Mary. Her husband clearly is closing down when Mary needs him. It would be a mistake in understanding anything about Mary’s husband if we just label him as a jerk, unfeeling coward. He is not those things. He is clearly capable of some emotion, but the interaction in the marriage is not expressive of that to Mary.
When Mary believes and trusts what she is feeling, she will be a little less reactive, blaming, and shaming to her husband when she needs him. Being critical with a smile on your face still feels like criticism. After years of being reminded how disappointed Mary is in her husband, her husband doesn’t have any other response except defensiveness, that is why he seems cold or shut down, he’s being protective of himself from her criticism. Sharing when you trust and believe in yourself diminishes some of the alienating feelings your spouse could have around your criticism. Strong feelings around heated topics can escalate either into huge arguments or intense shut down or cut-off, leaving spouses feeling abandoned. Either way, it is not merely a communication issue, but a matter of self-worth, childhood woundings replaying over again, and managing intimacy in a marriage that will always have ups and downs.
Mary often points to her husband as causing her pain, when Mary is the one who is the most powerful in re-enacting her childhood pain with her husband. She comes from a background where she experienced negative body image issues, perfectionism, and shame due to her family issues. Although she felt loved by her family, she cannot remain on a solid platform that allows her to trust her own feelings without validation from her husband. Simply stated while working on your own issues and understanding your partner, even the most painful circumstances can bring about challenging opportunities. Because no situation is about anyone else except you. It is the only person you can change. If your partner is built or wired a certain way that is challenging for you it doesn’t mean you can tell them to change. The lesson is to work out your inner struggles, then your communication will become strengthened. You will carry yourself as trustworthy and safe! When you are challenged, see it as an opportunity to learn about yourself. After all, you chose your opponent!