Posted by fxckfeelings on December 10, 2012Share This Post
While most people yearn to believe that you can manage unresolvable conflict with communication, unresolvable usually means what it says, and nothing, from long talks to long range missiles, can make that conflict go away. The more you try to communicate, the more listening leads to louder voices and more pain, so opt instead for dialogue that stifles emotional needs for the sake of strategic goals, getting work done, and sparing the children. Learning to manage communication won’t make you happy, but unlike unbridled attempts at futile conflict resolution through intensive sharing, it won’t make you and everyone around you completely miserable.
I’ve had fewer fights with my husband since he started spending more time in the basement bedroom, but that means we’re just putting off deciding what we’re going to do about our marriage. We avoid talking, which means he doesn’t lose his temper and throw thing, but the kids can sense the tension and we’re certainly not moving forward. My goal is to figure out if there’s any possible way to try to stay together, which probably means sharing our feelings more honestly, or if this is truly the end.
There’s a good way to communicate when a deep rift remains in a relationship after peace talks have failed, and it has nothing to do with digging deeper, expressing hard truths honestly, or bringing in professional help (be it a shrink or hit man).
Usually, communication means the ability to express ideas, but in a difficult relationship, it’s the ability to interact in a non-homicidal fashion. As such, your best communication strategy requires accepting differences, then, when the other person digs deeper and expresses whatever intense, unpleasant feeling he or she has to say about you, shutting up.
After all, if certain topics remain explosive and certain behaviors unchanged, then further talk is asking for trouble, no matter how carefully you approach talking about them or how gently you plan to do so. When you can’t negotiate your differences, you just have to learn to navigate around them.
I say this assuming you and your husband have tried to talk things out. If not, of course you should, and if things get too hot, try having a therapist in the room. If, however, that train has left the station, then further talk should follow a simple set of rules which will help you whether you stay married, get a divorce, or are in your current state of commitment purgatory.
The first rule is to know what you’re after at the start of a conversation, accepting what you can and can’t realistically get out of it. If you want to feel understood, accepted, respected, appreciated, or listened to in a way that hasn’t happened before, forget about it or get a good hairdresser or phone psychic. With your husband, limit your conversational agenda to what works and see if you can bear it.
Talk about necessary arrangements and safe topics. If things are going well and you’re both relaxed, don’t press your luck, because your goal isn’t to find a way to talk; it’s to make the best of not being able to talk and to decide whether you can live in the same house or not. Manage communication by being both selectively honest and disagreeable. If you’re honestly pissed off or honestly believe he’s an asshole, keep your honesty to yourself, and don’t take issue unless the issue is important and winnable.
If disagreement is unavoidable, make statements with respect, aiming for a tolerable silent impasse rather than a noisy attempt to resolve differences. That makes it easier, after you’ve clarified your disagreement, to stop the conversation because you believe it’s the right thing to do. Stopping a conversation for the right reasons is the best way to manage communication when natural, relaxed speech is impossible. Structuring and self-censoring your statements may not foster intimacy, but it will definitely reduce tension while increasing the punch of any position you’re obliged to take.
Whether you decide to stay married or not, managed communication will help you function as partners. It won’t help you get close, but it will bring you and your kids some peace, even if peace talks are futile.
“I feel like my marriage has failed if I can’t share feelings and overcome differences with my husband, but I know that marriage is also a working, parenting partnership and that, in some important ways, we’re accomplishing our goals. I censor my speech, avoid negative topics, and limit my emotional needs to forward those goals while I decide whether we can better do this job together or apart.
I can’t pretend to respect my ex-wife when she complains about not seeing enough of the kids, given that she’s done nothing to support them since we split up. The kids are almost grown and she’s too poor to have a bedroom for them, so if they don’t spend time with her it’s not because I don’t want them to, but because they don’t want to (since they can’t sleep in the bathtub). I’ve been the stable parent while she’s cruised through three more husbands and missed countless visitation times, so the other day, when she said I had cheated her out of visitation after I told her we’d be out of town when she wanted to see the kids, I flipped out and, for once, let her know what an enormous asshole I think she is. It felt good. My goal is to let her know I’ll never see her as a victim, and I’m not going to let her push me around anymore.
It takes great restraint to deal with a nutty, deadbeat ex-wife, but expressing your anger, no matter how justified or how long in building, is a dangerous urge. First of all, it hurts the kids, who love their mother and are susceptible to her belief that she’s wronged, not wrong, and then it stokes her resentment and takes her to a level of nuttiness you don’t want to know. So, while it’s hard not to let loose when the pressure is unbearable and you finally feel she has little power to retaliate, it’s harder to deal with a scorned crazy woman whose greatest purpose is to show your children, your lawyer, and the world how you’ve ruined her life.
Instead of sharing your feelings, manage communication and edit out the negative whether you’re trying to stay married (see above), managing the late stages of a divorce, dealing with an ex with a bad temper or an ex with a bad character. It’s never easy, but your goal isn’t relief; it’s good parenting, legal defense and suicide bomber negotiation. When she vents, you’re not obliged to listen, just to be polite while you attend to business, listen patiently to legitimate complaints, and say goodbye.
Putting aside your pent-up anger, judge her current complaint on its merits. It sounds like you have good reason to make an exception to visitation, but the rules are the rules, so proceed as you would if you were addressing a landlord about a change in your lease. In other words, acknowledge the paperwork, but gently push for what’s best for both parties and the real estate/children you’re both raising together.
Let her know you respect the fact that she may have plans for the kids, but that a particular opportunity came up and that you and the kids would appreciate it if she could change her time. Ignore false accusations of unfairness, and don’t confront her about her past no-shows. End the conversation after implying that, if she doesn’t agree, she may wish to speak to the kids and get back to you. If agreement isn’t possible, her lawyer can speak to your lawyer.
You’ve done a good job of managing a tough, explosive, infuriating situation for many years, and you’re now on the home stretch, so don’t blow it by trying to put your foot down and pushing her into a sprint. You’ll never be totally rid of her, but now that you’re not bound by marriage, don’t bind yourself to her with conflict.
“I always feel bitter about my wife’s blaming me for mistreating her when she’s consistently been a deadbeat asshole, but my goal is to raise the kids, not punish someone who can’t help who she is. I’ll continue to be fair and calm and protect myself and our working relationship by keeping our contact minimal.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname