On Healing 7/5/2004: Wife can’t tell husband she’s upset

The closeness has faded, and she feels the responsibility is hers alone.

Dear Dr. Dan: I’ve been married almost 22 years, but I don’t feel very close to my husband. I was in therapy about 12 years ago, and my therapist told me it’s my fault because I won’t tell him when he makes me upset. I just can’t. I feel like it will make things worse if I say something, because he’ll get angry.

I don’t want to give up on this relationship but I can’t seem to change. The more I try to “force” myself to talk to him, the more angry I get at myself for not succeeding. Therapy helped me with some other social problems I had, but not this. Do you think I should try again?
-Confused and anxious

Dear Confused: You said you don’t feel very close to your husband, but you didn’t say what you do feel toward him. Understanding that will give us some insight about the genuine emotions you experience.

The therapist you saw 12 years ago was wrong. Not being close to one’s spouse is never just one person’s fault. Usually it’s a matter of two people with different agendas struggling to be heard.

Ultimately, everyone wants to be understood, especially by those they are close to. But generally when you are in conflict, even slight conflict, nobody is listening.

Yes, you should try again, but I have a feeling that when you “force” yourself to talk to him, you are doing much more talking than listening. Most valuable dialogue begins with listening. Simply tell him that you are feeling nervous and insecure about having this discussion. I hope that helps.

Marriages, like most living things, live or die in small increments. He might forget her birthday and she might not say anything. Later, she makes a joke in public about one of his quirky habits, and he is hurt but doesn’t say anything. Soon they stop laughing together, then they stop making love.

What is missing in these distressed marriages, or any distressed relationship for that matter, is empathy. The reason we don’t show empathy in distressed relationships is because empathy is about understanding the experience of others and caring. This is almost impossible to do when we feel hurt, ashamed, angry or insecure. As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to feel empathy when we are not calm inside. And with any conflict, empathy is the beginning of healing.

Most people in conflict are fighting for some kind of victory, when what they really want is peace and understanding. As we know from the world stage, peace doesn’t necessarily follow victory. Peace is something that must be created in a context of mutual understanding.

So how do we go from mutual hurt, anger and buried feelings to empathy and compassion for our mates? First we must experience compassion for ourselves. Most of us behave as though there is something wrong with us. We hide our vulnerable feelings and we overachieve to compensate for what we feel is a defect. We disavow parts of ourselves and yet we long to be understood.

If we can suspend self-criticism and feel compassion for ourselves, it might sound like this: “He missed my birthday; that makes me feel sad and lonely.” Or “when she made that joke about me, I felt ashamed and hurt.” These are just emotions and don’t necessarily mean you have to do anything. Nor do they mean your spouse is an ogre. They just mean you are feeling pain. Compassion is noticing that you are hurt and simply caring about it.

When you can soften to yourself, you can soften to your partner and listen. If your partner is hurt, that doesn’t mean you are bad or even responsible. It just means that the person you care about is hurt.

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