“Marriage and motherhood have not turned out to be what I expected,” admits Jean, 22, a traffic-stopping redhead and mother of a 2-year-old and a newborn. “I became pregnant with Heather right before high school graduation,” she says, “and our wedding took place that summer. Skip and I were just kids ourselves, and I was deeply worried that even though he said he adored me, he would leave me and my baby the same way my own father had left my mother when I was very young.”
Jean doesn’t regret the decision, though now she is ready to make more of her life. “But Skip wants me to be the happy little homemaker,” Jean explains. “We have two sets of rules in this house, one for him and one for me.” Skip, for example, is allowed to go out with his brothers and his buddies just about every night because, he claims, he has to get away from crying babies after working hard all day at the floor-finishing business he started from scratch.
Jean feels stifled - and the stunt Skip pulled a few nights ago confirms that he has no intention of letting her break out of her rut. “I was going stir-crazy, so I dropped the girls at my mother’s and went to a movie with my best friend Susan and her brother,” Jean reports. “Later that night, as we pulled into the driveway, Skip bolted out the door, shaking his fists and accusing me of fooling around.”
Skip, a boyish 22-year-old, knows he overreacted but insists he couldn’t help it. “It was getting later and later, and I thought she was in a car wreck,” he begins. “When I saw Susan’s brother in the car - a guy who has a reputation as a ladies’ man - I went nuts.”
The thought of losing Jean and the girls terrifies him, Skip confesses. “Jean is the only family I ever had,” he says. “My own father deserted us when I was 5, and my mother was usually off traveling with her new husband.” Skip used to park himself in front of the TV, dreaming about having his own family one day. “And now that I do, I’ve worked my tail off to keep it.”
Which is why he’s so surprised to hear his wife question his motives and his love. “She should talk,” Skip says. “Jean never lets me get my coat off before handing me the baby when I walk in the door. Then she spends the evening griping about having to take my business calls.”
Finding Ways To Say What You Need To Say
“Jean and Skip both entered marriage with a history of abandonment,” points out Susan Heitler, PhD, a psychologist in Denver, Colo. “As teenagers, they had clung to each other, trying to find the security that was lacking in their own families. But those early experiences had wounded so deeply that, even now, they suspect at every turn that their partner might leave.”
Unfortunately, Jean and Skip have never attempted to express their feelings to each other, resorting instead to hurling groundless accusations.
Whenever one partner feels verbally overpowered in a relationship, real dialogue rarely takes place. Heitler offers techniques to help couples like Skip and Jean air long-simmering problems. “You can decide whether disagreements will be handled by shouting or by talking,” she points out.
These guidelines gave Skip the confidence to hold his own, and Jean the comfort of knowing that he was listening to her concerns.
Instead of hinting, wondering or assuming, as these two have been doing, say your concerns out loud.
Put your feelings into words to guide your partner’s understanding: “I feel (sad, angry, jealous) when you …” Be sure to use only one descriptive word or you will slip into unhelpful criticism.
Give feedback, not criticism. Use the formula: “When you … then I …”
Eliminate “crossovers” - that is, telling your partner what to do, disparaging his comments, brushing aside his feelings. Instead of saying: “Don’t you think that …” say what you think and ask, “How do you feel about …”
Eliminate sweeping generalities that leave no room for disagreement. Instead of saying “always,” or “never,” modify your comments with “sometimes,” “generally,” “often” or “seldom.”
As Skip and Jean began to incorporate these techniques into their conversations, they were able to appreciate each other’s needs, reassure each other, and soon the atmosphere of suspicion in their home dissipated.
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