Sally and Bill dated for two years. They spent most of that time arguing and screaming. Each was trying to make the other “understand.” Sally was trying to make Bill understand her need for “honesty.” What she did not understand was that Bill heard her complaints as an accusation that he was dishonest. He sought to minimize these painful accusations by telling her less and less. The less he the told her, the more insecure and distrustful Sally became.
Sally did not understand that her need for “honesty”, did not arise from “high moral standards,” but from her lifelong negative expectation. Sally was filled with fear because the people she loved the most, had the most power to hurt and betray her. She was trying to prevent that expectation from coming true by exposing the truth about their intentions in advance.
On the other hand, Bill was trying to make Sally understand that her tardiness was a major negative in their relationship. She was predictably thirty five minutes late every time they went anywhere. What Bill did not understand was that he perceived these tardinesses as abandonments. He felt out of control and victimized every time. Sally had no way of knowing that. She perceived Bill’s lectures on punctuality and responsibility as insulting and domineering. Most times, the real issues are buried below the surface. Such as, “I want my way and it is your responsibility to give it to me,” “I am right and you are wrong,” “Control or be controlled,” “Prevent bad things from happening at all costs,” “I am special,” and so on.
For instance, when Sally and Bill fight, she has a tendency to use “always” and “never” in her indictments against him. “You’re always criticizing me.” “You never say anything nice.” These accusations were not literally true, but were figurative correct. She felt like he “always” so and so. She felt like he “never” blank. These accusations make Bill angry. Here are some of the components to his anger:
1. “I did say something nice, once. I just can’t remember the exact date and, therefore, I can’t refute her argument.”
2. “How can I ever feel like saying something nice to her when she is discouraging me?”
3. “What she is saying is wrong. I have to make it right.”
4. “She does not appreciate the good things I do for her. That is wrong, too.”
Should we tell Bill to say something nice to Sally when she does that? “Your hair looks nice tonight.” It may take the sting out of Sally’s barbs, or it might infuriate her, as if Bill were mocking or patronizing her. But compliments are not on his agenda. His agenda revolves around doing the “right thing.” He has his own definition of “right and wrong,” which he acquired when he was four years old, before the age of reason. His adult understanding does not reach that far back.
Sally, also, has her good intentions. Her intention for her husband is to straighten him out and make a civilized human being out of him. If she succeeds, she will have the dream husband she has wanted since she was six years old but has never seen in real life.
How does Sally feel when Bill does not understand her “needs” for frequent validation as a woman and as a person? She feels angry, powerless and desperate. How does Bill feel when Sally does not understand his “need” for appreciation and gratitude? He feels like a victim of her lack of appreciation; he feels good for nothing, worthless. Each of them has needs, yet each makes it hard for the other to meet those needs. Each complains that the other does not understand and they’re both right.
One way to quench the fire is to write out their anger. Some people find this hard to do, while others find it impossible. Sally was able to write Bill an anger letter. It was difficult, but not nearly as difficult as having Bill screaming back in her face when she is trying to express her pain.
She was able to see her frustrations before her in black and white. She was able to process her pain using her adult judgment. She understood that she had been following her mother’s example of anger management from twenty years ago. It did not work for her mother and it wasn’t working for her. She couldn’t have attained that insight if she had not taken “time out” and written her feelings down, at a time and place of her own choosing.
Bill wasn’t able to write his anger letter. He continued to feel misunderstood and put down. He continued to feel like a powerless “victim” of his wife’s “abuse.” He continued to feel “entitled” to abuse her as she abused him. He couldn’t see anything wrong with his definition of fairness, or with his “entitlement” to act like an overgrown playground bully.
The relationship ended. Sally stopped trying to meet the challenge of making Bill understand her. It was an exciting challenge in the beginning, but the excitement had evolved into pain. She had even stopped trying to understand Bill. She realized that she had no training or competence to understand Bill’s attitudes from childhood, his parental values or his private logic.
She declared her independence from him long before the divorce became final. She had feelings of security, accomplishment, liberation and maturity that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. Looking back Sally could see how dependent she must have been on Bill, and how inadequate he must have felt in coping with her. He wasn’t even able to meet his own needs, let alone hers.
Couple arguing image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 13 Sep 2013