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Keeping the Peace Backfires

Hand covering wife's mouth

“It has to change!  I can’t take it anymore.”

Liza was referring to her marriage. “If I don’t conform to how Stuart wants me to be, or if I don’t agree with how he sees things, he get’s furious,” she said.  “And if he doesn’t get his way, he get’s stormy.”

Liza was describing life in a prison—her soul constricted to keeping the peace. She learned a long time ago that airing her wishes or complaints simply made matters worse. “I can’t talk to him. I’m always on edge . . . not sure how he’ll react.” For years, Liza pretended—even to herself—that nothing was wrong. “I wanted to avoid the pain I felt, so I blinded myself to the mistreatment.”

The day she stopped trying to fool herself, the day she faced her buried anguish, change became a possibility.

Liza began a journey inward, starting with examining why she doesn’t stand up for herself. She learned it as a child. With both parents, she learned it was best to squelch her real self and become agreeable, self-sacrificing, and always nice. She described her father as a “rageful tyrant,” and her mother as basically uncaring. Like Liza, she too walked on eggshells around her husband.

So Liza’s manner with her husband is learned behavior. The good news is that learned behavior can be unlearned. I suggested she read The Nice Girl Syndrome by Beverly Engel.

By our next session, I was certain Liza had done a lot of reading, because of the first words out of her mouth:

“I’m no longer a robot who wakes up in the morning and takes her daily punches.”

She confronted her husband with a bold truth: if change doesn’t happen, I’m out of here. He listened. She expressed her grievances and he listened hard and long.

Not only do I congratulate her, I congratulate him!

Companionship occurs in a relationship where two people are being themselves. Translated, this means each freely—but respectfully—expresses what he or she truly thinks, feels, wants, and needs, while the other makes it emotionally safe to do so. Each is alert to the unique needs and concerns of the other. Consistently, the couple practices frankness about what they like and dislike. Within a climate of acceptance, they freely exercise their capacity to disagree, refuse, and object. As individuals, they oppose all that threatens their integrity. And as a couple, they tackle—together—anything that threatens the strength and specialness of their relationship.

The formula for a successful relationship doesn’t lie in appeasing the other. Appeasing, in fact, can be just as destructive to a relationship as a steady diet of domination, hot-headedness, or bullying. That’s because dissatisfactions and complaints—on the part of the appeaser—are allowed to fester and accumulate to the point of bitterness and contempt. Eventually, love dries up and the appeaser may just walk away.

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