There are common themes among couples whose close connection has fizzled. They include constant bickering, living more like roommates than lovers, lack of time, replacing time spent together with energy focused on children, breakdowns in communication, or simply no longer knowing what to say to one another. These issues lead to feelings of anger and resentment; and that’s what’s going on with a client, Maxwell, and his wife, Sarah.
Anger and Resentment
Max has been struggling to find ways to reignite the connection with his wife. He’s more of a doer than a talker, so he decides one Saturday several weeks ago to pitch in with cleaning up the lunch dishes.
He thinks to himself: “I haven’t got anything special to do, might as well help Sarah clean up. She’ll appreciate it. Maybe that will soften things up with us a bit.”
He says to Sarah, “I’ll load the dishwasher. You sit and finish your tea.”
Sarah is thinking to herself, “Oh great, here we go, cups on the bottom shelf, plates in without scraping, I’m just going to have to rearrange it all. He thinks he’s doing me a favor. He’s just making more work for me. Why is this all my responsibility anyway?”
She says to Max, ” Right, I’ll put away the food while I finish the tea, but I don’t have time just to sit. Remember to scrape the plates before you put them in the dishwasher. There isn’t a garbage disposal in there.”
Meanwhile, Logan, their toddler, waddles across the room, sippy-cup turned upside down, dripping milk on the kitchen floor. Max, clearing the table, slips in the spill and drops the soup bowls, breaking one and chipping the other. They were pretty new ones Sarah just bought on sale at Anthropology.
She gave him one of those if-looks-could-kill glares and snaps at him: “What is wrong with you, can’t you do just one simple task?”
Max takes a deep breath and says nothing, thinking to himself: “Don’t react. Don’t get angry. Don’t fight back. Let it go. Just clean it up, move forward.”
Sarah, noticing that he has shut down and wasn’t going to fight back, retreats into her private thoughts: “Will we ever have a real conversation again? I wish he appreciated all that I do with working, cooking and cleaning and taking care of Logan. He’s never acknowledged me for all that.”
The anger defused, the feeling of resentment lasted for the remainder of the weekend and on Monday, the couple returned to their weekday routine of get-the-kid-to-childcare, go to work, come home, eat dinner, do some chores, and go to sleep.
A few days later, a colleague told Max he looked sad. He was. We talked about it in therapy, and he distinguished that the sadness came from his wife’s reaction to his slipping in the kitchen. “She didn’t ask if I was okay. She wasn’t concerned about whether or not I was hurt. It’s like she doesn’t care about me anymore.”
So, their relationship moved from anger and persistent bickering to resentment, then into a sense of deep sadness due to a lack of caring, and no clear way for either of them to access what is really going on the with other. They are stuck in being concerned about getting things handled, like chores and kid stuff, the result of the task at hand, and who has or hasn’t done whatever. They’ve neglected each other’s feelings. They no longer connect in an empathetic way.
Max sinks deeper, into a state of hopelessness. He worries that the relationship is doomed. He sobs: “I want more than anything to turn this relationship around, but I just don’t have the communication skills to express that to Sarah in a way that she won’t become defensive. I want us to stop this downward spiral thing and move the relationship forward. How can I do that if I can’t talk to her and I can’t find the right moment to approach her? I’m such a loser.”
Working it out
“Wait a minute Max; that’s why you’re in therapy.” I give him an assignment. “Write a letter explaining what you are feeling, the profound sadness inside and how you picture your relationship transforming. Tell her what you think you could do to rebuild it.”
Max’s reached for his phone and said “I’ll send her a text, no, maybe an email. You can say more in an email.”
I stopped him: “No, not a text, not an email, a letter, an old-fashion personal letter, written by you to your wife.”
Think about it. It’s not an easy task, and it takes time. I asked Max to reflect about what he would say to her and what he, not some TV show or movie version of happy-ever-after, but his version of what the relationship could be. The point of the letter is to start the conversation that breaks the cycle of hopelessness. To dispel the feeling that he can’t make any changes and to practice expressing one’s self. It’s an invitation to Sarah to be back in real communication. It’s the first step towards healing and making the relationship healthy again.
I wonder how many readers of this blog have written a letter like this. What did you say to your spouse? After reading about Maxwell’s situation, do you plan on writing one? If so, what will you say? I invite you to run your ideas past me, or share your experience. Please leave a comment below. I will get back to you.