Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm. – Depeche Mode
As a therapist you might think that a large part of my job is to help people improve the communication within their marriage and family. You would, of course, be correct. So when is communication actually the wrong approach? In what situation could words do harm? When the words are not what the other person wants or needs. Now, I don’t mean that you should hold back from speaking truth to someone that might not want to hear it, but in some situations listening is much more effective than helping.
Based on the fact I decided to make a career of helping people find solutions to problems it should come as no surprise that my default reaction to hearing a problem is to work out a way to solve it. However, I have learned from my own marriage and countless marital relationships I have helped over the years that just because someone wants to tell you about a concern they have doesn’t automatically mean they want your help in solving it. In fact, the opposite is often true. They may just want to be heard, know that you are on their side, and reassured that your love for them is a constant they can rely on regardless of what the world throws at them. Let’s consider the following example of a couple’s conversation one evening after she has had a particularly rough day:
Jenna had an argument today with her mother that has been eating at her ever since. Later that evening after the kids are off to bed she shares the details with her husband, Mitch. He listens patiently and attentively as his wife shares her story. He then offers her a few suggestions on how she could have handled things differently, what she needs to do to fix the problem today, and even how to address this issue in the future if it should ever come up again. Thinking his role as the caring and dutiful husband is now complete he reaches for the remote and turns on the TV. He is then caught completely by surprise when she is obviously still upset and even seems to be angry at him. He defends his position as, after all, he was only trying to help. In his mind she is being ungrateful and it doesn’t take long before the fuse is lit and they are fighting.
So, why did this happen? Simply put Jenna did not want Mitch’s help in solving her issue. She wanted her husband to hear her, take her side, and reassure her of his love. After all, she has known her mother for literally her entire life and is capable of handling this on her own. She could even be a little bit insulted that he thought she needed instruction on the topic. Mitch is upset because he feels he was very supportive. He stopped what he was doing, gave his undivided attention, provided some very reasonable solutions, and did it all with a loving and positive attitude. As they continue to argue they will quickly discover that neither is willing to budge because, in fact, they are both right.
This is a scenario I have seen more times in my office than I can remember. The good news here is that we have two very positive behaviors already in place. Jenna is in the habit of sharing with Mitch, and Mitch does show he cares by listening to her concerns. The best way to improve the outcome of any discussion is to clarify the goal you have in mind before you begin. In this case Jenna could have stated that she wanted to share something with Mitch and really only wanted to be heard and reassured, but didn’t need help solving the problem. Also, if she didn’t state this directly it would be a good idea for him to ask whether she wants him to help or just to listen. Often times just listening without “helping” really is more helpful.
If you can recall a time or two that you have been in this type of argument with your spouse, don’t worry. You’re normal. More than that you are showing some healthy and loving qualities in your marriage by sharing with one another and caring enough to want to help solve your spouse’s problems. It may take a bit of getting used to, but sometimes putting away the tool box along with the urge to fix a problem really is the best way to show how much you care.