When Talking Is Difficult

As colder weather approaches, I a reminded of the recent winter when my car broke down, which proved to be not only a failure of the mechanism, but of my spirit, at least temporarily. For I felt ill equipped to cope with the decisions that then had to be made. This had always been Len’s domain, not mine.

I managed well enough with the help of friends, and those who towed and repaired with kind tolerance for my ineptitude, but what a stark reminder of the division of responsibility in our marriage. Although we often consulted with each other, decisions about the purchase or repair of anything with moving parts were left to him, interior design left to me. Insurance, his. Kid’s clothing and wellness care, mine. With career decisions, he made his and I made mine. But major concerns, a possible move to another city, a home purchase, a child’s blue mood, were always talked through to resolution. If memory serves me well, our shared values usually made these conversations easy. But not always.

When Len, who piloted his own small plane, began to take our young grandchildren aloft, I developed a twitching eyelid and my sleep was seriously disturbed. We tried to talk about it. He was angry and hurt that I would question his judgment and thought my fears irrational. I thought not, but even if they were, I needed to find a healthy way to cope. We knew this was an issue we had to confront and resolve, but my anxiety and his defensiveness made it a difficult conversation that went nowhere.

Eventually, we sought professional help, and along the way learned a lot about each other and ourselves. The outcome we reached was a compromise which I gratefully, and he somewhat grudgingly, accepted: he would take another pilot along when the grandchildren were passengers.

What the breakdown of my car and these meandering recollections bring to mind is how often both partners approaching divorce maintain that whenever conflict loomed, too discouraged or unable to talk it through, they were the one who abdicated the decider role and simply gave in to the other. The moments most clearly remembered were those when dreams were compromised, eroding a sense of self, thwarting authenticity.

I’m aware of this because on the first day I meet with a mediating pair, I speak with each of them privately and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. How did they negotiate? Here is the interesting twist. Often each spouse reports that they were the one who most often capitulated and accommodated to the wishes or demands of the other. Both asserted: “I just went along to get along”. As impossible as this would seem, I think the belief was sincerely voiced.

My friends whose relationships are working well readily acknowledge those areas in which they most likely have the prominent decision making role and those they are willing to leave to their partner. For them, talk is usually easy.  But in a relationship where hope for a future together is ending, self-disclosure feels risky and talking is difficult, and the yearning to better understand the other is trumped by anxiety or disappointment.

Without some intervention, preferably with an experienced counselor, dissatisfaction just grows and grows.  So, of course, the earlier the better.