Q. My husband and I used to be very loving and caring towards one another at the beginning of our marriage. Lately, though, we gone through some financial hardships and have had to cut back on our lifestyle, we can’t go out to dinner on the weekends like we used to, and this year have no vacation. The stress is causing us to argue and fight over every little thing. He says something cruel to me and I just fight back, reflexively, telling him he’s disgusting, or a loser, or getting too fat. I feel bad afterwards but the damage has been done. The fights seem to getting worse and worse each time. How can we stop hurting each other?
A. You both are fighting for your life in this marriage. You feel as though your personal integrity is being violated and you must strike first or become annihilated. This fighting style unfortunately is all too common in contemporary relationships. One partner might experience themselves as supremely misunderstood, unloved, or unaccepted. And really, that is all we yearn for and long for in a relationship, to be accepted and loved just as we are.
When we experience our partner trying to “get us” to be something we are not we rebel. In your case, you may be supremely disappointed in your husband’s capability as a provider, and his ability, to bring home a paycheck which allows you to carry on your previous lifestyle. Because you are struggling to pay your bills at times, you are losing respect for him, and losing the memory of what brought you together to begin with. All you can see now is that he is causing your family to struggle, and that makes you think of other things you don’t like about him, large and small. This causes you to be on the lookout or vigilant for more things you don’t like, and with irritation, take a shot at him whenever a frustration or imperfection arises. Psychologists call this trend the development of a “global negative perspective” or prejudice against your partner.
Unbridled expressions of hurt, anger and criticism create defensive counter attacks in an effort at self-protection. It is as if the couple is saying to one another ,“You hurled an insult at me so I deserve to hurl one at you”. It’s as if the couple are fighting for their life, the life of their own integrity, ego and the very core of their self concept. Dr. John Gottman of Washington University calls this phenomenon “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” because if left unchecked can lead to the destruction of a marriage. The Four Horsemen include Contempt, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Criticism.
Once you are mindful of falling down this slippery slope of criticism and contempt for your partner realize it is a result of unmet hopes, dreams and expectations. Now you can certainly team up together to begin to put your strengths and resiliencies up against the Problem of Fighting. First, you must reflect back upon the marriage in total to recall what makes this relationship worthy of respect, worth fighting for. Remember the man you fell in love with when you were dating, perhaps his kindness, his companionship, his ability to soothe your hurt feelings in times of trouble. Is that man somewhere still within him? Can you find that person again by looking for examples of his acts of kindness today? If you can, recall examples of what you appreciate about one another to bring back the marriage worth fighting for.
Next, remember that you are choosing to be with this person every day. No one is really forcing you to stay, even though you may have many overwhelming reasons why you stay, it is still your choice. Accept responsibility for this choice and refrain from blaming others for your decisions. Third, do you see any sense of entitlement in your frustration, perhaps you believe you are getting a raw deal, and things should be better for you, you deserve more. If so, what can you do on your own to put against the problem of the raw deal? Make this happen in some way for yourself rather than wait for someone else to deliver a promised life to you. Develop interests in a new craft, learn a language, start an exercise program, get a part time job….Finally, when you must argue, pick and choose your battles. Not every emotional upset deserves a hearing. Use mindfulness techniques to stay with your emotions and validate them for yourself, while making a choice whether to act on them or not. Choose to engage only in battles that mean a great deal to you, and those that have a chance of having a real life solution in the here and now. Some problems are chronic unsolvable problems and can be dealt with acceptance of the bad with the good, as long as it is not abusive which should never be tolerated. Team up against your problems, put your minds together, and a solution will be found.
Dr. Janet Hibel is a Board Certified Psychologist and Certified Addiction Professional practicing in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Website: Drjanethibel.com