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“Peace At Any Price” is Often The Wrong Strategy

Jeffrey was a beleaguered husband. Married for 15 years, he reported that his wife criticized him for nearly everything without giving him any recognition or credit for the good things he did for her and the family. He felt he could do nothing right, despite the fact that he was a very good provider, he was very engaged with his children, he was well-respected in his community and he had never done anything “awful” to her in their fifteen years together. Yet, he says he gets yelled at or criticized for all kinds  of little things like forgetting to take out some trash on trash pickup day, not answering one of her questions correctly or quickly enough, asking for sex after a 60 day dry spell, or forgetting to pick up supplies at a store for their son needed for a school project.

When I asked him how he responded to her, he replied : ” I just keep quiet most of the time, but then I blow up every once in a while when I can’t take it anymore.” At this point, he maintains that his wife accuses him of being both “passive aggressive,” and also having “anger control issues.” When asked what he thought about that, he replies: “I often clam up because I just want to keep the peace.” When asked how well that strategy is working, he had to admit that often his silence or withdrawal makes things worse.

Assertive Communication
In therapy we are teaching this husband the skill of assertive communication in dealing with his obviously angry wife. Assertive communication is Tool Number 5 in our 8-tools model of anger management used in our local classes and our online anger programs. In marriage, it means respectfully but firmly standing up for yourself by communciating how you feel and what your limits are for tolerating disrespecful behavior from your partner. Asserting yourself also means to calmly and rationally explain your point of view on things and the fact that you have a right to your opinion also. To be assertive, Jeffrey needed to learn how to honestly tell his partner how her remarks or criticism makes him feel and how  it creates more emotional distance in the marriage.

Finally, assertive behavior clearly communicates what you will or won’t tolerate in the future and involves giving alternatives of communicating that will work better for you. For instance, “your sarcasm turns me off and makes me not want to do it; but, if you ask me nicely, I’ll be more than happy to do it.”

What Assertive Communciation Is  NOT
Many people confuse assertive behavior with aggression or being “mean” to their partner. Nothing could be further from the truth! Assertive yourself DOES NOT mean attacking back, name-calling, getting revenge, becoming aggressive, threatening, or making wild accusations. It simply means honestly communicating how you feel, how their behavior is affecting you, and how you would want them to communicate to you differently. It also gives the message  that you deserve respect in the relationship, just as your partner does.

People who practice “peace at any price” instead of assertiveness in relationships often build resentment which then “explodes” periodically or creates emotional distance in the relationship. It is the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge, yet it is there. As I tell my clients and I explain in our online marriage class program, you can be honest now and deal with it( even if it is painful), or put it off and deal with it later(again, it may be painful), but deal with it you must at some point in time. Of course, sometimes it IS best to let thing slide, but doing so for long periods of time allowing resentment and frustration to build often makes things worse.

Assert yourself before Peace At Any Price turns into War Without Borders!

Can’t change your partner? Try Looking in The Mirror!

Anger is an emotion. But, angry emotions often trigger a specific behavior (like yelling, throwing things, hitting, insulting someone, etc) which causes problems for you either at home, at work, on the road, or in your family. Most people in our anger classes tell us that one of the reasons they exhibit the angry behavior is because they want to change someone or something, they want somebody to think a certain way (or not)  or to do something (or not).

That is another way of saying that the angry person is trying to somehow “influence” the behavior or thinking of another. Unfortunately, angry behavior usually does not work; even if it does, the cost is so high that it almost always just isn’t worth it. We teach that there are better ways to influence others without getting angry or antagonizing others. But, where to start?

Questions to ask yourself:
The place to start is by looking in the mirror. As painful as it might be, ask yourself if you are behaving in ways that increase the probability of getting what you need and want from your partner? In other words, you have a lot more influence than you might think in terms of getting different responses from your partner. Ask yourself, how do other partners behave that do get what they want or need? (I know what you are thinking: “The reason they get more of what they need is because they have a better partner.” That may be true, or partially true,  but it also may not be. So, better to first ask, “Do I behave like people that do get more of what they want or need ” and then see what happens if you change.

Case study
Jose and Maria have been married for ten years. Jose has his own business; Maria is a stay- at- home mom. Jose sees Maria as lazy because she often does not prepare meals regularly, she does not clean the house up to Jose’s standards, and she often is too exhausted to do fun things in the evenings. Worse, according to Jose, Maria rarely ackowledges his great contributions to the marriage (he is very successful in business, and he is a good dad) ), she rarely shows affection, and praise of any kind is very rarely given.

Jose handles his frustration by yelling at Maria, calling her horrible names related to laziness, and accusing her of using a diagnosis of depression as an excuse for  not doing the things, in his mind,  she should  be doing. As I asked Jose in one of our sessions, what does he think the probability is of getting her to do more around the house by yelling, calling her names, and criticizing? Research shows, I told him,  that yelling, name-calling and criticizing decreases the probability of change in partners.

Jose decided to try to change things by applying the tool of  Respond Instead of React (The third tool of anger management in our system- Video; Respond Instead of React). Next morning, the kids were screaming, he needed help and his wife was still in bed. But, instead of yelling at her as usual, he went upstairs and calmly told her, “Honey, I need your help. I am overwhelmed down here.” Guess what? Maria at first did not stir, but five minutes later she came down the stairs and pitched in. Now this was not an earth-shaking change, but it was a start and it meant a lot to Jose.

There are ways to influence the behavior of someone that work much better than other ways. These ways can be called “relationship habits.” Just like you should copy the golf swings habits of golf champions if you want to improve your golf game, or the financial habits of very successful people if you want more financial success, you should copy the habits of those that may be more successful in relationships than you may be. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks- and often they should!

Related Articles and Blogs:

How to tank your relationship – Part 1
How to tank you relationship – Part 2
How to tank your relationship – Part 3

    Anger in your relationship? Guys: Before Trying To Fix, Just Listen

    In our local anger management classes, we regularly hear from clients as to what causes anger in their  relationships. Recently a young woman revealed that “99% of our fights occur because my husband tried to fix what is bothering me.” At this point, the males in the class were astounded that this woman could be upset because her husband was trying to help her with a problem. After all, isn’t that what a good husband is supposed to do? Here is what happened:

    Wife (who was home all day with their three young children) to husband home from work: “The kids were horrible today. I can’t get little Tommy to do his homework, Jessica is always whining and Andrea always has to get her way.”

    Husband: Do you know what your problem is? Lack of organization with the kids. I have been thinking about it and here is my plan for you to solve these problems with the kids.

    fixing husband

    He then proceeds to lay out the whole plan.

    Wife: (now feeling defensive because she is hearing his response as critical, demeaning and unsupportive:) “You think I haven’t thought of all those things? Do you think it is easy to parent three children? You can leave every day and get away from it and then come prancng home like a hero. That really pisses me off! ”

    Husband (who is completely flummoxed at her anger because he sees his response as logical, helpful and supportive. He loves his wife and wants to help her not be so frustrated at the end of the day.He also wants to come up with new solutions so she will look up to him) : ” Well, if that is how you feel, why do you ask me for advice to begin with? I’m just trying to help!”

    Wife: ” I DIDN’T ask you for advice. I was just sharing my day with you. I just wanted you to listen and also to help me with the family stress now that you are home. “

    Sound familiar? This scenario and similar variations of it commonly occur in otherwise good relationships, as well as in disturbed relationships. In our society many males are taught that it is their responsibility to “fix” things that are not right in his family and in his marriage. Problem is, sometimes while he is “fixing” (and being a good guy in his own mind), he is  is being seen by his partner as “controlling,” invalidating, or intending to make her feel “less than.”

    Often conflict can be avoided if “fixer-husbands” can learn to sometimes just listen instead of immediately jumping with  solution to the problem or issue. Not that they should never come with solutions; instead, they should wait until they are ASKED for solutions or help. Until then, just being supportive and empathetic to your partner’s issues can go a long way toward relationship harmony. Click on the following short video to help you understand the power of empathy in relationships.

    Empathy as an Anger Management Skill

    How To Tank Your Relationship- Lesson 2


    In our last blog, we taught you Lesson 1 of how to tank your relationship: React to bad behavior by your partner  in way that indicates that you think they are 100% wrong and you are 100% right. Then assume that there is only one way (your way) to view or look at the situation, so there is no need to try to see things from the perspective of your partner.

    Today we continue with our lessons on how to tank a relationship- just in case Lesson #1 hasn’t worked for you yet:

    How to tank your relationship: Lesson 2- Handle anger toward each other poorly.

    african american couple fighting

    To tank your relationship, get “stuck” in your anger either as the partner with the original anger or as the partner who is on the receiving end of anger. Either way, getting stuck in anger can quickly turn to  disgust. Eventually, you might even get to contempt for your partner which is a deathblow to most relationships. With a contemptuous attitude, you don’t even bother to get angry back at your partner because you tell yourself “I won’t stoop to my partner’s level by getting angry.”  So you stonewall (don’t talk at all to your partner), become passive-aggressive (get back at your partner in a sneaky way), or emotionally shut-down.

    Fact is, research on successful couples (as described in a book by marital therapist Brent J. Atkinson called “Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy”) shows that anger itself is not a dangerous emotion for marriages. Many highly successful couples regularly blow up at each other. Blow-ups are not necessarily destructive (within limits). Rather, partners getting stuck in their resentment for having been attacked is an equally serious  issue that brings down a marriage.

    That is because when a person fails to stand up forcefully when feeling disregarded or criticized harshly, they almost always harbor resentment and in internal attitude of contempt (That is, they think of themselves as “better”  in some sense than their exploding partner.) And, as mentioned above, having contempt toward your partner is a very serious problem in terms of longevity of the relationship.

    Caution: Only read the next paragraph if you have decided NOT to tank your relationship:

    So, what is the healthy way to handle anger in a relationship? First, if you are the primary angry partner, learn to communicate better and deal with normal angry feelings more effectively without destroying your partner or the relationship in the process. There are many ways to handle anger so that you get a better result and you get more of what you truly want from your partner! These techniques (including something called a “softer startup”)  are what we teach in local anger management classes as well as in our online distance-learning program.

    Second, you do not have to suffer in silence if you are in relationship with a person who handles their anger poorly.  The trick is to stand up for yourself and deal with the issue rather than “stuffing it” and building resentment through the years. (Of course, do not put yourself in a dangerous situation by standing up for yourself with a truly raging or violent partner).

    Research strongly shows that partners of people who act badly in any way (including anger) have more influence than they think on future occurrences of that bad behavior by their spouse. You do not have to tolerate it and can even change it to some extent if you do the right things.

    How To Tank Your Relationship – Lesson 1

    tanking relationship

    Miguel has just gotten off the telephone with his buddies with whom he made arrangements to play basketball Saturday morning. Unfortunately, he did not discuss this first with Maria who obviously is very upset over this. From her point of view, Miguel often makes plans independently, just as if he was still a single guy. She had other plans for them Saturday morning and now she has to re-plan her whole day. Worse, she wanted more time with Miguel and was looking forward to it this weekend. Miguel, on the other hand, doesn’t have a clue as to why Maria is so upset. To him what he did was “business as usual.” Besides, he felt that a man shouldn’t have to get “permission” from his wife to play basketball with his buddies.

    With this blog, we begin a series of reports on how to tank your relationship.  Researchers now know which habits predict relationship success and which predict disaster, so we herein present a tutorial on what to do to increase the probability that  your relationship won’t succeed or that you will never get from your partner what you need.

    On the other hand, if you learn how to respond differently to your partner (that is, use better relationship habits)  when you feel that he or she is not treating you well, you might just start seeing changes in both your partner and in your relationship.

    In our example, it is obvious that Miguel  acted in a way that Maria saw as selfish and, from Maria’s perspective, he should have talked to her  before he made his plans. But, partners often act  in ways that the other sees as selfish, uncaring, misguided or just plain wrong. (Miguel  sees the situation very differently, as he has a different perspective). May marriage survive and even thrive with one or both partners having these negative traits. So, it is not the traits  themselves that tank a marriage.

    According to marriage research, because of this difference in perspective,  what causes additional damage to the relationship is how Maria responds to Miguel’s behavior (and how Miguel responds to Maria’s upset).  So, let’s now look at different ways Maria could handle the situation:

    HOW TO TANK THE RELATIONSHIP: Lesson 1–   If Maria wants to cause more relationship damage and decrease the chances that Miguel will change, she should repeatedly do the following:

    • Take the attitude that Miguel did what he did because he was selfish, uncaring, or immature.
    • Take the attitude that he did not care enough for her to think about it before he made his plans with his friends.
    • Assume that there is a clear “right” and “wrong” way to deal with same-gender friends and same-gender activities when in a marriage.
    • Seeing Miguel as the whole problem instead of seeing the issue as  their having different opinions, priorities or ways of navigating life.

    Alternatively, Maria can respond differently and increase the probability that Miguel won’t do this again in the future, if she does the following. These are relationship “habits” that research has found are related to better success.

    • She should avoid jumping to conclusions and keep an open mind, asking Miguel calmly why he did what he did.
    • Hear Miguel out and refrain from disputing or debating what he was saying before he was able to explain fully.
    • Tell Miguel in a loving way that she feels hurt and unloved when he makes plans without including her and she would appreciate it if he did not do that in the future.
    • Rather than criticizing Miguel, ask him to work with her to find a solution that takes both  perspectives of the situation into account.

    In our next blog, Lesson #2 on ways to tank your relationship and how to avoid that outcome, if you wish.

    Why don’t some marital problems change?

    Having been a marital therapist and psychologist for many years, I often wonder at the amazing ability some couples have to NOT change. These couples are often intelligent, reasonable people in other areas of their life, but nonetheless become gridlocked with each other around certain marital issues. Issues in this category are called “perpetual” issues by marital researchers; all couples have them, but not all couples fight or conflict over them.

    Some couples find ways to either solve the problem or find ways to live with each other around it. What about the other couples? The ones that get stuck? Why don’t they  do what they know they should do to avoid conflict around the issues that get them into trouble? The simple answer is that they often times do not want to. Change requires both skills to change and sufficient motivation to do so. Stuck couples  are often locked into ways of thinking that prevents them from moving out of conflict into resolution.

    self talk

    Some common thought patterns that prevent change:

    • I don’t really want to get closer to my partner. I just want to complain about my partner and keep them at a distance.
    • I like the role of victim.
    • I enjoy feeling superior and looking down on my partner.
    • I like feeling angry and bitter.
    • Our problems are all your fault, so why should I have to change?
    • I’m right and you are wrong.
    • You’re such a stubborn, self-centered jerk that nothing could possibly work. Why should I bother to try?

    Do any of these thought patterns look familiar to you? Can you identify with any of them? Seems to me that couples who really want to improve things will work at changing these and other beliefs that prevent the change from occurring.  Often a special kind of therapist called a “cognitive-behavior therapist” can help you identify and change these and other thought patterns.

    For self-help, I would also recommend a book called “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.This book is full of practical, helpful suggestions to improve your life and your marriage.

    In summary, it has been my experience that many couples could improve their marriage, if they really wanted to and they were willing to do the necessary work to do so. Looking more deeply at the roots of the resistance to change on either your part or your partner’s part can go a long way helping things along.

    Anger and Intimacy: Part 2- Betrayal

    marital betrayal

    Few things shake the foundation of a marriage more than perceived betrayal of one partner by the other. It seems that lately, in my practice at least, the betrayal is more in the direction of husband not being able to accept what they see as betrayal by their wife, but it certainly works both ways!

    Betrayal, of course, is a matter of definition and expectations to begin with. The range of behaviors that may be classified as “betrayal” may include

    • innocent things like talking with your parents about your marital issues
    • revealing marital frustrations to an opposite-sex  co-worker over frequent lunches or text messages,
    • kissing someone else at a party after 3 martinis, while basically ignoring your partner
    • actually having a physical affair with someone.

    Do People who Betray See Themselves as Cheating?
    Some people who engage in these and other similar activities feel like they are indeed betraying their partners while others do not feel that way at all until “caught” by their partner.  Regardless of their own perception of their behavior, their partners are often devastated when they find out, even though they my have been poor marriage partners to begin with.  This is often because many married people expect loyalty and faithfulness from their partners regardless of the lack of emotional connection between them, regardless of how badly one of both act in the marriage, or regardless of their own contributions to marital misery.

    What Happens when Betrayal Is Discovered?

    For the non-cheating partner, discovery of betrayal often leads to complete lack of trust, emotional hurt, anger and strong feelings of retribution or emotional punishment of the other. To preserve the relationship, forgiveness is a skill that is most often needed, but often beyond reach. In our anger management classes we teach the benefit of forgiveness as well as the skills to forgive, but many people cannot forgive or trust again after perceived betrayal. Statistically, only a small percentages of marriage survive physical betrayal of one partner by the other.

    For the accused, discovery of betrayal often leads to intense feelings of guilt and/or shame. The accused also often becomes very defensive and justifies what they did by listing all the problems in the marriage or in their partner which lead them to the betrayal in the first place.

    Should the Betraying Partner Be Forgiven?

    Of course, every person has to answer that question for themselves. Some people are incapable of getting past it, while others could if they tried harder and had stronger commitment to do it. Here are some things that you can do that many couples find helpful:

    • Try putting it in a broader context. Ask yourself why your and your partner lost emotional connection with each other. You don’t have to see the betrayal as a character flaw in either yourself or your partner; if you wish, you can elect to see it as an indicator of a deeper problem in the relationship.
    • Ask yourself how strongly motivated you are to repair the marriage. There are many skills you can acquire to get to forgiveness and improve your marriage, , but none of them will work for you if you don’t want to forgive your partner or you don’t really want to improve your marriage. Ask yourself honestly if there are more advantages to NOT forgiving than to actually forgiving. On the other hand, if you see more benefit in forgiving and improving your marriage than in remaining angry, resentful and bitter, you will forgive and work on improving things.

    What Can the Accused Partner Do?
    The accused partner can also do many things to repair the marriage, but again, you have to want to and you have to  be willing to do some hard work to pull things back together. Following are just some examples of what it may take to recover from being seen as a betraying partner by your wounded spouse:

    • If you did betray your partner, start by asking for forgiveness and commit to not doing it again.
    • If in your eyes you did not betray your partner, discuss with your partner what your expectations are of each other and what each of you consider  appropriate behavior for a married person in different situations.  Try to agree on these expectations of each other. Many times a therapist is needed to help you sort-out these issues.
    • Start a program of trust-building behaviors so your partner can start trusting you again (e. g. let them know where you are at all times, take offending phone numbers off your cell phone, etc).
    • Find ways to improve your sexual  life with each other so that you both feel more secure and more bonded with each other in this important aspect of your marriage.

    Can you change an insecure, jealous spouse?

    young angry woman pointing finger

    Thirty-eight year old Lisa (a stay at home mom) was absolutely convinced that Jose, her husband of five years, was cheating on her. She secretly checked his cell phone messages daily, timed how long it took him to return her numerous calls during the day when he was out of town on business, and constantly monitored his facebook and myspace entries.  If he left the house to shop, she yelled at him on his return that “that was just an excuse to meet a girl in the park.”  If he even glanced in the direction of a female when they were out together she accused him of “wanting” her.  When they made love, and it ended too quickly for her, she yelled at Jose for “wanting to get it over with so you can be with your girlfriend.”

    In therapy, Jose pleaded innocence and stated with absolute conviction that had never been unfaithful to Lisa. When pressed for concrete evidence, even Lisa had to admit that she had none, despite  her obsession with finding such evidence.

    Mood Setter In House
    Jose was tortured

    Jose was a tortured man. He felt he could no longer put up with the daily unfounded accusations of his wife, yet he loved his three children and did not want to cause them to grew up in a broken home, as he had as a boy. So, he tried to cope as best he could, but everything he tried seemed to make the situation worse.

    What can both Jose and Lisa do to help the situation? While there are no easy answers to complex problems  like this, the following guidelines may be helpful, which we teach both in individual and marriage therapy, as  well as in our anger management classes.

    Guidlines for Jose:

    • Assuming his innocence, it is not up to Jose to “fix” Lisa. Most of the time, this is not even possible. Lisa has to fix Lisa, probably with outside professional help.
    • Jose may have to decide if he feels he can cope with his wife, or if she is too “toxic” for him to continue the relationship. Sometimes “anger management” requires protecting ourselves from toxic people in our lives before common arguments turn into domestic violence.
    • Jose should focus not so much on defending himself from his wife’s verbal assaults, as on re-assuring her that he loves her.
    • Jose should find ways to make her feel more secure in the relationship.
    • Joe should find ways to increase trust with Lisa by being open constantly about his whereabouts, his activities, and his associations.

    Guidelines for Lisa:

    • Lisa has deep feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. She probably will need therapy to overcome these issues. She should not be defensive or feel shameful about needing therapy. Her problem stems from childhood experiences which will require a competent professional to help her sort out.
    • Lisa should increase  self-confidence by finding things in life to help her feel better about herself such as getting more education, acquiring job skills, and developing healthy friendships with other women and couples to serve as positive role-models in her life.

    Couples Reduce Anger By Sharing Tasks

    Together but apart

    Married for 10 years, Mary and Joe rarely argued, yet were slowly drifting apart from each other, each feeling emotionally distanced from the other. Underneath their emotional distance was anger, but it was “hidden” and lived as resentment, passive-aggression toward the other, and emotional detachment. In therapy, it was learned that a fairly common patterns of estrangement had developed between Mary and  Joe who at one time were deeply in love with each other.

    The pattern started with Mary not doing what Joe considered to be her share of the household chores. She worked only part-time while Joe rose at 4AM every day, worked until 2PM and then came home and did all the housework, the yardwork, and then often started dinner. She spent much of her time with her family of origin and her friends. Joe slowly developed resentment toward Mary for having to “do it all.” He complained to her, but she didn’t see what the problem was. Her attitude toward household chores and standards of cleanliness were much more relaxed than his:

    “So will the world stop turning if we do the laundry this weekend instead of today?” was a common Mary retort while looking at mountains of dirty clothes. Joe,  meanwhile,  was smoldering inside because of what he saw as her “laziness” and irresponsibility.

    After awhile, he stopped complaining and simply stuffed his negative feelings toward Mary, while continuing to do almost all of the household chores.   But, he found himself losing sexual interest in her, which greatly wounded Mary who placed a high value on being sexually attractive to her husband. Of course, sexual deprivation led to further emotional distance and estrangement between them.

    The Solution?

    Agreement on Division of Labor
    Agreement on Division of Labor

    Often the problem is the other way around: many married woman justifiably complain that they too work yet are expected to do their “second job” once they get home at night.

    Either way, a major breakthrough can be achieved by a  couple sitting down with a pencil and paper, listing all the household chores, drawing a vertical line down the center of the paper, and deciding who is going to do what and when it will be done.And then doing it!!

    Sound like a simple solution? As we teach in our local anger management classes, our online anger program, and our local clinical clients (in marriage therapy with us), many times simple practical changes in how a couple does things often snowballs into other, more substantial changes in the relationship. Of course, there were more problems than just division of labor between Mary and Joe, but once Mary started doing more of the home tasks, Joe’s resentment lessened and his sexual interest in Mary picked up. This, of course, motivated Mary to try even harder to do more of her share of household chores.

    Do they now have a perfect marriage? Of course not, but they are happier, have less conflict, and are feeling closer to each other.

    Understanding marriage behavior doesn’t solve problems

    Often couples spend hoiur after hour trying to understand each other or the root of a problem or issue that bothers them. Sometimes this is helpful, but more often than not, understanding a marital issue doesn’t necessarily provide the tools to change it.

    Take the case of Karen who become terrified every time husband Ted yells at her. Ted thinks SHE is the problem because she is too sensitive; after all, he reasons, he is just expressing himself like everyone does in the family he grew up in. So, they enter therapy and discover that she reacts that way because she had an emotionally abusive father so she clearly “over-reacts” to her husband’s yelling.

    Problem solved, right? Not necessarily! In fact, rarely, in my experience as a marital therapist and anger management trainer. In a case like this it is much more productive for the husband to acquire the skills of communicating without yelling, than for both to understand the reasons for her fear of him.

    From a practical point of view, we feel it makes more sense to focus on how to FIX the problem instead of “understanding” it! Of course, sometimes we need to do both, but understanding it by itself without behavioral action to repair it is rarely effective.