Dear Therapist:

I have been married for almost a year. Overall things are good. The problem is that whenever my husband and I have a disagreement he will completely shut down. For example, I didn't appreciate that he came home really late the other night and I told him so but instead of discussing it he got all offended and basically avoided me for 2 days. I get the impression that he thinks that I am never allowed to be upset at him or justified in my criticism of him. I don't see how we can grow in this relationship if we don't communicate. Can you please give some understanding as to what might be going on with him and how to better engage him for the benefit of our relationship?



You are correct in your assertion that communication is a major component of a positive relationship. Without meaningful reciprocal communication, a relationship can easily stagnate.

When most people think about communication, they generally focus on the verbal aspect. A more comprehensive view of communication includes many other factors. These include non-verbal cues, conscious and unconscious preconceptions, unconscious triggers and insecurities. To a large extent, positive communication depends on our ability to identify, discuss, and deal with these and other factors.

No two people are alike in their backgrounds, histories, needs, fragilities, and emotional reactions. When two (necessarily different) people are in a marital relationship, these differences can become quite obvious. Without access to the other person’s thoughts and emotions, we tend to assume that their reactions are in response to what we assume they are thinking rather than to what is actually affecting them. Their words, as well as their non-verbal cues and expressions, tell us what they must be thinking—if they were us. In addition, our own emotional state at the time further skews our understanding of their perspective.

As an example, suppose that my wife, while in a stressed-out mood, asks me to take out the trash. She may ask me in a curt manner. Since being spoken to in that way triggers feelings of worthlessness from my childhood, her request makes me feel this way. I therefore respond by ignoring her request. This, for similar reasons, makes her feel alone and misunderstood. She responds to this feeling by marching over to the trashcan and emptying it herself. This, in turn, increases my feelings of worthlessness in addition to making me feel useless. I therefore further escalate the situation. By the time the exchange is done, we each feel angry and hurt, leading to the silent treatment and angry outbursts.

This all occurs, not because we each think that the other believes negative things about us, but rather because within the emotional situation we feel hurt, worthless, useless, alone, and misunderstood. If we’re lucky, in retrospect we can recognize this and change our feelings about that particular situation. Many times, however, feelings from these situations are never fully resolved, allowing them to fester, thereby reinforcing the causes for original triggers.

Further complicating resolution of these situations and resultant emotions is our tendency to discuss issues in the wrong way at exactly the wrong moments. When we are hurting, we tend to react emotionally, usually furthering the problem. When we are calm and things are going well, we tend to shy away from the issue for fear of rocking the boat. It isn’t easy to refrain from “discussing” problems as they occur—and it may not be pleasant to broach the subject when the relationship appears to be good. However, the former will help to deescalate a problematic situation, and the latter can lead to a better understanding of one another’s triggers, emotions, and insecurities—in turn leading to better future communication.

The more that you each understand your own feelings, needs, and triggers, the better able you will be to communicate these (at the appropriate times) to your spouse. This can be a difficult thing to do on your own. Recognizing this as a goal in order to achieve a broader and deeper level of communication and understanding, however, can give you the perspective and motivation to work on it. If this proves too difficult to do on your own, a therapist can help to facilitate the necessary discussions.

Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317