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Unsolvable Problems in Marriage III: Changing the Climate


cilladupreez?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Priscilla Du Preez</a> on <a href="/s/photos/chat?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

This is the third part in a series on unsolvable problems in marriage. Here are links to Part I and Part II. Part III addresses how to articulate one's needs when it comes to marital gridlock. John Gottman's Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work defines marital gridlock as perpetual conflicts over personality and value differences.

We're bombarded by messages in our culture that communication solves relationship problems. But I suspect many of us, particularly men, ask ourselves: "What is the purpose of conversation? We talk a lot, it doesn't solve anything, and sometimes I wish we could just enjoy being with each other rather than airing our problems."

Questions shape how we see and experience the world. If one sees the primary goal of communication as solving problems, then talking can trigger fear, sadness, and anger when we don’t detect progress, our needs aren’t being met, and every conversation is a hamster wheel of frustration - spinning around the same topic and going nowhere fast.

If however, we ask “How can I get to know my spouse and his/her needs better? How can I grow in articulating my needs to my spouse so he/she gets to know me?” If we enter into a conversation with curiosity rather than judgment, then we are more likely to find what we’re looking for rather than the binary of "Is this solving our problems or not?"

The nature of unsolvable problems make it difficult if not impossible for couples to bare and support one another's needs. Because unsolvable problems are often impervious to direct intervention, the answer is to change the climate. Every interpersonal interaction has an emotional climate. If a police officer pulls you over on the highway and subsequently approaches you in your vehicle, the atmosphere will be charged with tension. Your response when you roll down your window will either ratchet up the tension or de-escalate it. Non-verbal cues like whether you're smiling and making eye contact alter the emotional climate. Similarly, a healthy marriage is expressed through an open and accepting environment. If we think about communication as climate change, the role of communication expands. It's not just about solving problems but cultivating beautiful landscapes to live out of. 

I want to introduce a communication framework that can create positive climate change. This is one of many ways to adjust the emotional atmosphere of an interaction. It's effective because it forces the speaker to parse his/her emotions and take ownership of them. One of the most important ways to calm the emotional atmosphere is to own one's contribution to an unstable climate. It requires humility, self-awareness, and brutal honesty about one's emotions and needs.

This communication framework, based on Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication, goes as follows:

1) Describe a situation or event with precise and objective language 
2) Express the accompanying emotion(s) 
3) Articulate the underlying needs or values
4) Conclude with a clear request

It's easy to perceive fulfillment of the request as the most important part but it's not. We want the tangible outcome of someone doing what we tell them. However, the most important step is discussing emotions and needs because, again, the goal isn't to solve problems but to see a person's heart. A person's heart consists of her feelings and needs. Intimacy is mutual sharing of one another's emotions and needs.

Let's walk through the framework with an example. A man may decide to make a grilled cheese sandwich and without solicitation, his wife comes over, turns on the stove, and takes out slices of bread. He thinks to himself "Does she think I can't make a grilled cheese?" He experiences indignation and says "I feel like you're suffocating me with your need to be helpful."

First, to say to someone "I feel like you're <fill in the blank>" We often use "I feel" as a way to qualify our perceptions. We use "I feel" to sound more objective and honest when it's anything but. The appropriate word after "I feel" is an actual emotion like angry, sad, lonely, guilty, ashamed, glad, afraid, and hurt.

In addition, we often make statements like "You made me angry." On the contrary, no one can make you feel anything. You are responsible for your emotions. People's actions can trigger our emotions but we own the process of translating events into emotional content. If you read a Facebook post you disagree with, you don't HAVE to be triggered. You can simply keep scrolling. Or not log onto Facebook.

Returning to the grilled cheese example, this man has unspoken needs that manifest themselves as a judgement on his wife's character. It's important for him to pause and exercise self-awareness and honesty about his needs. In the beginning, it it's impossible to do in the moment. The atmosphere is too emotionally charged to think clearly. He will need some time and space to calm down and reflect. 

As discussed in the previous post, we often judge and criticize our needs because we feel guilt and shame about them. Upon reflection, the man may realize his anger comes from childhood encounters when his father belittled him for not being able to do things on his own.

Later at a calmer moment, he might disclose: "You remember yesterday when I wanted to make the grilled cheese on my own? I felt embarrassed and angry when you came to help. It took me back to the time I was 10 years old and helped my dad fix the bathroom faucet. I dropped the wrench on his foot, he called me useless, and never asked me to help him again. I need autonomy and to be viewed as competent. That's what was behind my ask."

This framework can be separated into pieces depending on the situation. For example, a need doesn't have to be verbalized in the heat of the moment. Rather than say "I need to make this grilled cheese without your help NOW", he might instead say "Honey, I love how helpful you are but can I have you help me another time?" 

Needs are abstract. Requests are not. A clear request is concrete and specific. This distinction is important. He doesn't need to make a grilled cheese sandwich on his own. He would like to. The need is particularized in the want. And we can have our needs addressed by all manner of requests. We can discuss the particulars of the request but the needs aren’t negotiable, at least not in the same way. If his wife insists on helping him make the grilled cheese, the husband can have his needs met in other ways.
For example, he might say, “Hon, I welcome your help with anything food prep-related but when it comes to fixing stuff around the house, that’s my territory.” I just threw out a bag of gender stereotypes but you get the idea. 

When climate change is the goal, aspects like humor, timing, and tone also play an important role. Certainly, the language I've presented is helpful but tone is a vital part of the emotional climate. Change your tone, change the atmosphere. In addition, repeated conversational turbulence often relates to environment choices. Poor timing is a climate choice. You can change the interpersonal environment by waiting for a better, calmer time when you both have energy and focus. Making light of a situation through jokes and sarcasm can also be helpful. Learning not to take ourselves too seriously de-escalates tension and changes the climate.

You might object there's never a good time to share your emotions and needs because broaching certain topics generates an emotional storm in the other person, no matter what you do. In that case, you can have a conversation about the environment itself. One of the greatest lessons I gained from therapy was learning to talk about how Judy and I talk with each other. This means owning how I contribute to an emotionally-charged atmosphere and making sure that's acknowledged before moving onto my wife's contributions. I own my stuff first - no ifs, ands, or buts.

None of the things mentioned here guarantee climate change. This is about increasing the likelihood of transformation and not giving up hope. You are less than half of the marriage weather system. The system also contains external factors such as children, economic stress, etc. You can only control how you respond. If you're a husband who's reluctant to initiate climate change with your wife, you need to examine the reasons for your conflict-avoidant tendencies. There are emotions, needs, and likely adverse childhood experiences that undergird your fear of conflict. You're also not alone; the majority of men tend to avoid conflict. If you're a wife who's always initiating the conflict conversation, then you need to examine how you contribute to a turbulent emotional climate - especially to the extent that your husband avoids you or shuts down. There are emotions, needs, and likely adverse childhood experiences that lurk behind your storm of reactiveness. In the end, calm and sunny skies can result when we are willing to confront and sort through our inner turmoil.


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