In this column, experts offer couples winning strategies to help them make love work. Can Nicole and Trevor get past the anger to give their marriage a fighting chance?
Growing up with a father whose sarcasm and dominant personality intimidated her mother, early on, Nicole*, 44, learned how to use her voice to gain control in relationships. On the other hand, her husband, Trevor, 47, is a soft-spoken and nonconfrontational man who hails from a quiet family in Ghana. Their opposite natures were part of the initial attraction that brought them together, but after six years of marriage the couple's contrasting temperaments have become a hot-button issue.
When Trevor refuses to participate in arguments, Nicole's temper flares up. She uses profanity and harsh words to provoke her husband to respond. His reaction to the barrage of condescending remarks and taunts is simply to retreat. Nicole, who works for the United States Attorney's Office, concedes that her verbal aggression temporarily gets her the upper hand, but she is unfulfilled by the lack of balanced communication in the relationship. And Trevor says his wife's verbal assaults are pushing him too far.
*Names have been changed.
Seeing my mom dominated by my father when I was a child, I knew I didn't want to be under anyone's thumb when I grew up. I wanted to be the boss in all my relationships. And that's who I've become in my marriage.
I started being verbally abusive in the second year of our marriage when Trevor began working on weekends. He was putting in a lot of overtime as a maintenance worker at a nearby university and taking on odd jobs to supplement his income and support his five children from a previous union. I began to feel lonely and resentful, and eventually picked fights about the lack of time we spent together.
"I admit that I take advantage of the fact that English is Trevor's second language. So when we fight, my words cut deeper. My husband is not aggressive, and I use that to my advantage. When I get loud and curse, he steps back and shuts down. Sometimes when I'm behaving irrationally, I just want Trevor to take charge and say 'Be quiet! Calm down and let's have a discussion.' But he just allows me to talk down to him.
I often feel guilty after an argument because we never get to the heart of the issue. But sometimes it feels good that I've dominated and conquered. That's the bully in me."
My wife argues with me about everything. It seems that she is always looking for a fight. We could be sitting in front of the TV, and the next minute we're fighting about which channel to watch. She blows the smallest issues out of proportion.
"When I was growing up in Ghana, my parents never fought. And if they did, I never knew about it. I wish that I had that kind of peace and respect in my own marriage. I am a quiet person. It just isn't in my nature to fight in the vicious manner that Nicole does. Besides, what's the point of arguing if it never resolves our problems? It only makes things worse.
When Nicole starts yelling and insulting me and berating me, I don't feel like a man at all. "I might not argue back, but that doesn't mean I don't have a brain. When we are in the middle of a clash, I like to think before I speak; I don't want to say something hurtful that I would later regret. I usually get quiet when she raises her voice, but sometimes I get angry, too. I remind her that if she wants to be treated nicely, she should treat other people that way. "I don't have the energy to battle my own wife. Fighting drains me and brings chaos into our relationship. I'm not giving up on her, but she needs to control her temper."
AN EXPERT'S OPINION
By Clarence Shuler
Disagreements are inevitable in marriage. But a difference of opinion can easily escalate to verbal abuse when one partner begins to attack the other instead of the problem. Neither Nicole's nor Trevor's parents had beneficial conflict resolution styles. One was abusive, and the other failed to provide a model for resolving issues. When a couple learn how to argue so that they both win, they can enhance their intimacy and friendship.
These tips can help Nicole and Trevor restore balance:
• Make a plan. During a peaceful time, Trevor and Nicole need to discuss how they can fight fairly without shouting insults or ignoring each other. They should create their own rules of engagement, outlining boundaries for disagreements. Nicole can express to Trevor why she needs more participation from him during conflicts, and he can explain how her behavior makes him feel.
• Reach out. Holding hands during a disagreement is not easy, but in addition to showing that you're making an effort to have calmer verbal exchanges, it can diffuse a lot of negative emotions that might come up. Touching each other will remind Trevor and Nicole of their closeness and their goal to become more understanding partners.
• Take responsibility. Nicole cannot take back hurtful words after they are out of her mouth, so she should write down her feelings on a potentially explosive matter. Similarly, Trevor has got to speak up; their goal is to work through the issue, and avoidance is just as destructive as overreaction.
Clarence Shuler is president and CEO of Building Lasting Relationships, Inc., and the author of Keeping Your Wife Your Best Friend (Cool Springs Publishing).
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