Dear Crucial Skills,
I have attended Crucial Conversations Training, read Crucial Confrontations, and listened to the audio companions. I have spent a lot of time with your materials as well as other books on anger. Reading your first two books helped me clarify some gut perceptions I had about my marriage.
I’ve tried using your communication methods in my forty-three-year marriage, but I’m not having success. Most of our conversations still turn into arguments. I’m very weary of arguments but not ready to give up or shut up. I’m guessing the next step is involving a marriage counselor, but I don’t want to waste time in lengthy talk sessions with therapists if I’m already up to speed on the skills you so insightfully describe.
What do you do when using the skills you teach results in what feels like a wall of conversation-stopping behaviors? In your books, you stop short of addressing working with a therapist. What next?
Dear Wits’ End,
You say, “Most of our conversations turn into arguments.” If that’s an accurate statement describing a forty-three-year relationship, I’ll begin by asking, “What do you really want?” My goal is not to talk you into a divorce, but I certainly want more for you than forty-three years of sustained misery. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to let life wear you down. Don’t surrender your aspirations and resign yourself to coping. You clearly want more for yourself or you wouldn’t have worked so hard studying crucial conversations skills. However, it could be that by taking a class or reading a book, you are avoiding the real steps you need to take to address more fundamental issues.
Let me suggest three fundamental possibilities to consider. I’m going to focus them on you, but please don’t misread my meaning. I am not suggesting the problem is entirely your fault. My reason for focusing on you is that you are the only thing you can control, so the only fruitful thing for you and me to discuss is what you can do. I’m also quite limited because I have no view into your reality—only conjecture from your brief note—so I frame these as possibilities, not prescriptions.
1. You’re blind. Most chronic conflict is skillful. If you fight regularly with another person, it’s usually in a very patterned way. You literally develop proficiency in pushing the other person’s buttons. The problem is most of us don’t recognize how skillful we’ve become at this. We’re blind to our own role in a conflict.
I once offered coaching to a couple whose pattern was for the husband to get loud and emotional. He realized his loudness wasn’t helping, but he was blind to how frequently he used derogatory and dismissive terms to describe his wife’s opinions and feelings. Instead, he attributed the majority of cause for conflict to his wife. The wife, on the other hand, saw herself as a peacemaker in the conflict. She never raised her voice, but she smiled condescendingly or harrumphed under her breath in a way that drove her husband nuts. She was a master of nonverbal disgust. Her contribution was subtle but just as powerful as his.
One possibility is that you need help Learning to Look. If you’ve tried to change your conflict “skills” on your own, you may need outside eyes to help you see more. A counselor can help with that. A good one can have you reenact an emotional exchange and help you see ways you can de-escalate the conflict. You may want to consider seeing a counselor, not because you need new skills, but because you need to become more aware of the negative ones you’re already using.
2. You’re settling. I keep returning to your statement, “forty-three years . . . of our conversations turn into arguments.” If one of your patterns is exaggeration, you may want to ignore everything that follows. But if that quote is an accurate description of your four-decade relationship, I have something I need to say.
This year my wife and I celebrate twenty-five years together. About three years into our marriage, I came home from a trip and she was pretty non-communicative. I felt kind of sick and nervous because I could tell something really big was up. And it was. After the kids were in bed, I asked if something was wrong. She said “Yes. I’m really unhappy in our marriage. Most of the time I just don’t like you that much. I want to be excited when you’re home. I want that for you and for me.”
I was crushed. I felt like I was giving everything to our marriage, but the person whose opinion mattered most to me was telling me I didn’t measure up. I wasn’t even likeable. The life drained from my body and I wondered if it was all over.
As waves of dark fear washed over me, I began to process her full message. She wanted this to work. While the disappointing truth still hurt, the terror subsided and we began to talk. We both opened up about what we wanted from our relationship and what was getting in the way. It was a watershed moment that changed the next twenty-two years, and it began because she was unwilling to simply cope.
I suggest you find a way to tell your husband three things:
- I want to be married to you. You are the most important friend in my life.
- I am unwilling to continue with the quality of relationship we currently have.
- I’d like to find a way to have a safe conversation so we can figure out how to make our marriage wonderful for both of us.
You could do this in writing, then ask for a time to get his considered response. You could ask for permission to make the statement, then schedule a time after you’ve both processed what you’ve shared and decide on how to structure a productive conversation about your mutual desires and concerns. Perhaps this is a role for a counselor as well, but you would let the counselor know this is the topic the two of you want to address and ask for his or her help facilitating. If things are as bad as you describe, every path forward includes this conversation.
3. You’re lying to yourself. The third possibility—as I suggested earlier—is that you’re mischaracterizing reality. Exaggeration is a control strategy. It’s intentionally distorting the facts to compel compliance with your demands. If you have extended moments of peace and happiness with your husband, punctuated by occasional nit picking or bickering, then admit it. You’re not wrong to want to make things even better. Going from good to great is exactly what you ought to want, but this kind of self-deception and manipulation creates three problems.
- It robs you of the chance to appreciate the marriage you have. If you’re failing to see the good in your marriage, you are not experiencing the happiness of the relatively good relationship you have. I can promise you an immediate doubling of your happiness if you simply take time every day to make one genuine expression of gratitude for what is wonderful about your husband or your marriage.
- It makes you unfairly intolerant. Overstating negatives isn’t fair. It’s unfair to the truth, but it’s unfair to people as well. It diminishes their appreciation of themselves and distracts them from enjoying a full measure of what’s working well.
- It undermines your influence. It’s rare that someone hearing overstated criticism responds as you’d like. When you are more truthful, you are more influential. If you’re hoping to interest someone in changing, don’t create an unnecessary debate about the problem itself by exaggerating it. Trust that the truth is strong enough unadorned.
I hope reflecting on these three different views of your situation serves you. I applaud your diligence at self-improvement in past years and am confident that your sincerity will keep you moving in a more productive direction. The past year of my marriage has been the happiest of all. I hope your next one is for you.