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Sarah Chana Radcliffe

Negative speech rituals avoid the real message

Wednesday, February 06, 2019




onsider the following scenario:
Wife: I hear you met up with friends while I was out of town at the conference. 
Husband: Do you have a problem with that?
Only the two of them know the history behind this particular sequence: How the wife works hard to support the family and, feeling that her spouse has abandoned his obligation to put food on the table, constantly berates him when she finds him relaxing and seemingly enjoying his life. 
Her “innocent” comment means (and both of them know this), “I see you were having fun while I was forced to travel to earn a living for us.” The husband’s response means (and they both know this as well), “I hope you aren’t going to start up with your lectures because I’m not in the mood for it.”
The Downhill Slide
Now that each has made his and her opening move, the rest of the conversation proceeds in its ritualized way. She bristles with her husband’s icy, “Do you have a problem with that?” She attacks his style, as if this has anything to do with anything. 
“Why do you always have to talk to me in such a rude way? Why can’t you be nice for once?” Blind to her own opening taunt, she feels victimized by her partner’s unfriendly communication. 
By now, they’re off and running. She has just made an open accusation that the man is rude. “That’s right,” he snarls. “You’re back home for five minutes and you’re already insulting me. Well, that’s okay. I never expected anything better from you.” Ouch! (Or more appropriately “Touché — great comeback!”). Each of them slams their respective doors and the cold war is on.
The Expanded Ritual
The next part of the ritual involves silence. Neither partner will speak to the other for some time. This could be hours or days, in some cases even longer. Each feels alone, misunderstood, and mistreated. Eventually there is some family matter that requires attention — “The repairman is coming at two o’clock today, so please remember to stay home for him” — and conversation slowly recommences. 
After a few days the couple is back to their normal pattern of interaction, a little worse for wear. Their conflict ritual has left them drained and damaged. No issue has been resolved. The next fight will go through the same ritualized pattern, and the next after that, depleting love reserves and leaving the couple disconnected.
Changing the Dance
Both husband and wife are hurting badly, but since neither of them discuss their pain, their communication ritual — their fight — misses the point. It is nothing but a distressing diversion. Imagine, however, how it would sound if each person stayed on point, discussing the truth. Let’s look at this authentic, connection-building interaction:
Wife: I hear you met up with friends while I was out of town at the conference. 
Husband: Yes. I can hear in your voice that you’re upset about it. I know it seems as if I’m at home enjoying myself while you’re out there knocking yourself out for this family. And I get that. I also feel bad I’m not the breadwinner and I’m trying to change things. Meanwhile, do you want me not to get together with my friends when you travel?
Wife: No, of course not. You should see your friends when you can. But you’re right, I do feel burdened with the responsibility of supporting our family and I do get resentful. I’d like us to see someone to sort it all out. I don’t want to feel resentment toward you. 
Husband: Sure. Let’s get some help. Believe me, I don’t want your resentment either!
Although in this improved communication the wife starts off with a dig, her husband doesn’t take the bait. He brings up the implied meaning of her communication, refusing to pretend that he doesn’t know what she’s getting at. This allows for a real conversation about the real issues. It feels better than the ritualized argument even though upset feelings are being discussed. In fact, speaking respectfully about true feelings is an excellent way to avoid fighting. While the truth may hurt, it points toward relationship repair. A fight, on the other hand, is a painful path to destruction.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 629)

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