Walls go up around the heart when we’re treated harshly. Eventually, bitterness replaces the tender love that was once there.
Claire was starting to feel that way toward her husband, Joe, when she sought my help.
“He’s constantly critical and demeaning to me!” she said. “It has to change! I’m too miserable to have it go on like this.”
Claire is the type of person who holds it in. She doesn’t speak up, so whenever he’s unkind, she just takes it. Not good.
Resentment and hurt don’t just go away. They pile up and fester.
This is such a common problem, it brought to mind an anonymous couple I observed in the grocery store one day. Unbeknownst to them, they became fodder for a column I wrote a few years ago. 😉 (click here to read the column)
Back to Claire … at an early age she learned the art of peace-making and walking on egg-shells. I explained how counterproductive that behavior is. Not only does it corrode a healthy relationship, it has a negative impact on our health—physically and psychologically. It puts a damper on our well-being and overall life satisfaction and joy.
We may assume that the keep-it-to-ourselves-don’t-complain approach is best, but studies prove otherwise.
“Why don’t you object or complain?” I asked.
“Because he has health problems,” she explained, “and I know that has a lot to do with his temperament.” She made it clear that she didn’t want to hurt him or add to his problems.
“Joe’s health doesn’t justify treating you poorly,” I said. “Your feelings matter just as much as his.” I emphasized that her relationship was actually suffering—not thriving—by her remaining tight-lipped. “I’m sure he’d prefer a little honesty from you,” I said, “even if it does prick, as opposed to you feeling greater and greater contempt for him.”
“What do I do?” she asked.
“Tell him exactly how you feel,” I said.
Claire went home and did just that, and I was amazed with how well she did. I was so amazed, in fact, I asked her if I could share her story with others. Here’s how the conversation went:
“Do you ever notice how critical you are of me?”
“I guess you’re right,” Joe said reflectively. He then listed off the many troubling issues he deals with on a daily basis, including his poor health. “I guess I take it out on you.”
“And I can’t deal with it anymore,” she said. “You’re killing me.”
“But I don’t beat you or anything like that,” Joe said in defense of himself.
“But you’re hurting my heart,” she said. “I’m here to make you happy and to share my life with you. You don’t mistreat other people. I’m the one dedicated to staying with you, so why are you treating me like this? I don’t understand it.”
They continued to talk about it. The conversation went well because neither attacked and neither became defensive.
Since that discussion, she says he’s trying. “I can tell when he catches himself,” she said. He may start to say something, then stop mid-sentence and rephrase it. And if he doesn’t catch himself, she does. “I’m staying on it,” she said. “If he starts to go back to his old ways when he talks to me, I’ll ask:
‘What did you say?’”
Joe cares enough about Claire and his relationship to take these words as a gentle prompt. His response touches her heart, along with something else he began doing. He randomly breaks out in song: You Always Hurt the One You Love by the Mills Brothers. (click here to listen)
Yay, tenderness is making a comeback!
Names have been changed to honor client confidentiality.