Anytime is a good time to see a marriage counselor. All marriages have conflicts, just as all relationships do. If there is no conflict, one of you may be unnecessary. What I mean by that is that the only time couples can report there are no arguments, disagreements, etc., is when one spouse calls the shots and the other passively goes along. Healthy relationships have conflict!
In the early years of marriage, it is really important to address the area of role expectations. When couples can be very honest and open about what they "expect" from their spouse, the level of communication that follows may be very fulfilling.
Unexamined expectations are a source of difficulty and pain in many areas of life and marriage. For example, a wife's expectation may be that her husband will be the kind of father her father was (or the father her mother wished he was). She expects her husband to share the struggles and burdens of parenting, to be around to share in the "daily," be interested in the kids’ problems and concerns, and maybe even help cart the kids around. But, alas, she married someone who has other ideas about the role of father. The spouse's idea of being a good father is being a great provider, spending most of his time and energy building a family business or climbing the corporate ladder. Each spouse has a different set of ideas about how family is done. The problem is parental roles were never discussed in terms of expectations. This issue develops into a lifelong area of disappointment, resentment, and struggle.
Expectations that are not expressed can become potential hot buttons. Expectations can be the fly in the ointment of marriage and…expectations sometimes can be released through simple discussions where both spouses agree to listen without becoming defensive or judgmental.
It may be time to call a marriage counselor if arguments have become destructive. There are certain topics that must be addressed to maintain healthy family life: the kids, money, the in-laws, and sex. Then there are weightier issues like addictions, abuse, and control. If the exact same conversation and arguments occur every time a particular subject comes up, it is time to get some outside help.
It's not uncommon that one spouse waxes eloquent when certain subjects come up. He or she rehearses a litany of offenses sometimes going back to the beginning of the relationship. This usually means either A) there's been no closure for significant arguments/events or B) someone may need some help letting go of things. Usually it's a combination of both A and B.
Refusal to discuss
Sometimes one spouse stonewalls or refuses to even speak when certain difficult conversations come up, saying something like, "You just have to trust me," (when nothing trustworthy has been offered or mentioned). Other ways of avoiding discussions are the use of anger or threats to leave, even if only temporarily.
What is stonewalling?
Stonewalling is refusing to engage in a discussion. It can be expressed as silence or the cold shoulder. It can be a form of abuse and the underlying cause is easy to spot; the stonewalling spouse is angry or afraid of their anger. Sometimes a husband stonewalls because he's overwhelmed by his wife's feelings or desire to discuss feelings. This is not abuse, but very poor communication skills. Both husbands and wives may use it as a form of punishment. The results of this are very damaging. Anything that's not discussed becomes a bigger and bigger block to intimacy.
At first glance withholding seems like another form of stonewalling or refusing to discuss. It may be a second cousin, but the consequences of withholding are far more severe. Withholding occurs when one spouse asks questions about logistics like: “When are your parents coming?” “When is your business flight scheduled?” “How much will that cruise cost us?” These are questions with simple answers, but the answers are not proffered. The offending spouse says, "I don't know." Or possibly just gives a dirty look and shakes their head. The message is, "You don't need to know." Or worse yet, “You don't matter.” Its impact on the offended spouse is denigrating. Although withholding is a communication problem, I will also include it in Part 2 of this subject matter next month when I look at some more serious marital issues of mistrust and abuse.
A great classic book on communication is You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversationby Deborah Tannen, Ph.D. Dr. Tannen is a socio linguist. She has intriguing solutions to the baffling communication breakdowns that many committed caring couples struggle with. Dr Tannen's book was on the NY Times Best Sellers list for four years and it was at the top of the list for eight months.
Susanne Ciancio, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Christian Counselor. She has been serving the Christian community as a professional Christian counselor in Essex county and the surrounding area since 1986. Beyond her private practice in West Orange, NJ she is involved in teaching, consulting, and pastoral supervision in various churches in the area. Click here for Susanne's website.
EDITORS NOTE: While Susanne can’t answer specific counseling-related questions, she welcomes your thoughts, comments, and suggestions about what kinds of topics you’d like to see addressed here at Circles of Faith. Click here to contact us.