Last week, a couple came into my office and the wife began complaining. “My husband treats me like dirt,” she cried (using another word.) “I had the worst day yesterday with the kids — trying to do a million things — so I leave the breakfast dishes in the sink, and he comes home and has the nerve to say, THIS KITCHEN IS A MESS.” As she described this problem, she looked over at him resentfully. He said, with an icy calm: “Well, it was a mess. I like to come home to a clean sink – it’s all I ask.” Then he looked at me and said, “Is that too much to ask?”
Before I could answer, his wife went into a rage. “Who do you think you are?” she hissed between clenched teeth. “Do you think you’re my boss? What right do you have to speak to me like that?” She looked at me then and said, her voice growing louder, “Do you believe this? How little respect and understanding I get? Can you get him to see how inconsiderate and selfish he is?”
Unfortunately, this husband was not willing to see how inconsiderate and selfish he was, and the wife was unable to get the dishes done before he came home, or to feel less angry with him when he complained about it. They had come to the place of irreconcilable difference. Irreconcilable differences are the most challenging problem to marriage, when each party struggles to get the other party to see things their way and it doesn’t work.
Many couples storm and scream when irreconcilable differences come up, the better to be heard. Others become remote and disconnected; their dream of being married to the “right” person irrevocably shattered. Irreconcilable differences usually breed more negative feelings: despair about the future, feeling unloved, neglected, worthless, abused, frustrated, demeaned, disrespected, uncared for, disregarded, controlled, abandoned… the list goes on and on and on.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE STUCK
There is usually a good reason why two people are are unable to bend to the other. Learning what these reasons are, scratching beneath the apparent problem, really helps.
It’s not reasonable to expect that anyone should tolerate hurt and disappointment; we like to think of marriage as a loving partnership between two people cemented together by compassion, respect and understanding. But actually, marriage is not about being reasonable.
In the wife’s case, she had to be helped to accept how mean, critical, cold, demanding and unsupportive her husband could be. When she could fully come to terms with the fact that her husband could be rigid, demanding and selfish, it helped her to feel less defensive and crazed when he “started in” on her.
So in that dreaded moment when he came home grumpy, instead of cringing and waiting for the criticism to set in and then becoming hijacked by her defensiveness, she could just say to herself: “he is disgruntled, insensitive, hungry, and demanding after a hard day. He is an absolutely horrible, insensitive pig, sometimes. He can be a real idiot.” When we can accept that our spouse is horrible, and not go reeling into guilt, despair and rage, it all blows over much more quickly.
In the husband’s case, he had to come to accept how uncooperative, unreliable, uncaring and angry his wife could become. Fully accepting how disappointing his wife could be helped him to feel less disregarded. In that dreaded moment when he came home to a house that felt out of control, he could just say to himself: “I am not going to say anything about this terrible mess and let her have her turn at being selfish, neglectful, and self-involved.” This anger helped him feel less despairing about feeling disregarded.
For many couples, it really helps to come to terms with the fact that all of this frustration, disappointment, and anger are not necessarily signs that the marriage is hopelessly flawed. Instead, they are common dynamics that have to be negotiated. In the end, real intimacy is about being able to contain not only all the good, but all the painful, disappointing and even enraging. As they say: in sickness and in health.
Couples, when a marriage is tolerable enough that you still want to stay together, do have to decide which flaws and incompatibilities to tolerate in each other, and which are non-negotiable and require change. This process of negotiation requires fighting, strained feelings, alienation, suffering, thinking and talking.
There is no standard of normalcy in a real, working marriage. There is only the standard of how much each person is able and willing to bend or tolerate the other; to take turns being unacceptable, and to struggle through understanding and negotiation. Watching this process of concession and demand in couple’s therapy, I realize this: we cannot always be reasonable, rational, sensible, compassionate, or flexible people. Sometimes, we can be fools. Here is the real question: can we still be loved?