Question: Any time I want to calmly discuss a situation that is bothering me in our relationship, my husband's reply is always "I don't want to fight about this!" Although I tell him that I'm not trying to fight, I just want to talk about it, he never has the discussion with me and the problems are always left unresolved.
Response: The following addresses this situation from the wife's point of view because that is who is asking the question. If the husband was asking the question about his wife, the answer would be the same. Also, my response addresses how to solve problems in the relationship. Attitudes such as “women shouldn't have to change to get along with men” are not conducive to solving problems because effective communication requires respecting the other person and involves focusing on how to achieve the desired outcome. Refusing to change behavior while focusing on blaming the other leads to stalemates and doesn't solve problems.
Assuming the husband's statement is passive-aggressive (PA), "I don't want to fight about this!" is a controlling trap because it allows the wife only two choices: drop the subject or continue to pursue. He actually is saying "I don't want to talk about this" so if she discontinues the conversation his controlling behavior is rewarded by getting what he wants. However, if she continues to pursue, he can shift all the blame on her by accusing her of "fighting." She has tried to explain that she is only wanting to talk but since the real meaning of his statement is "I don't want to talk about this" any conversation is viewed from his perspective as fighting. A perfect trap.
So, how can she get out of this trap? The solution depends on a number of factors.
1) Determine whether the assumption is accurate. Do they have a past history of fighting (arguing) when they discuss a relationship problem? If so, does it start with a discussion that devolves into a fight? If this is true, then this wife needs to take this into consideration when approaching him and may need to modify her approach.
2) Assess the situation non-judgmentally. Successful communication requires both people. As with any communication problem it is essential for her to first assess her communication style instead of immediately blaming the problem on her husband. Does she approach from an “I” perspective or a “you” perspective? It is much different to say “I have a need” than “You don't fulfill my need.” The latter is seen as criticism and judgment so is unlikely to lead to fruitful conversation. So, the wife needs to look critically at her own style of communication first. Other issues in her approach can include tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, etc.
3) Avoid trigger words.* Certain words or phrases can illicit a subconscious negative response from someone. Sometimes this is due to past discussions or might be due to experiences in past relationships. For instance, her husband may have grown up with a critical parent who used a phrase such as “We need to discuss your behavior.” As a result, similar words such as “We need to discuss a problem” can trigger a fear reaction or an anger response.
The wife might try wording her desire for discussion differently. For instance, instead of saying “Can we talk?” just ask a question directly. “What do you think about having a night out for just the two of us without family and friends?”
*This is different from the concept of “trigger warnings” which is about groups whereas we are talking about an individual with a known reaction.
4) Determine if a “discussion” is needed. Many problems may be solved by stating in a straight-forward manner what is desired. In fact, it is often best to start with a statement and if that is not effective, then proceed to a discussion. For instance, “I'm uncomfortable living paycheck to paycheck. Can we put some money into savings so we have a fallback?” If the response is “no” then ask direct questions that elicit the other person's opinion. “Why do you think that's a problem?” or “Can you think of some other way to address it?”
5) Express problem clearly and assertively. “Clearly” expressing a problem means to make it as concrete or tangible as possible. “I need more affection” could be interpreted in many ways. One person might interpret it as hugs while another interprets it as sex. So, be as specific as possible when bringing up an issue: “I like to hold hands when we walk together.”
“Assertively” means to communicate directly. Instead of “discussing a situation”, she should just tell him directly what the problem is and what she wants him to do. For instance, instead of having a discussion about him not helping around the house, she needs to specifically tell him "I need you to do the dishes right after dinner." Or, if he is not affectionate enough, say "Give me a hug." If he does something that is hurtful, say "I feel hurt when you do that--don't do that again."
It is important direct verbal communication does not include misleading non-verbal communication. For instance, sometimes a person will make a direct statement such as “I need your help cleaning the house” but then make a facial expression (such as eye-rolling) or use a tone of voice that is critical. These non-verbals sabotage the directness of the statement because people give greater weight to non-verbal behaviors than to verbal statements.
Read more on Assertive Communication.
6) Use a different mode of communication. If verbal exchanges tend to become heated, try another way to discuss the issue. For instance, some couples find email a good way to discuss a problem without the emotional component interfering. So, still using the above communication methods, the wife could contact her husband by email. I could be wrong but I don't think that texting is a good substitute because it is a more casual form of communication which trivializes the discussion. But it might work for some people.
7) Recognize that people have different styles for solving problems. Not everyone needs to discuss their feelings to solve a problem. Some people want to discuss their feelings and fully explain the problem so that the other person understands and no one gets their feelings hurt. This style might work great with people who have similar styles but can present a problem in some relationships.
I came to understand these different communication styles when my son was a young teen. My tendency was to explain my reasoning for decisions so that he would understand and not be angry with me. However, this approach just led to escalation of conflict. Until one day he said, "Mom, why can't you just say 'no'?" I thought, "Wow, that would be simpler!" As a result, I found that being more direct with him was much more effective.
In conclusion, the best way to get out of this controlling passive-aggressive trap is to avoid the trap completely. The above examples illustrate avoiding the trap by adjusting the approach to solving the problem. By doing so, the husband doesn't have the opportunity to shut her down by saying “I don't want to fight about this!”
However, this communication style can also be indicative of much more serious problems in a relationship. The wife might have to take other steps if changing her approach doesn't work. Individual therapy can be helpful if he refuses couples therapy. It can help her further assess the relationship.
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