It’s not easy to say the important things in a marriage. Things like “You forgot to take the garbage out… again.” Or “When do I get a night out and you stay with the kids?” Or voice opinions that might hurt the person you love, like “I’m not crazy about that hair style.” Sometimes it’s necessary to just express the fact that you see the world differently than your partner and say “I don’t agree.”
The other day, I met a couple that described a creative way they solved this problem. When they were first married, they had two cats, Abby and Joey. They would laugh and play through them, pretending that the cats could talk and had opinions. Joey was a dreamer and grandiose. He’d tell stories of his accomplishments like learning to play the guitar, paint great art or solve challenging mathematics equations. This was surprising, because he wasn’t very talented or very bright.
Abby was more grounded with lots of common sense. She was also quite bright, probably because she was half Siamese. She’d role her eyes when Joey would regale her with his latest accomplishments or offbeat opinions. She had a very dry sense of humor that Joey never got.
My clients’ families of origin had very different styles of arguing. She came from a family of origin that dealt with disagreements in a harsh and confrontive manner. He came from a family that was afraid of conflict, avoiding it at all cost. She would raise a concern. He would avoid it. They began to get stuck as unresolved stuff began to pile up between them.
Then Abby and Joey came to the rescue. Just as the couple played and laughed through the cats, they now began to use them as personal advocates and communicators, helping them stay connected while they would safely bring up and say the hard things, face them and solve them.
“Joey thinks you don’t load the dishwasher correctly.”
“Well Abby can’t understand why you’re obsessed about it.”
“Well, Joey doesn’t like dirty dishes and doesn’t think I’m obsessed. He understands.”
“Abby doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal and wants to know how it’s to be solved. Plus she’s getting hungry.”
This took the sting out of the conversations and both heard what the other said.
Abby and Joey helped solve all kinds of problems; parenting issues, chores, work/home balance, even when and how to be intimate. It turns out they knew several core principles that are important for good communication and a strong relationship.
Know your partner well.
They knew, shared and appreciated rich details of each other’s past, their everyday activities, their hobbies, their interests. Everything. This gave them a deep well of understanding from which to draw. It helped them keep problems in perspective.
Listen as much as you talk. Listening creates connection. It also builds up good will that helps smooth the challenging times. Joey sounds like a blowhard that does all the talking. It’s not true. He also listens, but he has to work at it.
Speak the truth in love.
Abby and Joey were very good at helping their owners learn to do this well.
Abby agreed to load the dishwasher to Joey’s standards. Joey compromised other times.
Create a shared life.
Just like every individual, every relationship has its own story. Be intentional in creating it. Add important structured activities like shared meal times or weekly worship. Tell stories about the history of your relationship. Acknowledge and celebrate problems that have been faced and conflicts that have been successfully resolved.
Abby and Joey are long gone. Their owners fondly remember them and the richness they added to the home. Their owners occasionally hiss at each other but have been happily married for almost 40 years.
Cal Meuzelar, ACSW, LISW is with the Pine Rest Campus Clinic. He is a Licensed Independent Social Worker with over 30 years of experience. Since 2012, he is on the faculty of Broadlawns Medical Center Physician Residency program as the Behavioral Specialist. He earned his BA from Dordt College in 1977 and his MSSW from the University of Wisconsin in 1980. He works with adults and older adults. His areas of interest include PTSD, depression, anxiety, chronic pain and couples/relationship issues.