Commitments : Listen to Each Other With an Open Mind

By the Editors of Ladies' Home Journal

Betty is fed up. "Dave gives more affection to the dog than he does to me," says the 38-year-old mother of three, who recently went back to work as a teacher. His indifference is driving her crazy: He doesn't listen when she talks, refuses to respond when she needs to discuss a problem and never does anything that he's promised to do.

Betty hates nagging. "But Dave won't do anything unless I ask him a dozen times. He thinks his only responsibility is to bring home a paycheck," she fumes.

Evenings are punctuated by battles, and last night was typical: As Betty was telling Dave what she'd be serving for a dinner party they were hosting on Saturday, he informed her that she had never told him about the bash and, furthermore, he had no intention of canceling the weekend fishing trip he'd planned.

For the 18 years they've been married, Betty says, they had never fought--but that was only because she kept her complaints to herself. But recently her doctor has warned that her chronic headaches and stomachaches are most likely triggered by stress, so she's vowed to speak up. Her words, however, fall on deaf ears.

Dave, 39, is fed up, too, and he insists Betty didn't mention the party: "She plans everything the way she wants, then maneuvers me to fit her plans. I go along so she won't yell. I can't compete with Betty in an argument. But this time, I'd had enough."

Dave is sick of being ordered around: "If I don't adhere to her routines or meet her expectations, boy, do I hear about it." As a result, he's learned to treat his wife the same way he treated his overbearing mother: Whenever she criticized him, he simply nodded--and did exactly as he pleased.

Although Dave has agreed to shoulder more domestic responsibilities now that his wife is working, he's not thrilled about it. "My parents were very traditional and I can't help thinking a woman's place is in the home," he admits.

Dave feels that no matter how hard he tries, he can never do enough for Betty. He doesn't want a divorce, but he can't understand why his wife can never see his point of view.

"The all-too-common pattern that Betty and Dave have fallen into is an indication that under-the-surface resentment and anger are not being communicated directly," says New York marriage therapist Jane Greer Betty and Dave need to recognize this pattern and work to change it.

One reason Betty doesn't understand Dave's point of view is that he rarely expresses it. When he does, she rarely listens. Although he may not agree with her, he can't stand to fight. Although he hears what Betty says, it makes him angry, and he's adept at putting it out of his mind and forgetting about it.

If you're in a situation like Betty's, you must learn to talk to your partner in a non-critical, non-demanding way. Calmly tell your spouse what you need him to do and give a reasonable time frame.

At the same time, listen to your partner's response with an open mind and allow him to express an opinion. Let him know you see his point if, for example, he says he can't get to something today but will do it on the weekend.

If something you ask for simply cannot wait, tell him so calmly and make arrangements to handle it another way. Your partner, on the other hand, must carefully consider his own needs and wishes and clearly express them to you.

After practicing these techniques, Betty has learned to express herself in a positive way. Dave feels less henpecked and is willing to listen. Because he is no longer afraid to speak up, they have been able to negotiate compromises.

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