Mike and Joan were fighting about the mess in the kitchen.
Mike perceived his wife’s criticisms as if they were attacks and he was defending himself against her. Joan felt threatened and was protecting herself against his defenses. She was feeling unappreciated and unloved. They were both repeating the behavior that they saw growing in their own parents’ marriages and they hated it. Joan saw she was getting nowhere with her attempts to get Mike to see the error of his ways. She was fed up trying to get him to learn the niceties of a happy couple. He was not willing to be her pupil. So she decided to try another approach.
In the past, she had tried to end these arguments with a playful remark, such as, “you look so cute when you are all tense and upset.” But Mike was not soothed by these peaceful gestures. Instead he took them as further evidence that his wife did not take what he was saying seriously. Joan chose to stop trying to lighten Mike up, which she had no control over anyways. Instead she decided it was time to take control of herself. She was able to break down her underlying thoughts into small manageable components so that she could work on them over time:
1) “Here I am, just like my mother being judgmental of my husband. Who am I to judge another person? I don’t really know what is best for him. I have even trouble figuring out what is best for me. I can choose to stop doing it.”
2) “Why am I trying to improve my husband against his will? I can choose to accept him as he is, in spite of the fact that he has a long way to go. I love him anyways, he will improve himself when he is ready.”
3) “I am saying negative, hurtful things to the man I love. How can I have a supportive marriage that way? I can choose to say something constructive instead like: I feel hurt when we yell at each other. Let’s take a deep breath and talk calmly.”
4) “I am defending myself from a threat that doesn’t exist. I am not in court and there is not judge or jury, I am not required to attack or defend. I can stop anytime I want.”
5) “I am not a helpless victim and I do not have to prove my value by pleasing others. I have the power of choice. I can choose to stop doing what displeases me, like arguing and start doing what pleases me, like walking away.”
6) “I am trying to prevent Mike from following his parent’s horrible example of marriage. I cannot do that by screaming at him. It may be more helpful to act as a role model by setting an example of self respect for him to follow if he chooses. If I don’t show him that there is another way, then he doesn’t know that there are other choices available to him.”
Joan said, “I don’t want to fight with you. I regret I made you so angry, I am sorry. I’d prefer to take a break now and I am going to make some coffee.” Mike yelled, “Come back here, I’m not through with you.” Joan replied, “Well you have a problem I don’t know what to tell you, maybe you can keep going without me.” And after a few moments, Mike got out some mugs and grabbed a bag of marshmallows. He cleared some space on the table and tried to remember why he overreacted to Joan’s comment about his messiness.
He realized that he was feeling like a victim, just as he did when his mother yelled at him for his sloppy room twenty years ago. “At least I’m consistent”, he mused. “Its hard to lighten up when you are being blamed and attacked. But I’m not a victim, I’m just a slob. I can live with that, but it certainly is not worth defending or attacking Joan over.”
Arguing couple image available from Shutterstock.