Enhancing Marital Communication

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By John Gerson

I’d like to begin with the following vignette. It’s fictional, but contains communication snafu’s that, although probably unintentional, can be wounding. How the wound is dealt with can determine if its effects are short-lived or if they become part of the catalog of complaints that one spouse holds and remembers about the other.

“Kitty and Joe, both in the early 40’s, have been married for 15 years, and have 2 children, Cathy, age 12, and her younger brother, Bobby, age 8. B0th Kitty and Joe are attorneys; Kitty works part time for a local corporation, and Joe works full time in his family’s law practice. They are generally a thoughtful, cooperative couple, and after Cathy’s birth, found that the increased stress and demands placed on both of them made their cooperation with each other even more important. Their relationship is strong, and its durability has rested on their usually being mature and above all, conscious of their own behavior and how it affects their partner.

Recently, however, stress has mounted. Joe’s law practice has suffered an economic downturn; fewer and fewer litigation cases are coming into the firm, and although Joe’s compensation is not yet being affected, he’s worried. Cathy continues her part-time corporate job. She’s is as yet personally unaffected by the slowing economy, but she is aware that the company has been considering laying off less essential personnel. In short, both husband and wife are somewhat worried; their sleep is being affected, and Joe, the spouse more inclined to somaticize his stress, that is, to put it into his body, has had bouts of diarrhea and headache.

It’s a Tuesday, not one of Kitty’s work days. She has spent her morning doing bills; she has had a few phone conversations with neighbors about their kid’s health and the sports activities that their children have in common. Kitty has been frustrated that Cathy hasn’t been selected to play on the town basketball league, and has both been trying to understand the coach’s position and dealing with Cathy’s feelings of hurt and anger. She knows that her daughter can be moody, and for years has seen Cathy scream and have mild breakdowns when playing with other kids who she sees as ‘unfair.’ Nevertheless, she tells her friend on the phone, “this is a children’s league, after all, and sports are where they are supposed to learn sportsmanship, and Cathy is a good player. Maybe I’ll talk to the coach myself.” Kitty’s irritation is supported by her friend, and she finds the feeling useful as she tackles some housework, carrying the laundry downstairs and putting the first of at least 4 loads into the washing machine. The house is not completely picked up, and has that definitely lived in appearance. Kitty is hungry, decides to have lunch, and get to the house later, maybe after she’s dropped Bobby off for soccer practice, and before she has to pick him up again. Bobby’s bus drops him off, he has a snack, and Kitty loads him and his equipment into the car. Just as she says goodbye to her son, he begs her not to leave and to watch him play. She agrees, and stays at the field.

Meanwhile, Joe is driving home early from the office, having had his own frustrating day. There have been more and more of them, as local firms are becoming more competitive for clients, and clients are thinking twice about retainer fees in this environment, preferring to wait and tolerate whatever their injuries are, at least for now. When traffic on 684 suddenly slows to a crawl, the feeling that he just can’t get a break becomes compounded. He and Kitty have not been getting along as well as they used to; each of them has become more peevish and irritable, and the bad feelings have been circling with little interruption for weeks. Somewhere inside him he implicitly knows that his frustration has been leading him around, driving the car, rather than sitting in the back seat as one of his emotional passengers.

Kitty’s efforts to recognize what he’s been going through have not really hit the mark, and as a result of his relatively unabated irritability her needs for loving attention have gone unmet, and she has become more aggressive in return. Now there’s this miserable traffic! He picks up his cell phone, calls the house, only to get their answering machine. She won’t even be there when he gets home, he thinks to himself, with growing resentment. Joe’s need for soothing has been growing, and when he left the office early, he thought that maybe today he would get what he needed from her. Irritation blended into despondency and back again in a slow cycle that seemed to match the traffic’s crawl.
Joe finally pulls into his driveway; Kitty’s car is not there. Given the recent emotional stalemate between them, he’s not sure if this is the good news or the bad news, and resolves to take a bike ride, thinking the exercise would help to reduce his stress. His bicycle shorts are nowhere to be found, and there are no athletic socks in his drawer. Grumbling to himself, he heads down to the laundry room, to find 1 load of wet laundry sitting in the machine, and the rest of the wash in baskets on the floor. He heads back upstairs with mounting anger, developing a case of his own that he doesn’t count around here, that he can’t get his needs met, and lately that’s included in the bedroom. Kitty comes home with Bobby. The afternoon has been a good one for her, and she had found herself glad to have spent the time at the field with her son, enjoying the children’s activity and breathing in the cold wintry air. Her own irritation and despondency had been softened by the sensuousness of her experience, and when she saw Joe coming down the stairs she approached him with an affectionate hug. Joe’s mood remained dark, and unable to accept her gesture, he snapped.

“What have you been doing all day? The house is a mess, and I can’t find my bicycle shorts, which I assume are still wet.”

Kitty attempts to explain her day, and Bobby wanting her to watch the game, when he cuts her off.

“I can’t get anything around here. Bobby got what he needed, but not me! I’m working my ass off all day, and that’s not adding up to much. Do you have any idea the pressure I’m under to bring money into this house?”

Kitty backs up, feels like crying, but doesn’t. She’s no lightweight, and can defend herself.

“Don’t speak to me that way, like I’m a piece of trash. I have a life of my own, and I’m your wife, remember? Screw you!”

With that she storms past him, and he heads for the door, needing to be away from her. Before slamming it behind him, he fires a last volley, escalating their conflict: “And what about last night?” referring their not having sex.


Key Points to Remember:

1. Demonstrate that you have empathy for your partner’s experience. People who do not experience empathy in their relationships feel unimportant and disconnected.

2. Empathy occurs through Active Listening, with such language as, “I hear what you’re saying,” and even better, “I hear you,” spoken with real feeling.

3. Efforts to empathize with words alone are shallow and insufficient. Tone of voice must be consonant with the intended message.

4. Accurate empathy requires emotional perspective – make every effort to identify with your partner’s position – to see the context of her feelings.

When conflict arises:

1. Healthy families provide a frame or container for the entire range of feelings, and recognize that anger is an expectable part of living; the frame has to be especially strong when family members are angry at each other.

2. The implicit message needs to be, “this feels really bad, and I really don’t like you right now, but we’ll get through this and be stronger on the other end.

3. Ride with the bad feelings; don’t regard them as signs that your relationship is in trouble. Remember, healthy families are able to express anger and navigate through them and resume understanding, love, and peace.