For as long as I can remember my parents have fought. Fighting was so common growing up that I really thought the way they treated each other was normal.
My parents’ fights were always the same: My dad would belittle and demean my mom while raising his voice and cutting her off. My mom would then start shutting down, then backing down. I always knew a fight was coming when my dad would sit down at the computer and pull up the family bank account.
His desk was in the middle of the house, so we would all hear him as he criticized my mom for her spending with questions like, “Why did you spend $3.25 at the gas station? What did you buy at the grocery store that was more than $15?”
He would continue criticizing every purchase and would question what she spent money on every second of every day. My mom would be quiet at first. Then, as his accusations escalated, she would tell him, “You don’t understand how much it costs to feed a family of five kids. I am constantly filling up the car with gas because I am constantly driving everyone everywhere.”
When she would ask about his spending habits, he would cut her off and say things like, “Don’t question me if I want to spend money to go golf or to do what I want to do! I am the one who made the money; I am the one who worked for the money; it is my money!”
By the end of the fight, my mom would always end up going into her bedroom for a while, sometimes even hours, and my dad would start playing cards on his computer. He would be completely calm. If he did say anything afterwards about the fight, he would look at us kids and say, “Wow, your mom really can’t handle money!”
As I grew older I realized how dysfunctional this was, yet my parents’ relationship set the pattern for how I handled conflict. As soon as my boyfriends would get upset or frustrated with me, I would just shut down and back down. I dated guys who would belittle me, and instead of sticking up for myself, I would stay quiet and end up internalizing whatever awful things they said to me. This is not to say this treatment was my fault, but I had no idea how to respond to it.
Even after I married a good man who treated me with respect, how I handled potential points of conflict started to have a big impact on our relationship. When we would talk about even everyday things like how we should spend the evening, I had thoughts and opinions, but I wouldn’t voice them.
And if I even thought my husband was upset about something, I would run instead of staying to talk through it. The moment I felt tension I shut down. Our disagreements and conflicts tended to escalate and grow rather than working through and getting past them.
I thought I was being the “good wife,” but my husband wanted our marriage to be a partnership where we worked to build a life together. He wanted my voice.
My husband helped me with my communication problems by constantly encouraging me to express how I was feeling. He would ask me what I was thinking and feeling constantly, down to asking “where do you want to eat tonight?” I would tell him “I don’t care,” but he would respond, “No, really, I know you are craving something. What sounds good to you?”
This was weird for me at first because I was so used to deferring to other people. But his constant questions allowed me to start to slowly open up and feel more comfortable sharing my thoughts with him.
And instead of flipping out and yelling at me over the budget, he would look directly at me and say, “I genuinely care about what you think about this. How much do you think we should spend on groceries? How much do you think we should save each month? I know you have an opinion on these things, and I really want to know what you think.”
He showed me over and over again that he wasn’t anything like my father and our relationship didn’t have to be like the one my parents had when I was growing up. I am so glad he asked and asked and asked what I was thinking, how I was feeling, what my opinions on things were. After almost four years of working on this issue together, I can now say I have become a lot better and more confident in my communication.
I knew going into marriage that saying hurtful or mean things isn’t constructive. I know now that not saying anything isn’t helpful either. What is helpful is working through your problems openly, respectfully, and with love for each other.
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