Dear Neil: We don’t know how to have a discussion in our marriage. My husband thinks he should be able to make a proposal, but he gets upset when I disagree with something he’s said—which means we either fight or I go along with him. But either way, I have no chance of saying what I would like. -Not Able to Talk in New Zealand
Dear New Zealand: A healthy discussion consists of a conversation that allows for at least two points of view, and it requires a respectful attitude toward a viewpoint different from your own. It’s next to impossible to have a healthy discussion with someone who insists that everything has to be his way, and who doesn’t express interest in what you think or feel.
Try this out. Tell your husband you’d like to have a conversation, name the issue and then say you’d like to talk first. Ask him to listen to everything you have to say, with no interruptions, dismissing gestures, anger or arguing. Ask him to just be a good listener, even if he disagrees with you. Then, as you talk, frequently request that he paraphrase back what he thinks you’re saying. If he receives what you’re trying to say correctly, say so. If he isn’t correct, try saying the idea again, but this time shorter and using different words—and again ask him to paraphrase back to you what he hears. When you have said everything you want, make whatever proposals you deem appropriate. He doesn’t have to agree with you, he just has to listen and demonstrate that he gets what you’re trying to say. Then it becomes his turn to talk and your turn to listen and paraphrase back what you hear.
If you make this one change in your marriage, you’ll both feel heard in a conversation. Even if you disagree with each other, and even if you can’t come to a compromise, the discussion (and therefore your marriage) remains civil and respectful, and you don’t injure the love between you.
Dear Neil: My boyfriend and I have been arguing every day, and he’s been edgy with me. He used to make me feel very loved and wanted. He tells me he loves me, but he’s not showing it. When I try to talk with him about it, he just blows up, and says he doesn’t want to discuss it. What should I do? Help. -About to Give Up in New Mexico
Dear New Mexico: Ask your boyfriend for a conversation about what he would like different in his relationship with you. Ask him to be very specific and concrete. If you can grant his requests without violating yourself, do so and see what happens. It is then appropriate to tell him that you want some changes in the relationship yourself. Be very specific in asking for what you want to be different.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the 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.