Dear Neil: I would like your advice. My wife of 20 years (we’re both in our 50’s) complains a lot to me – about her work, about money, about her health, about growing older. I feel accused a fair amount by her: I don’t make enough money to comfortably support her so she can quit working, we don’t go to as many concerts or cultural events as she would like, we can’t afford to travel a lot and she says I’m too demanding sexually (so subsequently I get turned down a lot). My response to all of this is to get very defensive and to withdraw from her. Any other ideas about what else I could do? – Feeling Inadequate in Long Beach
Dear Long Beach: The key to a better relationship with your wife is to be more compassionate to her disappointment, hurt, fear, anger, anxiety or vulnerability. If you are sympathetic and compassionate to her feelings about money, you could commiserate with her instead of getting defensive. It would be nice to have more money, to not have to work, and to be able to afford to go to more concerts and to travel, wouldn’t it? If you looked at the situation from her point of view, you might respond with friendship, caring, warmth and empathy. A defensive or withdrawn response from you gives her the message that you care about protecting your ego more than you care about her hurt or disappointment, and that is a recipe for a more distant relationship. Imagine the following dialogue two different ways:
HER: “I’m upset that you don’t earn more money. I was so hoping that at this station in my life I could kick back and enjoy my life more, have more fun and afford to go shopping like my friends are able to do. When I have to work so many hours, I’m too tired to have fun.”
YOU (reacting defensively): “Don’t look at me. We have struggled to make ends meet for a long time. You need to tone down your expectations and not ask so much of me. I’m not Superman, and I can only earn so much.”
As reasonable as that response may be, what do you suppose her reaction to you will be: friendly and understanding, or angry and rejecting? Now imagine offering her a non-defensive, more compassionate response:
YOU: “It upsets me also. When I couldn’t find better paying work, I took what I could find. But it disappoints me also that we have to live so frugally. It must be hard on you to see other women have greater leisure time and more discretionary money to spend. I’m so sorry you’re in that position. But we have a little money to spend, and we have each other, and you still mean the world to me. Would you have any interest in going to the beach (or mountains) this weekend? What do you say?”
Between the two responses, the latter one acknowledges her feelings without dismissing them, offers validation and empathy to her disappointment, and invites her to go out and have some fun. Author Steven Stosny talks about this response in the book How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It (along with Patricia Love). He says that if you substitute compassion for defensiveness, you won’t need to be defensive anymore, because looking from her perspective sensitizes you to her vulnerability and her deepest fears – and that will diminish her concerns and assist the two of you in feeling closer and more connected.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Denver and Boulder, CO, specializing in how people strengthen their intimate relationships. He can be reached at 303.758.8777, or e-mail him from his website, www.heartrelationships.com.