Friday, July 31, 2009

Marriage Encounters - Part Three

Once again, Part three follows on from Parts One and Two. If you haven't read those two, then this post probably won't make a whole lot of sense.

Saturday Afternoon
We were all asked to come inside and sit around in a big semicircle. Yep, I thought, here comes the "alcoholics anonymous" style forum. Funnily enough though, this time I was ready to share my thoughts. I was feeling positive. Perhaps we were going to read out our letters?


It was time for the leaders to speak as couples.

Parenting Issues - The Man's Story
There were three sets of leader couples, plus one priest. As we sat there, the first and youngest couple started to speak.

They took it in turns to talk, the husband would talk about long hours at work, being tired when he came home and "cactus hour" which started as soon as he walked in the door. He talked about being lumbered with all the children's discipline problems of the day.

He talked about how he felt when he walked in the door, eager to see his kids only to have his wife tell him that they were "going to bed early", that he was supposed to "punish them" or that they weren't going to get any particular gifts he might have brought home because they'd been naughty. It was as if his arrival home signalled the beginning of a punishment cycle in which he was an unwilling participant.

He would talk to his children and watch the interaction with his wife. His children would do something slightly naughty but also quite funny and he'd smile - only to be greeted with a scowl from his wife. she didn't think it was cute or funny. She though that he needed to punish his kids.

The husband told of how he'd lost confidence in his wife because she snapped and shouted at the children over the slightest provocation and she tried to get him to do the same. His failure to comply would only get him into more trouble and as a result, he started leaving for work earlier and coming home later. This, of course, only added fuel to the fire.

Parenting Issues - The Woman's Story
On the other side, the wife started talking about how she felt unloved. Her husband would come home and go straight to the children - ignoring her. He wouldn't support her in her discipline and would often defy her in front of the children. She felt that he was undermining her every attempt at authority and that he let the kids get away with the worst kinds of behaviour.

The wife told of how she needed support, how her husband's late arrival home meant that she had to spend longer with the children and how the children really knew how to push her buttons. Even worse, sometimes the kids would act up right in front of her - and her husband would find it amusing.

All she wanted was a cuddle, a break, someone to empathise with her. She needed understanding and acceptance. She needed someone to reassure her that she really was a good mother and that all parents had these problems. All parents had doubts. Instead, her husband would tell her exactly what she was doing wrong. He would ignore her cries for help and would talk about elaborate disciplinary models, wall charts, supernanny and whatever his mother did. He would quote from all those "Dr Green" books and he would generally make her feel inferior.

The children would behave for her husband too. That made it worse. He was like a "toy" when he came home from work and the kids would be so happy to be around him that they'd forget to muck up. Similarly, on weekends, her husband would take the kids out and bring them back reporting that they were perfect little angels. For her, the shortest trips were a nightmare - she couldn't even go to the shops for a loaf of bread with the kids in tow.

Parenting - Where did the good times go?
Both partners talked about the good times they'd had. They talked about how strong their relationship had been before kids. How they never fought before kids. They both saw that having children changed their relationship for the worse but in the wife's case, the change was mostly due to the kids... in the husband's case, it was his wife who was worse.

Throughout the whole exchange, my wife and I kept exchanging incredulous glances. This described our life perfectly. We weren't alone... it was (gulp) normal.

The couple wound up their discussions with a talk about other things that had been going on in their lives, parents dying, financial crisis and a few other bits and pieces. I got the feeling that this was mainly to placate the members of our group who had issues, but not with kids. In any case, their turn would come later.

Then they started talking about solutions. They talked about who and what was really to blame. The answer... themselves. The introduction of children had changed the dynamics of their relationship and they'd both been so focussed on the new entries to their life that they hadn't taken time out for themselves.

One quote that kept recurring throughout marriage encounters... "Sometimes I love my partner, and sometimes I have to work harder at it". At first it sounds like a harsh policy but the more we heard it, the more we started to understand that it was really telling us that all relationships need work. Sometimes the relationship coasts along happily and sometimes it needs a little work.

The discussion of blame was important because only when you realise that you are in control of your own feelings, can you change them. You need to be able to communicate both your feelings and your needs to your partner in order to you change those feelings.

They talked about their early discussions of emotion, how they would say, "when you did this, you made me do ...." or "when you come home late and give the kids a lot of attention without even giving me a hug, you make me feel worthless".

The truth may well have been that the wife did feel worthless but that feeling was hers. That was her interpretation of the situation. Her husband hadn't made her do anything and he wasn't making her feel that way. He was just being himself. Most fathers get swamped by their children as soon as they walk in the door.

He wasn't "blameless" - after all, he was creating negative emotions based on his own interpretation of his partner's activities. - but again, they were his emotions, not necessarily things that his partner was trying to foist onto him.

These people had loved eachother before children and they hadn't changed those feelings overnight.

More Teaching
We were taught how to communicate this sort of situation to our patners in writing via a "love letter". Sure, you could do it verbally but the temptation to pre-formulate is too strong. It's better written. It's good to use the same exercise books too. Sometimes you'll want to revisit past feelings and issues.

The solutions involve;
  • talking about how you feel without attributing the reasons to your partner
  • describing the type and intensity of those feelings using terms that your partner can understand
  • telling your partner what you would like them to do - how you'd like them to respond.
  • talking about times when your partner did respond well and how/why you liked it.
  • accepting new ideas about things you'd and your partner would like to do.

The aim is not to take your partner to task for the times when they haven't responded well but rather to highlight and encourage the times when they have. It's all about positive reinforcement after all. In order to do that, your partner needs to be made aware of your feelings and your needs.

Doing this on both sides seems to do everything necessary to ease the tension and bring love back into your life.

More Exercises
Now that we'd been educated about dealing with problems we were given some slightly more difficult questions to write on. In fact, we were given a list from which each couple had to choose only one topic to discuss. The rest of the rules, separate writing etc.. were the same.

This time the questions were firmly about describing our feelings.

  • How do I feel when I/You are late home from work?
  • How do I feel when our children are naughty?
  • How do I feel when I watch you discipline the children?
  • How do I feel when we shout?
  • How do I feel when money is tight?

There were a bunch more questions - they were all phrased neutrally and most importantly, there were questions aimed at all kinds of age groups... not just new parents - and they were all about How do I feel. All aimed at telling your partner about your feelings.

It was difficult to pick just one - there were several which interested us but in all honesty, problems are best solved one at a time.

In the next section
You could be forgiven for thinking based on this post, that marriage encounters was aimed primarily at new parents. We discovered over the course of the next three presentations however, that it was for everyone - couples of all ages. I won't be covering those presentations in the same level of detail as the first because at the time, while they were very interesting, they were mostly aimed at our future rather than our present. We were already taking enough onboard.

In my next post, I'll cover the other presentations and the reason for three couples - and a priest, should become obvious.


Saja said...

Gavin, thank you for posting this series. I am reading it with avid interest. My marriage is doing well, largely thanks to a saint of a husband, who has responded from the beginning to my outbursts and meltdowns with calm acceptance and love - which gave me the confidence and the space to eventually stop spewing chaos and start talking about my real feelings, and to want to work really hard to see his side of things. I guess I got lucky on that one! I'm not someone who could be that kind of accepting, loving space in the face of an angry partner. I withdraw and, eventually, leave.

I think what I'm saying is that I'm impressed by how you and your wife made the intense effort to work on the things going "wrong" in your marriage. That is real love!

Rachel said...

The kinds of things you're describing were all the ones that we tried to do in my first marriage, but we weren't able to save the marriage. It wasn't for lack of work, or lack of love, or lack of good marriage counseling. We just weren't meant to be together forever.

In the process, though, I learned skills that I've put to use in my present-and-forever marriage. Like all couples, Bob and I have had our mountains to climb and it hasn't always been easy going, but we've always known that we were meant to be together, so the work we do is just part of the path.

I'm very glad that you and your wife went through this process. I think it should be mandatory for every marriage, rather in the way that doctors have to keep up their skills in order maintain their certification. ;-)

eaucoin said...

Gavin, I really enjoyed your marriage encounter writeup. When you said that you and your wife are not much into prayer, I remembered that on one blog a couple was looking for comments on parenthood from older NT/Aspie couples. At the time I thought, how can you summarize parenthood? But now I know how. Parenting (especially teenagers)is like one long marriage encounter, except that this one will teach you to pray. I am an Aspi married 30 years to an NT. We have five daughters (aged 19 to 29). My husband has worked long hours to financially support us and he would be a hero to me for this alone, but there are more reasons. When my oldest daughter was 10, she told me that she thought her dad would prefer to have sons. I told her, "of course not," and I asked her what made her think so. She told me that sometimes when I'm not around, he throws up his hands (she made the motion to show me), and says "surrounded by women!" Life will be full of priceless moments like these. And you will be able to pull them up out of the treasury in your heart in those moments when you are sweating blood (and learning to pray). Parenting is the stuff of great adventures.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog, my husband is a self diagnosed Aspie and it is helping me to better understand some of the stresses in our relationship. His quirkiness is partly why I fell in love with him in the first place, but of course having children required us to work together more and that is where we are having problems relating to each other and managing each others oddities. When he proposed to me he didn't tell me he loved me, he told me that I 'annoyed him less than anyone else' which I loved for its truthfulness and weight of meaning for him. Of course the downside was that he was bored at the birth of our second child because he had "seen it the first time", but the humour that he brings to our lives is invaluable and your blog reminds me of that when things are hard or I feel lonely, something that seems common in NT/AS marriages. It is good to see that with some work and understanding we can work through our issues.