Dear Therapist..."We Just Keep Arguing About the Same Things"
I am in a loving marriage and have fabulous kids and ostensibly everything is great, but my wife and I struggle to appreciate what we have and end up arguing over repetitive issues that seem to go nowhere.
My wife struggles not to obsess over every little gripe and I feel the need to demonstrate how there are equally annoying things I suffer from, that I don't complain about, but could, and maybe I should start to complain more... the squeaky wheel and all that.
But I know it's all a circular and negative discussion pattern that doesn't go anywhere.
How can I get my wife to let go of obsessing so we can move onto more life enhancing and appreciative time together?
Life's Too Short
Dear Life’s Too Short,
I so admire your wish to flourish with your wife! And it’s very, very hard to cope with constant complaining. Any chance she needs to feel validated and truly heard? I’m thinking of the line from William James: “Whenever you're in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”
You may think that your attitude is positive and she’s the one with the attitude problem. But that, in its way, may be part of the difficulty – you’re playing the positive role and she’s left carrying the negativity. We so often get typecast playing certain roles in our relationships. You touch on this when you say that perhaps you should complain more; there’s some sense that the roles you’re playing aren’t exactly fair.
She’s obsessively and repeatedly complaining; something is clearly stuck. Let’s see if it might be possible to break the pattern with a recalibrating exercise. We can call it Glum & Glow:
- Sit down and face each other.
- Ask her to pick her top two complaints.
- The goal, which must be made explicit, is for her to feel that you understand where she’s coming from. And vice versa! So truly, actively, genuinely listen and engage with what she says. You will have your turn as well. Even if you’ve heard it all before, or you think what she’s complaining about is fine, do all you can for her to feel heard. Genuinely consider her perspective and empathise. Ask her what it will take for her to feel that her complaints have been sufficiently understood. Maybe action is required, but maybe simply listening, acknowledging and validating will help.
- Now ask her to tell you about two things that are going well. Listen and absorb these too, and allow her space to revise her role in your relationship. Once she’s vented, she may have more room for positivity than either of you have realised.
- Now it’s your turn. Glum & Glow!
Hopefully you can have appreciative, life-enhancing time together soon. Your wish to enjoy life together is wonderful! Couples therapy can also help with the above, and can provide a safe and productive space for exploring the issues you’ve mentioned.
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