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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!