"My love is wasted on this man," fumes Theresa, 28, mother of two boys. "I know Jimmy has an incredibly low opinion of himself, but that's no reason to dump on me." No matter what she says, Theresa explains, Jimmy is on the defensive, taking everything the wrong way, or twisting it around so it sounds as if she's putting him down.
"The other day, when we were leaving for my sister's birthday party, I told him he looked really sharp. Instead of accepting the compliment like a normal human being, he turns to me and says, 'Oh, so you think I'm a total slob the rest of the time?' Do you believe that? I can't even praise this man without having it thrown back in my face!"
Theresa and Jimmy have been married for six years, and he's worse now than he ever was, she reports. Jimmy's negativity isn't limited to himself. "If I ask him to help with the littlest chore, like vacuum the couch or clip the hedges -- I don't want the neighbors to think we don't know how to maintain our home -- I get lambasted for being a nag. If I ask him to spend more time with the boys, he gets angry." Theresa is tired of talking to a man who clearly doesn't listen.
"Who does she think I am anyway?" asks Jimmy, 35, who recently went to work as an electrician after several months of unemployment. "I'm not a jerk. I don't like being bossed around. I had enough of that when I was a kid."
Jimmy spent his childhood living in the shadow of his two older, very bright siblings, and he bristles when Loretta talks to him the way she talks to their 3-year-old. "She says she loves me, but I don't see it. I walk in the door and the first thing she says is, 'The sofa has lint all over it.' "
Jimmy can no longer deal with a wife who tries to run his life: "It makes my blood boil," he says. "The way I hear it, when I was out of work I was bum, and when I'm working I'm also a bum."
Hearing what isn't said
"Jimmy's inability to accept and express his feelings is a key problem in this marriage, but Theresa, a no-nonsense perfectionist, is certainly contributing to the conflict," notes Flo Rosof, director of the Life Development Center in Huntington, N.Y. When Theresa speaks in her clipped tone and insists on a spotless house, Jimmy hears her words as fault-finding and nagging. Like many people who are flooded with messages that sound critical or threatening, he hears only the script he's already written in his head and tunes out what his wife is really saying.
How many times have you and your spouse gotten into similar arguments? Do you feel you're talking to a wall? This advice may help:
* The benefit of a doubt: Remember that everyone has a different capacity for hearing and interpreting messages, so give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Jimmy wasn't listening when Theresa spoke about the hedges because he was exhausted, or the kids were crying in the next room and he was distracted. The next time Theresa needs something done, she should time her words better, speak in a less demanding way and also let him know that these things are important to her, even though he may find them trivial. She can say: "I know trimming those hedges seems silly to you, but it's important to me that the yard look nice."
* Expectations: Consider the inner scripts and expectations you and your spouse might have. Do you assume that he will not
hear you? Does he expect that every time you say something it will be critical of him? While it's hard to break old patterns, you can calm yourself and react less defensively if you take slow, deep breaths and actually talk to yourself. The following statements may help you hear what your spouse is saying:
"My partner is not necessarily upset with me. This is her way of saying she needs or wants something."
"I'm angry right now, but basically we have a good relationship."
"We have a problem, but I won't take this personally."
* Time out: Make a vow to stop arguing about what you think he said or what he thinks you said. Since you most likely haven't taped your conversations, there is no way to prove which one of you is right. Chances are you're both a little right and a little wrong. So accept the fact that you both remember the conversation differently, and move on.
Jimmy tried these exercises, and now, instead of feeling persecuted whenever Theresa says something, he focuses on his feelings as well as on what his wife wants.