WHY PEOPLE DIVORCE #3: "MY HUSBAND CAN'T COMMUNICATE"
The second reason Michele Weiner-Davis gives for people divorcing is failure to communicate. But, as the author points out, although women frequently say, "My husband can’t communicate," it is often a case of husbands not communicating in ways their wives can relate to.
Michele cites findings from Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics. According to Tannen, communication is a vehicle for people to achieve either intimacy or independence. Intimacy is the process of bonding together; independence is a process of maintaining separateness.
Communicating for intimacy means to negotiate "complex networks of friendship, minimize differences, (and) try to reach consensus." Communicating for independence means "establishing status ... to tell others what to do." (Marriage Busters, p.47-48).
Would it surprise you that, according to Tannen, women tend to communicate for intimacy and men for independence? Can you see a potential for us to fail to communicate well? Our conversation, without our conscious awareness of it, is seeking to accomplish different ends. Women try to draw closer; men try to maintain boundaries, even distance. Is it any wonder why many wives think their husbands don’t communicate, and why husbands can’t figure out why they would think that?!
This doesn’t mean that husbands are not interested in intimacy, and I don’t mean just physical intimacy, but actual bonding of heart and soul. Husbands just have a different idea about how to achieve it. Where a wife wants to talk openly about thoughts and feelings, a husband is more inclined to do something together. "Men ... don’t use conversation as a way of getting close. Doing things together - participating in activities such as team sports - breeds connection for them." (P.48).
Marriage Counselor Willard Harley confirms this in his book, His Needs Her Needs. He has a hierarchy of needs for husbands and wives for the marriage to stay close and vibrant. Need number two for the wife to fulfill for her husband is recreational companionship. "Men place surprising importance on having their wives as recreational companions. The TV stereotypes paint the opposite picture, showing husbands out with the boys on fishing trips saying, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’ My counseling files say it can get a lot better. In fact, among the five basic male needs, spending recreational time with his wife is second only to sex for the typical husband." (His Needs, Her Needs, p.77). If a husband invites his wife to a ball game, a day hike or even a deer hunt, that is his way of saying, "I love you and want to be close to you." It may not have quite the romantic appeal to many wives that a movie and dinner out does, but realizing the husband’s intent may help make the invitation a little more desirable (or at least bearable).
Another problem in communication for men and women is women want to feel understood; men want to fix things. (P.49). I remember years ago Cheryl relating details of a problem relationship to me. I listened and gave a prompt reply about how to handle that rude person. She ignored me and went on providing more details. I gave the same reply, but more emphatically. She ignored me again and went on talking some more. I remember thinking, "Have I not expressed myself clearly enough about how to handle this person?" whereupon I made sure to make myself clear the third time. I even asked, "Haven’t you heard me?" Cheryl then said, "I don’t need you to tell me how to handle this; I just need you to listen to me." My inclination to ‘fix’ the situation missed my wife’s desire that I understand and connect.
Finally, communication becomes problematic when it comes to discussing issues of conflict. It is the wife who generally wants to discuss problems and dissatisfaction within the marriage. When she brings it up, the husband is likely to avoid and withdraw from the conversation, leaving "most women feeling enraged and even more determined to get a reaction, which leads to more withdrawal, and so on." (P.51) Michele quotes a study that shows the masculine and feminine reactions to stress and conflict. Women can sustain greater levels of stress and conflict without losing control; men experience more pronounced physical excitement and agitation. If they don’t withdraw from the situation they can lose control. According to Michele, knowing a man’s inclination to experience a heightened physical response to verbal confrontation and conflict can help a wife in two ways. First, she might feel less feelings of rejection when her husband withdraws. Secondly, she "might act in ways less likely to escalate the dissension." (51)
There is much more to the discussion of communication in marriage, but this may be enough to reach some mutual understanding and appreciation and help facilitate more meaningful conversation. Meanwhile, some may be asking, "What is the husband’s response to the wife’s charge that he doesn’t communicate?" I’ll pick that question up next week!
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