Faulty communication causes problems


August 14, 1994|By From Ladies' Home Journal Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"Marshall doesn't care about me anymore," says Harriet, 31. "He used to be loving and sensitive, He made me feel so special. How can a relationship that started off the way ours did turn sour so fast?"

Harriet met Marshall when she was visiting a friend in New York. "We instantly connected -- we had the same values and dreams and grew up in the same kind of small Midwestern towns. He begged me to move to the city -- and we married six months after we met."

But now, after three years, Marshall pays scant attention to her, she complains, and her list of his offenses is long: She rushes home from her job to cook a three-course meal, but he rarely notices, never compliments her and even watches TV while he eats. At the end of the day, he inevitably rushes out to jog or gets buried under piles of paperwork. When she asks an innocent question, he ridicules her. "The other night some friends came over and the men were talking about sports. I asked who Shaquille O'Neal was. 'You don't know who Shaquille O'Neal is?' he said, over and over again, like I was a moron."

She doesn't know how to get Marshall to change or let him know she needs attention and affection. "I've always had trouble expressing myself," she admits. "My sister was constantly battling with my parents, so it just seemed safer to keep my feelings to myself." Lately, Harriet has been feeling bitter: "I'm tired of being the only one who cares enough to make this relationship work."

Marshall too is tired -- of defending himself. "I haven't changed," insists the 33-year-old stockbroker. "She's changed. Harriet has become ultra-sensitive," he continues. "I certainly didn't mean to hurt her feelings when our friends were over. It was just good-natured teasing."

Marshall feels as misunderstood as his wife does. "She doesn't care about my needs or concerns, either." If she did, he insists, she'd understand that his high-pressure job means that sometimes he must bring work home. "I want this marriage to work as much as she does," Marshall says, "but I'm not going to take the blame for everything here."

Clarifying complaints

"This couple's problem isn't lack of caring -- it's lack of communication," says Mark Snowman, a New York marriage counselor. "Harriet doesn't know how to speak up, and Marshall doesn't know how to listen."

Many couples fall into the same predicament. Do you and your partner find that failure to communicate leads to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of feelings as well as actions? To make sure you understand your mate's perspective on an issue, practice these guidelines:

* Don't immediately leap in to defend yourself when your mate registers a complaint. (Maybe Harriet is too sensitive, but Marshall needs to hear her out.)

* Ask specifically what you have done or failed to do. (When Harriet says, "You always ignore me," Marshall should ask, in a non-accusatory way, "Can you be specific?" He shouldn't have to respond to a global accusation.) To keep the conversation on a constructive course, refrain from making excuses or counterattacks.

* Summarize your partner's complaint to be certain you understand.

* Now, explain how you really feel or what you are trying to convey. (Marshall might tell Harriet: "Yes, I need to do extra work on this deal this week, but when that's done, we can go out for a special dinner." That way, Harriet will feel less neglected.)

Once each of you understands clearly the other's complaints, you will feel less personally attacked and more willing to find solutions that work for both of you.

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