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Val Farmer, Published June 24 2011

Val Farmer: Taking steps to balance a one-sided marriage

What can you do with a man, devoted to his work and family, who is so right, rigid and judgmental that every conversation has the potential for an argument?

However well-meaning he might be, what comes across is a steady barrage of interruptions, rebuttals and criticism. He is a poor listener. Years of poor listening lead to a self-centered view of life. A relationship can be nitpicked to death. Everywhere there are mountains, no molehills.

A woman commented, “Oh, how I wish my husband would just relax and quit telling me how to do everything – even things that don’t matter – like how to hang my towel on the rack so it will dry faster, how to arrange the things in the refrigerator so they’ll be easier to reach, and how to fold the newspapers before putting them in the waste container.” She doesn’t like it.

Or perhaps a self-centered perspective on life makes for poor listening. The lack of understanding, respect and ability to empathize take a continuous toll on his marriage.

Perfectionism, rigidity or selfishness? Or maybe it isn’t so much about being right but being selfish. It’s not poor communication that takes a toll but the lack of it. A man can get carried away in his own pursuits, agenda and having things go his way that he ignores his wife’s needs and her perspective. He just skips the argument part and does what he pleases anyway.

Whether it is perfectionism, rigidity or just plain selfishness, the need to be right and/or to be in control causes a wife to feel loneliness, emotional isolation and feelings of being unloved, unappreciated and disrespected.

Women married to men like this come to see their husbands as unemotional, self-sufficient, proud, domineering, inconsiderate, unforgiving, impatient and seldom pleased. As husbands, they come across as more concerned about being right or getting their way than how their partner feels. They:

How does a man like that see himself? Probably as strong-willed, determined, independent, productive, decisive and confident. His biggest problem in life is why his wife ignores his priorities and concerns.

Steps a woman can take. What is the answer for relationships like these? What does it take to break through this escalating cycle of arguments and emotional withdrawal? Since a man like this probably doesn’t see himself as the problem, or may not feel like there is much of a problem anyway, his wife may have to provide the corrective changes.

She can:

Understandably, the counselor has to be strong enough to deal with powerful personalities and emotions. A combination of gentleness and strength are necessary to hold this man in therapy and to confront painful issues caused by his own actions.

If the stakes are high enough and his motives strong, he will work at changing. Counseling is strong medicine, but it is preferable to separation or divorce.

Benefits of counseling. The habit of not listening is so strong that it takes the presence of a counselor to demonstrate the skills, to observe, make helpful suggestions and correct mistakes. Listening for understanding is difficult for someone who is used to filtering everything through his own strong emotions and opinions.

By learning to listen, he will hear and understand his wife’s emotional pain. It’s not just words, it’s also body language. It is teaching someone the basics of empathy – to understand and respect another’s plight and to respond emotionally to it. He will learn to give love instead of expecting it as a right.

Communication skills by themselves may not be enough. Connections need to be made between domineering and controlling behavior and childhood family experiences. This style of relating was probably present in his own family where his father or mother was an imposing and tyrannical figure. The lack of warmth and concern he projects corresponds to the lack of warmth and concern he once felt as a child.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.