Allison Keating answers your queries about life & relationships
Question: I am a mother-of-three and any time I try to talk to my husband about the tension in our relationship, he says the problem is down to me constantly criticising him. I have soul searched and I really feel that I am not.
He shouts a lot in the normal course of the day: if he asks the kids to do something and they ignore him, the next request is a roar and when he is stressed, which is most of the time, he is quite nasty and short. He thinks I am way too sensitive and take everything personally.
I don’t know what to do about this as we have three children under 10 and I couldn’t uproot them. I also wouldn’t be able to support our lifestyle myself. My daughter said to me the other day that she never sees us kissing and that made me sad. I can’t fake affection when I feel so miserable. Please help me to make things better for my family.
Allison replies: It can’t all be your fault and it also isn’t only your responsibility to ‘fix’ your marriage. I often wonder when you hear the words ‘broken marriage’ when it got to the point of no return? You’ve probably heard of ‘kintsugi’, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery where they use gold glue and allow the flaws and imperfections to be seen to allow the strength of the object to be seen in its entirety. It can be the same with relationships, they aren’t perfect and don’t need to be and it is helpful to start exploring what the issues you are dealing with are.
Some issues in marriages are irrevocable and no glue can bring it back, while others, as every relationship is as unique as the couple within it, can become stronger when pervasive issues are identified and worked through. Work being the key word in that last sentence — it needs two people taking ownership and responsibility for the role and part each is playing with a willingness to grow together.
It is easy to write those words and much harder to put into practice. Identify what you feel the challenges are and ask your husband if he could do the same. This can be a written exercise where you can give each other a bit of time to think about it and then set a date and time to sit down together to talk about it.
“It can be a good idea to set up some rules to help what will be a challenging conversation/argument go better.”
It can be a good idea to set up some rules to help what will be a challenging conversation/argument go better. The rules could be to not make it personal — focus on the relationship issue. When personal comments occur, they can be things the person can’t change, or it can feel like an attack upon them as a person.
To create a framework that is supportive, be mindful of the difference between criticism, which is personal and a complaint, which is a specific — ‘I have noticed when you are stressed that you raise your voice with the kids. I’m wondering if this is something that can change?’ Scripts can be helpful to provide the jump-off point in important conversations. When there is a harsh set-up where someone feels verbally attacked and it feels like criticism, the conversation is over before it even had a chance to start.
I hear what you are saying, you don’t think you are criticising him and this is when it gets even more frustrating and challenging as the discord can lead to your husband hearing what you said as critical, even when it wasn’t. Suffice to say, it sounds like both of you aren’t happy with how the relationship is so working through the issues causing gridlock is the first step.
Taking a step back from this, it sounds like your husband is stressed. Have you talked about this together? I know this can feel exceptionally difficult when the relationship gets stuck in finger pointing and blame, and not only is this destructive, it can create a partner who puts up a defensive shield to protect themselves, resulting in no ownership or responsibility being taken for their part e.g. shouting at the kids when he is stressed.
It’s important to work out your baseline and perhaps this is an impossible question to ask at this stage. If money wasn’t an object, would you leave the marriage? Have you tried couples counselling? Have you asked how you would like things to be in the relationship?
The softness in relationships can get eroded by on-going stressors and as I look around, I see a lot of parents struggling. The demands on couples, marriages and families can feel quite relentless. Ask yourself gently how you want the relationship to be. Ask when or what led to the changes that you see. Ask if you can turn towards each other rather than away. Marriages can feel desperately lonely places when conflict and hostility is high.
“Marriage is not to be endured. Asking what you need first is essential. By supporting yourself, it can lead to supporting each other."
When did you support each other last? What do you need? Have you asked him what he needs? All of these questions need time, kindness and lots of patience with each other. Often, that patience is also gone but see if it’s possible to build it back up again. Marriage is not to be endured. Asking what you need first is essential. By supporting yourself, it can lead to supporting each other.
Maturity is one of the most underrated and yet essential ingredients to a healthy relationship. Being emotionally mature with each other, understanding your own psychodynamic patterns and unmet needs from each of your childhoods is where the work is at. Understanding your and his attachment styles and how they may be contributing and why certain things are triggering you both, can be greatly helped in a supportive space.
Looking at your day-to-day lifestyle and asking where the stressors are and if anything can be done about them, along with support in couples counselling, to help unravel where you both might feel stuck. Thanks for writing in and wishing you the best of luck.
Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query you would like addressed in this column, email email@example.com