Dear Bartender and Priestess: I married a man who was raised completely differently than I was. I grew up in a very quiet home. His was loud. We never raised our voices to one another. When my husband gets worked up about something—it can be anything he feels emotionally engaged in—he uses a very strong voice. My emotions are close to the surface, so if we argue and he starts to get loud, I retreat, which usually results in me crying.
We didn’t have a lot of arguments while we were newlyweds, but in the last couple of years they’ve been on the increase. I’m hopeful that this means he’s more willing to tell me about things that make him unhappy, but then my emotional reactions kick in and I start to cry, which makes him feel like the bad guy. And it’s just how I am, that’s what I would do if anyone spoke strongly to me.
I’m prone to creating distance, so I will leave the room when he starts getting loud and try and re-engage him later, but he says this makes him bottle up his feelings. And he never tries to do anything about the way he speaks to me. I know we have wildly different ways of communicating and we need to get better at it. Am I too sensitive? Is that the main thing I should work on?
–Tired of Crying
B: I’m so torn about this. Part of me thinks, abso-fricking-lutely, you need to grow a thicker skin, if you ever want to be a functional member of the world around you. And part of me says no, you don’t need to work on being less sensitive. I don’t know if I would ever advise anyone that it would be better to numb themselves down. Where these parts of me merge is in the belief that you need to work on being more of an adult, and less manipulative about how you manage an argument.
Because make no mistake about it, crying in response to a raised voice is both immature and manipulative. You want the noise to end. You lack the skills to say how it should end, so you pull a reactionary sucker-punch which you hope will shut your husband up. And if that doesn’t work, you walk away.
P: I’ve been on all sides of this argument, even sometimes, I hope, the rational, reasoning one we all want to head toward.
I also grew up in a household that was very quiet and rarely confrontational. Lovely quiet, seemingly calm status quo. We avoided dealing with our own problems AND we never learned to deal with anyone who does it differently.
I have an awful memory from my first job. A VP was telling me about something someone said I was doing (which I wasn’t!). I started to cry. The VP was about to push me out the door until I stopped him with, “Dammit, I have something to say. You’ll have to wait until I’m done crying.”
So I sat and snuffled and then rebutted. Right after that I found a shrink to work with. OK, maybe not right after. But PRETTY SOON, after only a couple more humiliating crying experiences, I found a shrink — because if my response to a surprising situation in the office is to burst into tears, I’m not going to be very effective. Plus, humiliating, and not very grown up. I had to work on my own tendency to leak… which is a not always effective tool in the workplace. Or anywhere.
B: I grew up in a loud household. We were always shouting over one another, and I have carried that trait forward. If I get passionate about something—anything, a sports score, a run in my stocking, a poorly-written news article—I tend to get loud. George has asked me why I’m yelling at him about things he had no control over. I have actually said, “I’m not yelling AT you. I’m yelling NEAR you.”
The thing is, though, he’s still subject to the force of my emotional tirade, even if it’s not specifically directed at him. It makes him feel bad, and I have to take that into account, because my relationship with George is not all about me. We have figured out how to start addressing it, though it took us a while. He tells me, “You’re yelling,” and I try to dial it back. I tell him, “You’re internalizing,” and he works to let his bad feelings go. We’re not perfect at it yet—not by any means!—but we work towards a mutual understanding of how we express ourselves and the effects we have on each other. I think that’s the thing both you and your husband have to learn. You have so many feels you can’t handle passion. He has a streak of bombast that he won’t temper lest he “bottle it up”. And what you’re both doing is creating impenetrable borders between yourselves and the space where you can let your relationship happen.
P: Why are your feelings hurt every time your partner is outraged by what’s going on? His outburst at a baseball score has nothing to do with you.You can handle this — and not just for the marriage. You can manage this because you want to be as effective as you can. A good shrink or an assertiveness training workshop can help. Walking away is only ONE coping mechanism.
B: Yes, it’s a coping mechanism. But who wants to simply cope? What you should aim for is a management strategy. I would love you to try and open up space between you and your husband, mid-yell, and say, “Bill, you’re yelling. You know I don’t like it. Can you please say what you need to say, right now, in a more moderate tone of voice?” It gives him the opportunity to speak his mind without being able to accuse anyone of asking him to bottle things up, and it gives you the opportunity to see that all passionate voice-raising doesn’t have to end in tears.
If neither of you are willing to put the borders of your own selves aside, then I’m concerned for the fate of your marriage. “This is how I am, la la la, too bad, you have to deal with me” is no way to nurture a healthy lifelong partnership. And ultimately, your goal should be that you’re healthy and stable. You can’t be stable if you’re constantly on eggshells, wondering when the next outburst is going to send you into a tizzy.
You’re making me tizzy, my head is spinning.
P: BTW, you won’t get it right immediately. And you won’t always have it in you to stand up for yourself. It’s all part of the learning curve.
B: You know, I used to cry, when I would have arguments with my ex. (Yes, really.) I just wanted the noise to stop. We never got anywhere in resolving our differences, because he would feel bad (or frustrated) for making me cry and I was too scared to confront anything. And our relationship became really unhealthy. By the time I grew up enough to start trying to talk to him our perceptions of each other were so damaged we didn’t have common ground. Or the willingness to be vulnerable. We’d built up these tremendous walls. I honestly believe we would have divorced earlier and moved on with our lives with much less damage, if we’d just figured out how to talk to one another.
P: If your partner is a loud guy… his vocal spew isn’t about you. He’s just loud. And a loud conversation or an argument can be, simply, loud. But he’s probably always been that way. So why did you marry a loud guy? And this is a serious question. Think back. Why did you marry this guy despite and because of his decibel issues?
If you married a loud guy thinking you were going to change him, you devalue an aspect of him. He’s a loud guy. He’s probably always going to have the loud opinion and the over-the top reaction. He could probably use a little lesson in cultural sensitivity. Does he do eyerolling, too? Side note: Why is there not an eye-rolling icon? Silicon Valley, get on this. Priestess needs an eyerolling icon, more than she needs many things.
B: Silicon Valley…she’s right, she does. But I digress.
P: But the important point is, darling, you’re not going to change him, because he’s a loud guy. Now, as for your increased fighting. I’m a lot better about this in the abstract than in reality. My husband and I are not talented at fighting. And let’s be clear. Not everything’s a discussion to be worked out. Some of it’s just fighting.
I yell, wanting to be heard. He yells too. And he’s also particularly sensitive.
Luckily we’re completely committed. But we both say stuuuuuuuuupid things. And we both need to learn to shut up and listen. We both need to walk away. And we, both of us alphas, need to learn that there are some things we just don’t care about. And we’re working on those things.
How are you working on it? Looking for someone to take sides doesn’t help. Ganging up on a loved one does NOT lead you forward in relationship.
B: Fighting ought to have an objective. Theoretically, you’re having an argument because there is dissonance in your relationship and you would like peace. I feel like I say this a lot, but you need to make space for the relationship to happen, and that means you need the space for an argument, too. It has to be about a specific thing outside your own selves (“We need to keep an eye on our finances so please make sure all ATM withdrawals are logged in the check register”), rather than an attack (“Why don’t you ever log your stupid ATM withdrawals? How irresponsible are you?”). A good argument should have mutual resolution in mind, not one-sided victory. It should never devolve into anything other than the original topic of discord (“And another thing: six months ago you said you would…!”). And it should, at the end of it all, give you both a better understand of who each other is and where you stand in regards to one another.
You can’t get there if he’s yelling and you’re crying. Or if he’s yelling and you’re walking away. All you’re doing is blocking each other out, putting up walls. No one ever looked at their partner’s walls and said, ooh, nice walls! I gotta get me some of those! And going back later to talk usually doesn’t work, because you’ve already hurt each other by not being there at a crisis point.
P: Put yourself and your well-being first, because you don’t want to be at the mercy of your sensitive feelings every time a disagreement erupts. At home, in friendships, and at the office, you lose the opportunity to provide your own input. You avoid setting things right. And you stop growth because everyone stops to take care of you. You are so much more powerful than that but it’s time to use your powers for the good. It’s time to start figuring out what you want from this relationship. His broad enthusiasm, and your emotional sensitivity, can be wonderful if you can make it work.
And then, when you have your goals settled a bit, find a workshop (there are a billion out there) that helps you work on communication with each other.
Workshops work because there’s often a blend of doing your own personal work that reminds you both how much you love each other (which leads to fun when you get home or even better in your hotel room in the middle of the workshop), helps you build skills, and reminds you that there are lots of people who are not innately skilled at talking things through.
B: My Priestess is right! You have to put your well-being first. You can’t be in a healthy relationship if you’re not healthy, yourself. Or, at the very least, working towards it. Love and attraction are great to have in any relationship, but the day-to-day mechanics of living together…talking to each other…respecting each other…honoring and tending to your partner’s vulnerabilities…managing all that requires compassionate effort, and can be so difficult when feelings and egos get in the way.
P: My dear, you are not the only couple with communications differences and problems. But you could be one of the couples that makes it work in your favor!
Relationships. Finding their own balance is key.
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