Dear Dr. Tobin,
My wife does all sorts of little, annoying things such as leaving the top off the toothpaste, leaving the glass door open so the silver goes black, leaving the water in the urn so it forms a scaly rim, even leaving the lights on when she goes out. Whenever I ask her not to do them again I get a sort of blank stare or a quick okay and then it happens again. Please tell me a better way of communicating with her so she will listen.
I'm certain that when you were dating your wife you didn't question her about her toothpaste habits, her feelings about scaly rims or whether she's the kind of person who leaves the lights on. I doubt that whatever attracted you to your wife – her kindness, her spontaneity, her values, her appearance, her interest in you, the good feelings you felt when you were with her – had anything to do with what is now causing you so much annoyance and frustration.
Josh, you want me to help you to communicate more effectively so that your wife will listen to you. Based on what you wrote, listening means that she will do those things that you have determined are important – turn the lights off, close the glass door and be mindful about scaly rims. She, on the other hand, passively refuses to adhere to your requests. A blank stare and a perfunctory agreement are her way of saying, "Not interested; don't want, stop bothering me."
Here's the tough news: There are no better ways to get her to do what you want. (However, if you're patient, I'm going to help you to think and act differently about your marriage but first let's focus on what's not working.) She doesn't work for you; she's your wife and a wife, like a husband, can be a very powerful opposing force. You and your wife are engaged in a no win power struggle. You're the aggressor – your weapons are anger and criticism. She's the apparent victim though in reality she's as much of an aggressor as you. Her weapons are passivity, avoidance and forgetfulness.
The solution is not in finding a better way to get your wife to do what you want, but in creating the kind of relationship in which both of you become partners working together to fulfill the same shared goals and aspirations.
How did you arrive at this painful place? What happened to the love, respect and cooperation that I assume you once had? Why are both of you stuck in your respective corners unable to resolve what appears to be the simplest of problems?
Although I don't know the particulars of your marriage, I have worked with many couples who are trapped in the same deadly point/counterpoint, you will/I won't, I need/you don't, I want/I can't dialogue/dance in which you and your wife are currently engaged. Hopefully, you'll begin to understand that the solution is not in finding a better way to get your wife to do what you want but in creating the kind of relationship in which both of you become partners working together to fulfill the same shared goals and aspirations.
First, let's understand what happens in most marriages:
The relationship begins in bliss. In the early stages of marriage most couples feel connected to one another – nothing makes you happier than seeing the expressions of love and appreciation on your partner's face. She enjoys doing things for you and you take pleasure in her idiosyncrasies. The love and acceptance you feel from your partner disarms any potential criticism you might have of her. So what if my wife is not as neat and organized as I am; I'm not as spontaneous and as expressive as she. Everyone has his strengths and limitations. Besides, our differences can enrich our relationship. We can learn from one another and grow together.
Bliss is the absence of criticism, the feeling of being special, the experience of oneness, and the belief that you will always be there for one another. And then it ends... Why?
Bliss begins to fade and the power struggle begins. The experience of oneness slowly and almost imperceptibly succumbs to a very tangible feeling of "twoness." It can begin with a small, insignificant disagreement, an unexpected critical comment or a momentary need for space and disengagement. Invariably, one or both of the partners begin to feel fear. The pristine experience of unity begins to crack. No one wants to lose the connection but neither partner is able to find the way back. Each partner keeps missing the other and neither one can understand why the other is being so distant. He accuses her of changing and she responds by saying, "I'm not the one who is changing. You are." They blame one another and find all sorts of reasons to justify why the other is destroying the relationship.
Josh, you and your wife are in a power struggle. You don't restore a marriage by getting the other to do your will. You transform a relationship by creating love, collaboration and respect. This brings us to the next stage:
A real relationship begins just at the point when the old one is about to die. In bliss, you are given love; you don't create it. It's a function of chemistry, biology, family conditioning, an uncanny feeling of familiarity (two souls discovering one another), good and bad psychology, shared goals and values, embryonic love and a host of other factors too numerous to list in a short article. In bliss, you don't build a relationship; you sort of slip into it.
The good news about the power struggle is that it is an attempt toward differentiation, albeit rather awkwardly and ineffectively. Differentiation is defined as freeing oneself from the unhealthy dependency on another while embracing the other's uniqueness and value.
Josh, you are now faced with the challenge of either creating a relationship or continuing with the same dead end arguments and frustrations. I assume you want to move on so I'm going to offer possible suggestions on how to do that. However, before I do, I would like you to know that if you are successful, then there is a very good possibility that your wife will be much more willing to cooperate with you.
Before we begin let me add a word of caution: My suggestions are not techniques to get your wife to do your bidding. They are building blocks for creating a loving relationship. You don't have to do all of them – just enough to make a difference. Here goes:
Write down your list of resentments and then burn it. I can appreciate your frustration but focusing directly on what bothers you rarely changes anything. In fact, the more you focus on anything the more it expands and you're focusing too much on what's wrong with your wife and thus you're forgetting about her strengths.
Make a list of all those things that you appreciate about your wife and begin to share them with her. It's a cardinal rule in marriage never to take your partner for granted.
Ask yourself what you can do to show your wife that you love her. Write them down and then start implementing them.
Write a letter to your wife telling her that you love her and that you want things to work out. Without blaming her, tell her about your unhappiness over the current state of the relationship and that you are committed to trying to improve things. Ask her to join you in repairing the relationship.
Buy the book "Getting the Love You Want – A Guide for Couples" by Harville Hendrix and after reading the book do the exercises at the end. The book will help you to understand and appreciate your differences and will offer concrete suggestions to help you through your current difficulties.
If you need additional help, consider receiving marital counseling. You may need an objective party to help you and your wife to disengage from the unhealthy patterns and hurtful behaviors.
My suggestions are not simple. I am asking you to do one of the hardest things a person can do – to put aside your resentments and focus on building your relationship. Anger is a powerful emotion and it demands immediate satisfaction and redress. The only way to succeed is by focusing on the true goal – to build a relationship based on love and respect.