When we were in school, most of us had to do “word problems” in math class. Like this one: Stan starts out for home,16 miles away, at noon on a hot day, carrying 39 jelly beans in his pocket. Within 5 miles of home he notices there are no jelly beans left, although Stan swears he hasn’t eaten any. How many miles has he travelled?
The first step in solving any problem is to figure out what’s really the problem. There may be lots of information, some important and some not very. Some information seems important but doesn’t apply to the question.
Or does it?
In relationships there are often two or more different views of what’s important: jelly beans, distance, heat, Stan’s track record at telling the truth. Lots of marriages get stuck when one is talking about Stan’s fondness for jelly beans and the other finds a solution in the day being hot.
In this scenario people are talking past each other; each interprets something different even within the same situation.
A husband might pass off Stan’s love for candy as no big deal, while his wife might see Stan’s behavior around candy as disgusting and weak-willed.
Soon it’s no longer about Stan. Husband says wife is too uptight and judgmental. She’s that way with the kids; never lets them have any fun and keeps them on a short leash. Even does it to him. Dragging their children and pets into this marital dust-up, husband declares that everyone is fed up! The final shot is his suggestion, delivered in an ominously quiet voice, that even her mother agrees with him.
His wife is openly shocked, confused about how they went from Stan’s behavior to a personal attack on her. She righteously challenges her husband’s values and parenting. Somewhere she alludes to his sometimes wearing the same underwear for two days. As for her mother’s opinion, well, that’s a whole other fight.
Neither partner is being heard nor hearing the other. If you don’t see dark storm clouds you’re probably not married.
When it was legal to advertise cigarettes in the media, one brand’s tag line was “I’d rather fight than switch”.
Maybe fighting rather than switching is about appearances — smoking the most popular brand. It’s possible defending your cigarette brand is like defending yourself; your inalienable right to protect your choice against all others’. At a certain tipping point, not switching is inversely proportional to the quality of the smokes; said another way, the likelihood of fighting has more to do with ego than it does with fine tobacco. Nevertheless, it’s hard to picture two dudes duking it out in the break room over smokes.
This same effect happens with couples. Call it what you will — false pride, stubborness — It’s more likely that each partner feels threatened in some way; so much so that disagreement turns vociferous, personal, and mean.
Unhealthy communication within marriage guarantees an unhealthy marriage. It’s what husbands and wives do when they aim to save position within the relationship, not in saving the relationship itself. Sort of like ignoring the larger issue of smoking to argue about cigarette brands.
Before you know it, there’ll be fighting in the streets over jelly beans.
Kathe Skinner has been a Colorado Springs Marriage & Family Therapist for over 20 years with a private practice specializing in couples work. She and her husband, David, are counting down the months to their 30th anniversary.
copyright 2016, Being Heard, LLC