Q I’m married 20 years and of late my husband’s tone of voice is driving me insane. It’s not always the things he says, it’s his tone. At dinner time he was speaking and one of the kids noticed it and said “stop shouting”. He comes across as rude, controlling and even to a degree bullying. I have said it to him but he’s not doing anything about it. Once I sense it, I just end up switching off. Any advice?
Did a major event or fight occur that felt like an emotional turning point in your relationship or has it been simmering and building for years, or is it both?
Time-lining change, especially emotional change, can bring a sense of clarity. It can be such a challenge to be mindfully aware that we all have different perspectives, and those perspectives form our reality.
Until you have an authentic conversation where you both can express what is going on and why, the walls between you will stand.
We naturally see things from our own biased perspective, even more so when there is hurt. It can feel like an affront when someone seems to not understand or see your point of view.
As you know, the tone, timbre and volume of your voice convey so much more information than the actual words that are said.
This may seem silly, but could your husband need a hearing test? Many times, people aren’t aware of how loud or quietly they are speaking if there has been some loss of hearing.
However, this does not explain or excuse the rude, controlling or bullish behaviour.
How are conversations going? Do you feel heard? Do you feel connected, or understood? Do you feel your opinion matters or is valued? Do you feel loved or supported?
I hear pain and sadness in your words. A sense of loss, in the marriage and as a couple, and I hear emotional isolation.
Living physically together doesn’t mean that you feel emotionally together. The truth is, very few live happily ever after without a continued effort being made along the way.
The fairytale we were sold was a lie, and an unhelpful myth. Somehow making an effort in marriage has been seen culturally as negative. It takes a deep, concerted emotional commitment to each other, to work through the hard times and to establish or re-establish safe boundaries.
It isn’t a failure to admit to where you feel your relationship is right now and to deal with any issues.
Is there loneliness, disconnection, a sense of not liking the person sitting across from you at the kitchen table or in your bed? Does he seem familiar to you, or a stranger? Is there contempt?
Unresolved issues over time harden hearts and can freeze emotions. Couples can stop turning towards each other for validation and support, especially when they feel they are going to lose every time — a hallmark of bullying or controlling behaviour.
Cynicism grows from burnout, a loss of hope in people, society and life in general and can leave people emotionally brittle and yet hostile at the same time.
Why do people build emotional walls? Like children, even in the worst outbreak or tantrum they are in a very frustrated and ineffective way demanding that you listen to them. Behind those demands are cues to the emotional needs they are trying to convey. It takes huge courage to have vulnerable conversations whereby everyone takes responsibility for how they are behaving and reacting to others.
Prepare to have a conversation by saying that there are some things you would like to talk about together that you feel aren’t working at the moment.
Ask him if he would be comfortable writing out what he would like to bring the conversation. Things that annoy him about you — these need to be specific complaints and not criticisms. This is a very important differentiation, as a complaint is something that can be worked on (hopefully) whereas a criticism is personal and usually a bad combination of being hurtful and unhelpful.
Go in soft, but strong on your complaints. It may be more helpful to focus on the behaviour than the tone at first. Create safe boundaries when you have the conversation. Set the tone that you both want to listen to learn, which is harder to do that you would expect.
Validate each other’s points; refrain from giving unsolicited advice.
Keep thinking of how to keep cool because when you are switching off from his tone you have been flooding. His anger feels threatening to you. It is disconnecting you. The tone of the words can feel like an attack on you. It is hard to have warm feelings for someone who is being rude or controlling towards you.
How would he take it, if he knew the impact it has been having upon you? Do you think he would hear it, or would he minimise it? If you are concerned that it’s the latter, perhaps couples counselling might be worth pursuing.
Know your own boundaries first: identify on paper what is acceptable and what is not and then let him know clearly.
Hopefully this conversation brings some of the built-up resentment to the surface and paves a new way forward.
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