One day reading an old issue of life magazine I came across the brief story of a woman driving along a city street when a drunken sailor stepped in front of her car. She slammed on brakes, came to a screeching halt and jumped out of the car to find witnesses to prove she wasn’t at fault. Fortunately for her a few city officials happen to be standing there including two traffic judges who witnessed the reckless behavior of the sailor. Unfortunately for her they also witnessed that she was driving on the wrong side of the street and gave her a ticket. The sailor was apparently unharmed and wandered on his way.
What’s my point? Frequently in couple therapy where the wife goes on, usually with much frustration and even hurt about the husband’s irritating, irresponsible, selfish and in general not smart marital behavior, the husband’s response is to go on about equally bothersome behavior of which the wife is guilty. They are giving me a live demonstration of how they attempt unsuccessfully to resolve issues in their marriage. They’re also giving an illustration of why they fail to achieve meaningful changes and merely add to the collective anger moving them toward the destruction of their marriage.
It usually occurs to me as I’m listening to the wife complain about the husband that almost any wife would have the same complaints if she were married to that man. The smart thing obviously would be for him to pay attention to her problems with him and use these as suggestions for self-improvement from someone who perhaps knows him best. Chances are that a lot of what she finds infuriating about him would be pretty much what his boss, fellow workers, friends, parents and siblings would echo. But instead of perceiving them as wiser courses of action his response to her complaints about him is to essentially say, “Well you’re not perfect either.”
The wife’s strategy in responding to her husband’s complaints is the same strategy he’s using. Don’t give any credence or validity to his concerns about you. Change the subject. Turn the spotlight of criticism on him. As long as they continue like this the marriage is heading down a bad road.
Each one of them is feeling very helpless, so troubled is he or she at being unable to get any cooperation from the partner. It also is interpreted that my partner doesn’t really love me. Each feels there’s nothing I can do to turn this marriage around.
Fortunately neither one of them is helpless to change the marriage. Either one can without any argument, capitulation or disagreement, without any request for cooperation, simply choose one of the items on the partner’s irritation list that is easiest to change and change it. I don’t mean change it briefly for a day or two to see if he or she will notice and reward you for it. You’re not doing this to win an argument. You are doing this to change the relationship for the better. Pick the next easiest-to-change behavior and do the same thing. Noticing will be done whether it’s voiced or merely pondered for how long is the change really going to last and what’s the meaning of it. This is empowering, moving you from helpless to effective in creating a better marriage for yourself and your partner and any children you have.
You are likely changing something that makes you more companionable, perhaps more likable and even more efficient. You get the benefits elsewhere in your life as well. You are not losing the power struggle with your partner; you are moving beyond it to a more mature strategy. You are stepping up your value as a human being… value to yourself and to the others whom your life impacts. Step up your game, not your arguing.