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Poor Communication Can Lead To Anger

Mon., March 9, 1998

“Howie walked out on me without one word of explanation,” says Allie, 26, mother of Samantha, 2. “He left a note ‘My love to Sam’ took his old suitcase and left. Dad hired a detective, who finally found him.”

Allie was dumbstruck by her husband’s behavior: They’d hardly quarreled in the six years they’d been married. They’d had a very satisfying sex life and no money problems, she reports, “thanks to the generosity of my parents, who financed Howie’s sporting goods store, which has been doing well. In fact, Howie has already paid my father back for that loan, which Dad invested in a trust fund for our daughter.”

Allie fell in love with Howie, a ski instructor at a well-known resort, during Christmas break of her senior year in college.

Despite the objections of her parents, the couple married during Easter vacation and, after Allie’s June graduation, moved to Milwaukee, Howie’s hometown.

“Mother and father, who live in Boston, were not pleased,” Allie recalls. “I’m an only child, and they didn’t want to be so far away. But then they decided to buy a summer cottage on Lake Michigan so they could spend vacations with us.”

Howie recently moved back home with Allie, and, though he wants a divorce, he’s agreed to come for counseling.

“I’ve always known that Howie was easily offended,” admits Allie, “but he so rarely says what’s on his mind or what’s bothering him, how could I possibly know that things had gotten so bad?”

Howie, 31, concedes that running away from his responsibilities was a childish, impetuous move. “That’s no way to handle problems,” he says, “but for a long time, I felt I’d explode if I had to live one more day marching to the tune set by Allie’s folks. I know they’ve been generous - for that I’ll always be grateful. But I don’t know who I am anymore. I want to live my life - and prove that I can support my family without handouts from my in-laws.

“Allie doesn’t realize it,” he insists, “but she rarely makes a move without checking with her folks. I’d like to be the one she turns to first,” Howie says, “instead of being the last one.”

Howie grew up in a home vastly different from his wife’s. One of three children raised by a single mother - his father deserted the family - Howie always felt uncomfortable around Allie’s family, though he was reluctant to hurt anyone’s feelings. “Everything they gave us - a new car, the loan for my business - always seemed to come with a message: ‘Howie, we all know you can’t support our daughter on your own.’ What’s more, with each gift came the assumption that any advice - solicited or not - would be followed, too. After a while, I couldn’t help resenting them, too,”

Howie explains. Howie finds it impossible to explain how he feels to Allie.

Great expectations: How mind-reading sabotages a marriage.

“When we withhold information, we deprive ourselves, our mate and our relationship of the only effective means of solving our problems and building intimacy,” writes Carolyn Bushwong, in her book “The Seven Dumbest Relationship Mistakes Smart People Make” (Villard, 1997).

As Allie and Howie discovered, not expressing yourself can set in motion a predictable chain of events. Poor communication leads to misunderstandings, then to resentment and anger.

“It’s unfair to expect your mate to figure out what you want” notes Bushwong.

If you think you’ve fallen into this trap, Bushwong suggests the following communication guide:

Express yourself: Say, “I feel - ,” and state a specific emotion, such as “angry, lonely, sad.”

State what you want to see happen: “I want - ,” and use a specific change of behavior, such as “I want you to check with me, not your parents, before making a decision regarding our family.”

Request a commitment: “Will you do - for me? Give me what I want?” Be specific here, too.

Once she understood how her husband felt, Allie was quick to make some changes. She asked her parents to agree to limit their advice and future visits, and stopped turning to them for advice and instead asked Howie’s opinions. As she showed her respect for him, Howie’s self-confidence blossomed.


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