Jay Ballew founder of Ann Arbor Couples Clinic, wrote an advice column for Mind Body Soul Magazine, called "Eve and Adam Ask." He answered questions from a female and a male reader. Some of these columns are reprinted here to give you a feel for Ann Arbor Couples Clinic approach to common marital concerns.
- Work/Family Priorities & Appreciation
- Flirting with Waitresses & Attention to Clutter
- Couple Time
- Emotional Affair & Supportive Conversations
- Parenting Styles & Bids for Connection
- Marital Privacy and In-Laws & Divorce Baggage
- Email Competition & Old Flames
- Criticism & In-Law boundaries
Eve: My husband is a workaholic. How can I make him realize that his priorities need a serious adjustment?
From your frustrated tone, I assume you have already tried just asking him to change his priorities. If he's typical, he probably said something like “I work to support our family. I have to do what the job requires.” You both probably went away feeling that the other didn't understand. The thing is, you can each have legitimately different priorities. Just because his are different from yours doesn't make him wrong. It also doesn't make you wrong. You can approach him with an attitude that says “My priorities are just as important as yours, so work with me here.”
One thing you should definitely not do is use a term like workaholic. It conveys a negative judgment that there is something wrong with him because of how much he works. I'm not saying you are wrong. There certainly are people who are compulsive workers. Employers love them. Maybe your husband is one of them. I'm just saying that if you approach him with that kind of negative thinking, it just about guarantees a defensive response. There is some great research showing that when this kind of thinking predominates, it is the kiss of death to relationships. Instead, you might say “I'm not saying you're wrong and I'm right. I just want you home more. Can we work on this?”
Adam: Even though I help out a lot around the house, my wife never seems to appreciate my efforts. How can I let her know a simple ‘thank you' would go a long way?
Appreciation is HUGE in marriage. You are absolutely right in wanting more if it. I bet your wife wants more appreciation too. Unfortunately, your complaint is absolutely normal because in most marriages both partners feel underappreciated. We tend to think that because our partners are carrying out their roles effectively that they are just doing their jobs and it doesn't require recognition or thanks. However, just as you like getting an “Atta Boy” at work, your wife would like one at home and so would you. Regular expression of appreciation is one of the major predictors of marital success.
There are two ways to get more appreciation. The first is to give it, regularly, generously and spontaneously. We tend to get back what we give. If you create a culture of appreciation in the marriage, your wife will be happier and will likely respond in kind. The second is to ask her for it. Tell her it's important for you to know she notices your efforts. Don't criticize her for not appreciating. Tell her how much it means when she is appreciative and ask her to do it more.
Adam: My wife and I love going out to dinner. Whenever we do, I often engage in conversation with our waitress. My wife gets upset when I do this. I tell her I'm just being friendly. Why do women get so jealous over the smallest things?
Are you sure it's jealousy? Maybe it's envy. Jealousy is usually a response to a sexual threat. Maybe she just wants some of the good parts of you that you are giving to the waitress. People tell me how their partner can be in a bad mood with them but brighten up to take a phone call from a friend. They want some of that good mood that is going to the friend.
Another possibility is that she sees your conversation with the waitress as flirting and is not really threatened by it but sees it as disrespectful of her. She might not mind if you did it when you are alone but is offends her when it occurs in front of her. It treats her like she is not there or doesn't count.
The best way to find out is to ask her and to be sure you have a genuine interest in her answer. Your question is dismissive, that is, it treats your wife's feelings like they are not legitimate. It generalizes about all women and it trivializes her feelings. Try giving her the benefit of the doubt and ask her as though she has a legitimate reason for her feelings.
Eve: When my husband comes home from work, he has a tendency to head straight to the couch, bypassing the toys on the floor, the laundry waiting to be folded.... even me! Does he really not notice these things? If he does notice, why wouldn't he take a few moments to help me out?
A. Here are a couple of possibilities. Some people need to decompress from work before engaging in family activities. He needs a little time to make a transition to home from the stress of work. Most men like this need only 15 or 20 minutes alone and they are ready to connect with the family. Another possibility is that he really does not notice the clutter. People can be quite different in their need for order in their world. Maybe he has a higher tolerance for disorder than you.
In any case, it sounds like his behavior is not okay with you. I would suggest you have a serious talk with him about it. Tell him you understand that he may have a different opinion about how to act when he gets home from work and that you would like to understand how he thinks about it. Then tell him it is important to you to get some help making the house organized for the evening. Ask him to work with you to make a plan you can both live with.
Eve: Lately, my husband has been traveling for business nearly every week, so when he told me he was planning a “guy's weekend” golf trip with his friends, I wasn't exactly thrilled. Am I being unfair by asking him to spend some quality time with our family that weekend instead?
Adam: My wife has a successful career and regularly volunteers at our church and at our kid's schools. While I admire and respect her willingness to help out, I've been feeling like she has no time left for me. Would it be selfish for me to ask her to let something go so we can spend more time together?
These questions are so similar that we decided to provide one answer for both men and women. Finding enough time together is an issue that affects both genders in today's busy couples. For families with two income earners and children, the marriage can seem like a distant third in priority. And what about finding time for extended family and friends?
When I ask partners why they got married in the first place, the most frequent answers are about companionship. Initial attraction happens for other reasons. The decision to make a long term commitment happens because most of us want a companion on our journey through life. We want to know that we are special to someone and that someone will always be there when needed.
Humans as a species need emotional connection with others to survive. There is ample research evidence that both children and the elderly will die if they do not get emotional attention even though they get adequate physical care. Emotional connection is so important that we evolved a hard wired internal warning system to tell us when we are too separate from those who care for us. The internal signals are emotional and form a familiar and predictable cascade. It starts with loneliness and moves to depression, panic and despair.
In marriage, when we start thinking that we don't have enough time with our partner, it's usually because we are getting an internal signal in the form of loneliness or sadness. When we get a reassuring connection those feelings go away. Giving time and attention to our partner is a fundamental way of saying “I care about you. You can count on me. I will be there for you.”
I hope you can tell from this discussion that the issue behind these questions about spending time together is not about the relatively superficial issue of having a little adult fun. It is about meeting an absolutely fundamental human need for emotional connection. It is a need that will not be denied and will not go away. It will nag at you until it is met. It is the reason that many people give up on their partners as a source of connection and have affairs or divorce hoping to find a more responsive partner.
Now, while we all need a certain amount of emotional connection, as individuals there is a great difference in how much we need that is perfectly normal. It is very common for people to hook up with partners that need much more or less emotional connection. This natural difference is one of the main sources of conflict in marriage. Because it is so common we need to learn how to talk about it and most of us do not have much skill in this area.
If it isn't clear already, my answer to Eve and Adam's questions is no. You are not being unfair or selfish in asking for time with your mate. In fact, you'd better get time with your mate, if you want the marriage to last. There may, however, be some legitimate differences in when and how that occurs. You need to talk about it. When you do try to talk about it, try to stay away from negative judgments like “unfair” or “selfish.” The better thing is to get in touch with your loneliness and talk from that part of your self. Tell your partner that you miss him or her and you want to make time together a higher priority, then, move toward finding some mutually agreeable times and activities.
Eve: I've developed a close relationship with a man I met at a business event. We e-mail almost daily and meet for lunches as often as we can. I adore him, but I'm feeling a little guilty about the relationship. Although it's not physical, we've both admitted that we're very attracted to each other. I don't want to stop seeing him because he takes the time to listen to me and fills me up in a way that my spouse just doesn't. I feel like I'm attractive and smart for the first time in years. Is this wrong? My spouse knows about the friendship, but doesn't realize how often we talk to or see each other.
It sounds like you have developed a strong emotional attachment to your friend. You “adore” him and have already moved to the stage of admitting your mutual attraction. You ask the question “Is this wrong?” and I think you already know the answer because you are keeping important information from your husband. If it's not wrong, why not tell him all about it?
We meet people we are attracted to all the time. It's not this attraction that hurts marriages. It's the secrecy and deception that erodes trust. How would you feel if you learned that your husband had a relationship like you've described? Most women think emotional infidelity is at least as important as sexual infidelity. If you are keeping the intensity of your feelings from your husband, it means that somewhere inside you are not entirely comfortable with what you are doing.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel attractive and smart. The larger question is why you don't feel that way in your marriage. I bet you did at the start. So, tell your husband and ask him to work with you to recover these feelings. Maybe over the years some emotional distance has developed in the marriage or you have both become complacent. This other relationship could be the wake up call you need to revitalize your marriage. If you and your husband can't talk about it effectively, then get some help.
Adam: Lately, I've been feeling burned out in my marriage. My wife is always upset about something, whether it's the kids or her job or me, and I have to admit I'm tired of dealing with her emotional struggles. She says I don't support her, but I've tried to offer solutions and she doesn't seem to want to hear them. I'm at the point where I feel there's nothing I can do for her. How can I help her be happy again when she constantly shuts me out?”
It sounds like you are having trouble with what I call stress reducing conversations. Your wife is stressed about work or the kids and wants to talk about it. She hopes that talking about it will make her feel better, that is, she wants to be soothed. She wants her stress level to go down.
Most men are natural born problem solvers. When our partners describe a problem, we want to fix it. So, we offer advice. The problem is that the advice may sound like a criticism. We're the smart ones who have the solutions and our wives are the dummies who need help. If this happens, your wife will feel criticized and get defensive. She may then accuse you of not supporting her.
Here's the secret. Your wife does not want a solution. She probably already knows what she has to do to fix the problem. She just wants some company as she faces the problem. She wants to know that she is not alone with it. Stress tends to make us feel isolated so we want to reach out to someone else. Making someone else feel less alone is what is meant by being supportive. It's what your wife is talking about when she says you don't support her. She is saying she feels too alone and wants to know that you are there by her side. All you have to do is tell her that you understand what she is coping with and that you will back her. It's a lot easier than having to come up with all those solutions.
Eve: “My husband and I have different styles of parenting. We're careful to deliver the same message (no TV until homework is done, for example), but we have very different methods of achieving the desired results. I try to calmly and politely have a discussion with the misbehaving child, whereas my husband takes a more deliberate approach (“Do it now!”). Can this be harmful or confusing to the children?”
Children are amazingly adaptable and can figure out how to cope with very different parenting styles. For example, has there ever been a child who couldn't figure out how to get something from one parent that could never be gotten from the other parent? The little guys are very skilled at this. I'm wondering if your real question is about it being harmful or confusing in the marriage. You may be pulling in different directions. You're pulling for an approach that uses reasoned persuasion. (Do it because it makes sense and is better for all of us.) He's pulling for an approach that is respectful of parental authority. (Do it because I'm your father and I say so.) Each of these approaches is an effective way of teaching children. Neither way is right or wrong. It's just what you prefer.
The danger here is that each of you can begin to think that your style is superior to your partner's and begin compensating for what you see as the other's deficiencies. For example, you think he's too harsh so you bend over backward and indulge the children. Or, he thinks you're a pushover so he has to be the strict disciplinarian. In this scenario, the kids get extreme forms of each style and that is not good for them. It's better to recognize that you have two legitimately different ways of relating to the kids and try to meet in the middle in those situations where you're both involved.
Adam: “My wife often calls herself a ‘sports widow,' especially during football and basketball seasons. I've asked her on several occasions to sit down and watch the game with me on TV, but she shows no interest in learning more about my favorite pastime. I've accompanied her to plays and concerts that weren't exactly exciting for me, so isn't it only fair that she tries something I enjoy?”
First of all, get the idea of fairness out of your head. If you don't and you accuse her of being unfair, all you'll get is a defensive response like reminding you of how you slept through the last concert. You've got a perfectly reasonable request. So, don't muddy it up with an implied criticism or you're likely to get sidelined.
I wonder if you and your wife are talking about two different things here. When I hear women calling themselves sports widows, it's often in the context of being generally lonely in the marriage and the husband's interest in sports is just a convenient example. I'd suggest you check with your wife to see if she feels there is enough togetherness in the marriage as a whole. If she is feeling kind of lonely, then there are ways of giving her positive attention that don't require you to give up sports or her to share your interest. Maybe it's about being more attentive in all aspects of your life together.
I hear you talking about wanting more companionship in activities that interest you. That's a perfectly legitimate thing to want. Maybe you'd be more persuasive if you talked to her more about how important her company is to you and less about developing an interest in sports. I bet she'd be a lot more interested in being a good sport about your friendship that in the intricacies of a sporting event. Of course, if she does agree to watch a game with you and you want her to do it again, it's important you remember to pay attention to her. It's got to be about the interaction between you, not about the game.
Eve: Lately, my husband has been involving his parents in our marital problems. When we argue, he has a tendency to call the parents to express his frustration and ask for advice. Of course, they're only hearing his side of the story and they're bound to be more loyal to him than to me. This makes me extremely uncomfortable and I can sense the tension when I'm around my in-laws. Shouldn't our marital issues remain private?
Marital arguments can leave both partners feeling misunderstood and isolated. Many people reach out to others, friends and family, at these times. It's a normal human tendency. Of course, when one partner does this, he or she risks changing the relationship between the confidant and the other partner. This seems to be your concern, that your husband is poisoning your relationship with your in laws.
In law relationships can be tough enough without the added burden of thinking that they are judging you without even talking with you about your side of things. The first thing to do is set things straight with your husband. Have a serious conversation that resolves the issue you were arguing about. This may take some time and the in law problem will have to be put on hold until you get it sorted out. Once you are feeling better with each other, raise your concern about your relationship with the in laws as a separate issue. Tell him you feel tense about his parents knowing your business and ask his help in restoring your relationship with his parents. Now that he is feeling better about the marriage, it should be easy for him to call his parents and tell them. It's only fair that he shares the good news along with the bad.
There are a couple of issues that probably should remain private like sexual problems and infidelity. But you don't want to make your husband out to be a bad guy because he seeks support from family when he can't get it from you. Don't blame him for it. Just ask his help with it.
Adam: When my wife and I got married, she had been divorced from her first husband for five years (I had not been married before). I figured she had fully healed from the divorce, but shortly after our wedding, she made it clear she still had "divorce baggage." Whenever we have even the slightest disagreement, she falls apart and tells me she can't handle another failed relationship. She's even started comparing me to her ex-husband when I do something she doesn't approve of, which I resent. How can I get her to trust me and have more faith in our marriage?
First, let's be clear on one thing. Everybody has “baggage.” As we move through life, we all have painful experiences. These often happen in childhood but they also happen in adult relationships. Some of them leave lasting impressions in the form of sensitivities. When somebody, even unintentionally, pokes one of our sensitive areas, we react with a bad feeling similar to that elicited by the old experience. It's a basic human reaction. Nobody's immune, even you.
It sounds like conflict conversations are one of these sensitive areas for your wife. Her experience with conflict is that it leads to separation and loss, a failed relationship. This is a common fear and it can be very powerful. She has actual experience that conflict can lead to a failed relationship so you'll never persuade her that her fear is wrong. What you can do is reassure her. Reassurance is the antidote to fear. She is afraid that a disagreement will result in separation. You can reassure her that the marriage is very important to you and that you think disagreements are a normal part of marriage. You have no intention of leaving her. You just want to work with her to find a resolution.
It's important that your entire manner be reassuring, not just your words. For that to happen, you have to be in a calm place in your head and heart. If you are upset or angry and acting like it, she will pay more attention to your threatening manner than your words. So, stay calm yourself, reassure her and give her a few minutes to calm down before you try to talk about the issue again. Hugs help a lot here.
Sometimes these sensitivities are too powerful to respond to simple reassurance. In such a case, you will need professional help from a good couple therapist.
Eve: Ever since my husband purchased his Blackberry (wireless handheld e-mail device) for work, I feel like I've been competing with a computer for his attention. Since the device notifies him every time he receives an e-mail, he's constantly checking his messages – even during dinner and other family times. He says his job requires him to be accessible 24/7. How can I limit his PDA time without being too restrictive?
This is the classic situation of one partner pulling for more family time and the other saying “But honey, it's my job. I have to.” This is one of the most common areas of couple conflict. Before e-mail, it was phone calls at home. Before phone calls, it was working overtime. Most couples have had to struggle with this issue at one time or another. The thing is, both points of view are legitimate. Work and family are both important. You'll have to find a compromise.
Some work places use a concept called protected time. In order to get paperwork done, employees are protected from interruptions by phone, messages or walk ins for a period of time. Maybe your husband could negotiate something like it with his employer. Alternatively, maybe he can agree with you to check e-mails as they come but not respond unless they are urgent.
When you talk about it with him, try to avoid an attitude like he's a bad husband or father because he checks his e-mails. He's probably just trying to be a good provider. At the same time, don't give up your point of view. Family time is important. Remain open minded to his position but remind him that your feelings and opinions need to count. If you both stay open minded and keep trying, you will find a compromise.
Adam: My wife recently told me she received an e-mail from a man she used to date during her college years. She said he'd like to meet her for lunch one day to catch up on things. I appreciate her honesty but I don't think it's appropriate for them to meet. My wife says it would be completely harmless, since her ex has a family of his own and would like to get together strictly as friends. Am I just being paranoid or do I have a right to be concerned?
First, you are not paranoid. You are jealous. The available evidence is that jealousy is hard wired in our brains and is normal. It's nature's way of telling us we might have a rival and should pay attention. This is not to say that the feeling is always justified. We are wired to detect very small signs that we might have a rival and those signs are often incorrect. Your wife's openness about getting the e-mail certainly suggests she is not thinking about having an affair and that you have nothing to worry about.
The bigger question is do you trust your wife to handle herself even if the ex does want to rekindle their old relationship. Most women have been deflecting unwanted interest from men since they were teenagers. Suppose she meets this guy for lunch and he hits on her. Can she handle it? If you feel that you cannot trust her to handle things and that you have to try to control who she sees and doesn't see, it suggests a much deeper problem in the relationship and maybe you should both get some help with it.
Eve: When my husband comes home from work, he has a tendency to start barking orders and is easily frustrated. He can be very critical of me and the kids, and it throws our household into a tailspin. How can he make a smoother, more peaceful transition from work to home?
This is a problem that deserves your serious attention. The problem is negative judgment expressed as criticism, not making a smoother transition. There is some first rate research showing that nothing is more harmful to a marriage than letting negative judgment predominate. Everyone gets judgmental sometimes but when it happens regularly, it is the kiss of death to a marriage.
The same research shows that the important variable is not the negative judgment itself but how the judged partner responds. Everyone gets badly treated sometimes but some partners are much more effective than others in standing up for themselves, when it happens. I am saying that you have to learn a different response when your husband is critical. If you don't stand up for yourself effectively, you will only encourage future criticism.
Responding effectively does not involve a counter attack. It does involve an offer to listen to what he wants from you but only if he will change his critical judgmental attitude. This is a temporary change of the subject of the conversation. You are now talking about his attitude rather than his demands. It is an important shift and a very difficult one to pull off. Only about 25% of married people naturally have the ability to do it. The rest of us have to learn it. It is a complex skill and can be hard to learn. Try asking him to change his critical style. If that doesn't work, get some help. In the research, 94% of the marriages where negative judgment predominated ended in divorce within two years.
Adam: My wife's parents are constantly making demands on our time, requesting that we visit them for hours each week, no matter how busy we are. How can we establish boundaries without hurting their feelings?
The first feelings to worry about are your wife's. As you are asking the question and not your wife, I'm wondering if she experiences her parents as being as demanding as you do. Social life for many people revolves around contact with extended family. In these families, frequent contact is the norm and is often welcome. Other people come from families where that kind of frequent contact feels intrusive and suffocating.
So, the first thing to do is check with your wife and see how she feels about it. Remember to be respectful of her and her parents when you talk about it. Many people will criticize their parents but get defensive if someone else criticizes them. If your wife is okay with her parents' demands, it doesn't mean you have to be okay with it. There are two people in this marriage and your feelings and opinions need to count just as much as her's. Work out a compromise with her and ask her to take the lead in dealing with her parents.
If she agrees with you about her parents' demands, the two of you need to work out a plan for limiting contact with her parents. Decide together how much contact with the parents feels about right. Next you'll need a cover story for explaining the new limits to her parents without offending them. The best one I know is to tell them that you need more time for each other. Explain that the demands of jobs and kids are pushing the marriage aside. You love them but you love each other too and something's got to give. Trust them to understand. They know what it's like.