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The New York Times
"One virtue of the book is its utter realism....Offers a slew of tools that couples can use to reconcile their differences without the help of a therapist."--The New York Times (on the first edition)
If only he could see things from my point of view." "Why does she have to act that way?" No matter how much two people love each other, their differences will eventually cause conflict. This popular, science-based guide offers powerful solutions for couples frustrated by continual attempts to make each other change. True acceptance of one another may seem difficult to accomplish, but the clear-cut steps in this book can make it a reality. Aided by thought-provoking exercises and vivid stories, readers learn why ...
If only he could see things from my point of view." "Why does she have to act that way?" No matter how much two people love each other, their differences will eventually cause conflict. This popular, science-based guide offers powerful solutions for couples frustrated by continual attempts to make each other change. True acceptance of one another may seem difficult to accomplish, but the clear-cut steps in this book can make it a reality. Aided by thought-provoking exercises and vivid stories, readers learn why they keep having the same fights again and again; how to keep small incompatibilities from causing big problems; what communication strategies really work to resolve conflicts; and how to problem-solve and make positive changes-together. Updated throughout with new research, practical tools, and examples, the second edition features a new chapter on mindfulness.
"No matter how many books you have read to improve your relationship, read this one, and follow the research-based principles it presents! The authors are internationally known scientists who have produced a book that all couples need to read. It's not the differences between you and your partner that matter, but how you handle them, and this book shows exactly how and why."--Howard J. Markman, PhD, coauthor of Fighting for Your Marriage
"There are lots of books for couples that make interesting reading, and some that provide specific, doable suggestions for improving your relationship, but just a handful--including this one--based on principles that have been scientifically shown to work. Any couple that wants to better understand and overcome problems in their relationship will find this book a great place to start."--W. Kim Halford, PhD, School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Australia
"It is often so difficult for quarreling couples to find a way through the thicket of blame, accusation, and resentment that ensnares them, but this splendid book illuminates some pathways out. The first edition was terrific, but this revision goes beyond it, bringing in new research, fresh ideas, and, as usual, practical solutions. All couples who find themselves enduring repeated conflicts--which is to say, nearly all couples--will benefit from this fine book."--Carol Tavris, PhD, coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
"When partners fight, they often push each other to change. But seeing conflicts from the other's perspective helps move the couple away from anger and blame. This invaluable book provides concrete strategies to do just that. With a deeper understanding of your partner's emotional vulnerabilities, you can build trust and intimacy, and maybe even bring about the changes that matter most to you."--Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD, author of After the Affair
Three Sides to Every Story
Debra thinks Frank is emotionally bankrupt. Frank thinks Debra is insecure.
Frank thinks Debra's on an endless emotional roller coaster. Debra thinks Frank hides his feelings.
Debra wants to talk about what's bothering her. Frank wants to decompress by not talking about what's bothering him.
Frank thinks Debra is relentless. Debra thinks Frank just doesn't care.
How did this couple end up feeling like adversaries when what brought them together a decade ago was love? As it turns out, there are three sides to every story. Let's hear each of them.
How long can you be married to a stranger? Looks like I may be about to set a record of some kind.
After 8 years of marriage—10 years of being together—I still can't communicate with Frank. The problem is, he doesn't listen to me. He never shares his feelings with me, just turns off, withdraws. I hardly ever can figure out what's going on with him.
It's gotten to the point where I feel closer to my friend Joan, a woman I've been working with for just a year. At least I never have to wonder what she's thinking or feeling—she lets me know. Huh, communication—imagine that! I swear, I think Joan knows more about what's going on with me after a 5-minute coffee break than Frank does after an entire weekend together.
Frank and I are intimate in some ways, of course. I know his body very well, from years of stroking and exploring. And from his grunts and moans, I've figured out his sexual preferences pretty well. I could write a book about his personal habits: the obsessive way he flosses his teeth, the careful way he blow-dries his hair to cover his bald spot, the meticulous way he lines up his clothes in the closet.
But I sure don't know what he's thinking and feeling most of the time. He gets this look that's part tired, part concerned, part preoccupied. But when I ask him if anything's wrong, he says, "No." When I ask him what he's feeling, he says, "Tired." When I ask him what he's thinking about, he says, "Work." If I ask him what about work, he says, "Just some problems." All his answers seem perfunctory and dutiful, like he doesn't want to tell me but has to. He might as well say it right out: "I don't want to talk about this anymore." He'd rather watch a stupid show on television than connect with his own wife.
Sometimes I wonder if he even has any feelings other than fatigue. (Is that really a feeling?) He just plods through life, always taking care of business, preoccupied with getting his work done but never showing much excitement or pain. He says his style shows how emotionally stable he is. I say it just shows he's passive and bored.
In many ways I'm just the opposite: I have a lot of ups and downs. But most of the time I'm energetic, optimistic, spontaneous. Of course I get upset, angry, and frustrated sometimes. He says this shows I'm emotionally immature, that "I have a lot of growing up to do." I think it just shows I'm human. He's the one who's emotionally stunted.
I do share most of my thoughts and feelings with him: my problems at work, my reactions to my friends, my emotional highs and lows. His response? A sort of bland tolerance—sometimes interested, sometimes not, sometimes just going along out of habit, sometimes.... I really don't know. How can I, when he doesn't tell me what's going on with him? So I just ramble on, feeling more and more like I'm talking to myself. The chatterbox wife with the bored husband.
It wasn't like this at first. He was never very expressive, but he enjoyed listening to me. And he would tell me things about himself. In the beginning, even though the communication between us was never balanced, it was at least mutual. I thought he'd eventually get more comfortable with me and confide in me more, but he actually confides less now than when we first met!
His lack of communication bothers me most when we disagree about something. I want to discuss our differences and try to work out a solution. I expect conflict in a close relationship; I'm not threatened by it, and I want to deal with it openly. But Frank won't even discuss it. At the first sign of tension, he runs. He offers some feeble platitude like "Things will work themselves out."
I think the root of our problem is Frank's sensitivity to criticism. He can't stand any suggestion that he might have done something wrong, especially if I show that I'm angry about it. It's like he wants our relationship to be elevator "muzak"—so boring, nondescript, and utterly forgettable that it fades into the background. Well, guess what, Frank? This is real life! He's not perfect, I'm not perfect—we're different people with different needs. So of course we're going to get angry sometimes. That doesn't mean we don't love each other—in fact, it probably means we do. Yet whenever I get critical or angry, he acts as if I've violated some sacred law of nature. And then he gets even more critical and angry at me (for being critical and angry at him) than I was with him in the first place.
I remember one incident that kind of sums up the way I see Frank. We went out to dinner with a couple who had just moved to town. The husband was a friend of one of Frank's college roommates, and the evening started out great. They were a charming couple, and since we'd never met and they were new in town, we had a lot to talk about. As the evening wore on, I became more and more aware of how wonderful their life was. They seemed genuinely in love, even though they had been married longer than we have. No matter how much the man talked to us, he always kept in contact with his wife: touching her, making eye contact with her, or including her in the conversation. And he used "we" a lot to refer to them. Watching them made me realize how little Frank and I touch, how rarely we look at each other, and how separately we participate in a conversation. I wanted to put my hand on Frank's knee or hold his hand, just to have the appearance of being a couple. But I was afraid Frank wouldn't respond or, worse, would give me that look that says "Not now!" Sometimes I think he is embarrassed to be with me.
Anyway, I admit it. I was envious of this other couple. And to make matters worse, they had money. Of course, they were much too polite to mention it, but as they casually referred to the private schools their kids went to and the vacations they took, I realized they were not struggling to get by. After dinner, we went back to their place, and their house was incredible—not ostentatious, but tasteful, classy, and expensive, with some beautiful antique furniture and some oriental rugs that I was tempted to steal. We once looked for a house in their neighborhood, but we couldn't afford even the least expensive ones.
They seemed to have it all: loving family, beautiful home, leisure, luxury. What a contrast to Frank and me: struggling along, both working full-time jobs, trying to save money, sometimes barely managing to pay the bills. I wouldn't mind that so much, if only we worked at it together. But we're so distant. Even though we have similar goals in mind, it doesn't feel like we're on the same team.
When we got home, I started expressing those feelings. I wanted to reevaluate our life—as a way of getting closer. I don't like the materialistic side of myself; envying other people's wealth makes me feel shallow. I thought maybe we needed to adjust our priorities, not struggle so much for the almighty dollar. Maybe we couldn't be as wealthy as these people, but there was no reason we couldn't have the closeness and warmth they had.
As usual, Frank didn't want to talk about it. When he said he was tired and wanted to go to bed, I got angry. It was Friday night, and neither of us had to get up early the next day; the only thing keeping us from being together was his stubbornness. It made me mad. I was fed up with giving in to his need for sleep whenever I brought up an issue to discuss. I thought, why can't he stay awake just for me sometimes?
I wouldn't let him sleep. When he turned off the lights, I turned them back on. When he rolled over to go to sleep, I kept talking. When he put a pillow over his head, I talked louder. He told me I was a baby. I told him he was insensitive. It escalated from there and got ugly. No violence but lots of words that shouldn't have been said. He finally went to the guest bedroom, locked the door from the inside, and went to sleep.
The next morning we were both worn out and distant. He criticized me for being so irrational. Which was probably true. I do get irrational when I get desperate. But I think he uses that accusation as a way of justifying himself. It's sort of like "If you're irrational, then I can dismiss all your complaints and I am blameless." But I didn't make much of a protest. I just thought, what's the use?
Debra never seems to be satisfied. I'm never doing enough, never giving enough, never loving enough, never sharing enough. You name it, I apparently don't do enough of it. There's a line from an old song that goes "Too much is not enough." That's Debra.
Or to put it another way, I sometimes think of the old Dylan song "Too Much of Nothing." Debra sometimes acts like everything I do to please her amounts to nothing. I get no credit for what I do for her.
Sometimes she gets me believing I really am a bad husband. I start feeling as though I've let her down, disappointed her, not met my obligations as a loving, supportive husband. But then I give myself a dose of reality. What have I done that's wrong? I'm an okay human being. People usually like me, respect me. I hold down a responsible job. I don't cheat on her or lie to her. I'm not a drunk or a gambler. I'm moderately attractive, and I'm a sensitive lover. I even make her laugh a lot. Yet I don't get an ounce of appreciation from her—just complaints that I'm not doing enough.
I think she must be insecure. She wants constant reassurance. I told her once in desperation, "Look. I love you. Until further notice to the contrary, you can assume that I still love you. I promise to inform you of any change in the status of these feelings. You don't need to keep checking." Maybe she's bored with her life and blames that on me. She's always looking for high drama and excitement in the relationship. It's really a soap-opera view of love, where everything has to be heavy and emotional. But marriage should be a place where I can retreat from the stresses and demands of my life, not an addition to them.
She's always asking me how I'm feeling. The truth is, sometimes I'm not feeling a damn thing—and that feels damn good! It's like she assumes I have all these emotions bottled up inside and I'm refusing to share my inner life with her. But that's not the way it is. Often I'm exhausted from work and just want to veg out—flip on the television, crash on the sofa, and suck on a beer. It doesn't matter what show is on—heck, I even like the commercials. I'm not there for intellectual stimulation or social chit-chat. Maybe one of these days I'll start growing vines from my ears, as Debra suggests. But to me it's relaxing. Now I ask you: Is what I'm doing morally wrong? Is it constitutionally forbidden? Is it a positive sign of decadence? To hear Debra, you'd certainly think so.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not always exhausted or stressed out. In fact, I think I pace myself rather well—especially compared to Debra. I organize my life so I'm prepared for the demands and stresses that go with my job and my home life. I'm not thrown by events the way Debra is. Her feelings are like a roller coaster: it's a fun ride sometimes, but you never know if there's a stomach-churning drop around the next turn. I can't live that way. A nice steady cruising speed is more my style.
But I don't put Debra down for being the way she is. I'm basically a tolerant person. People, including spouses, come in all shapes and sizes. They aren't tailored to fit your particular needs. So I don't take offense at little annoyances; I don't feel compelled to talk about every difference or dislike; I don't feel every potential area of disagreement has to be explored in detail. I just let things ride.
I expect my partner to do the same for me. But when Debra picks at me about every detail that doesn't fit with her idea of what's right, I do react strongly. My cool disappears, and I explode.
Debra accuses me of being an emotional pack rat, of storing bad feelings until an opportune time, but that's not true. I don't go around dwelling on whatever injustices or irritations I've had to put up with. I don't hoard them in secret until I can reveal them in some dramatic display. But when I'm criticized for some small thing, I suddenly remember what I've suffered without a word, and I get furious at the injustice of it.
I can handle most of my problems myself. I don't lay them on other people, and I don't hold others responsible for solving my problems. Debra can't seem to understand that there are certain things that I can only work through alone.
I remember driving home with Debra after a night out with a couple we had just met. The husband was a friend of my college roommate, Willie. They were an attractive, impressive couple. He had come to town to manage one of our commercial banks; she had joined one of our family law firms. I was surprised that old goofball Willie, whom I had always thought of as sort of shallow, had such interesting and classy friends.
On the way home I was wondering what kind of impression I'd made on them. I was tired that evening and not at my best. Sometimes I can be clever and funny in a small group, but not that night. Maybe I was trying too hard. Sometimes I have high standards for myself and get down on myself when I can't live up to them. But this other couple wasn't particularly clever either. Maybe we were all sizing each other up, like on a first date. I never much liked first dates, always wanted to get past them to the comfortable stage.
Debra interrupted my ruminations with a seemingly innocent question: "Did you notice how much in tune those two were with each other?" Now, I know what's behind that kind of question—or at least where that kind of question will lead. It always leads right back to us, specifically to me. Eventually the point becomes "We aren't in tune with each other," which is code for "You're not in tune with me."
I dread these conversations that chew over what's wrong with us as a couple, because the real question, which goes unstated in the civil conversations, but gets stated bluntly in the uncivil ones, is "What's wrong with Frank?" So I tried to avoid an unnecessary fight by answering that they were a nice couple.
But Debra pushed it. She insisted on evaluating them in comparison to us. They had money and intimacy. We had neither. Maybe we couldn't be wealthy, but we could at least be intimate. Why couldn't we be intimate? Meaning: Why couldn't I be intimate? I tried to lighten up the conversation, suggesting that maybe we lacked an intimacy gene. She was not amused.
When we got home, I tried to defuse the tension by saying I was tired and suggesting we go to bed. I was tired, and the last thing I wanted was to get into the same old fight all over again. But Debra was relentless. She argued that there was no reason we couldn't stay up and discuss this. I wanted to say that there was no point in discussing because it wouldn't be a discussion—it'd be a trial. But I didn't because that would be just another piece of evidence she would use to convict me.
I proceeded with my bedtime routine, giving her the most minimal of responses. If she won't respect my feelings, why should I respect hers? She talked at me while I put on my pajamas and brushed my teeth; she wouldn't even let me alone in the bathroom. When I finally got into bed and turned off the light, she turned it back on. I rolled over to go to sleep, but she kept talking. You'd think she'd have gotten the message when I put the pillow over my head—but no, she pulled it off. At that point I lost it. I told her she was a baby, a crazy person—I don't remember everything I said. Finally, in desperation, I went to the guest bedroom and locked the door. I was too upset to go to sleep right away, and I didn't sleep well at all.
In the morning, I was still angry at her. I told her she was irrational. For once, she didn't have much to say. The truth is, we were both exhausted.
Excerpted from Reconcilable Differences by Andrew Christensen, Brian D. Doss, Neil S. Jacobson. Copyright © 2014 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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