Q. When my husband and I get together with his family, he ignores me. He isn't mean or degrading; he just focuses on his family. On the drive home from his parent's house the last time this happened, I brought it up and he didn't know what I was talking about. How can I get him to pay attention to me?
A. We've struggled with this same problem! In the past whenever we'd go to Les's house, he'd shift into premarriage mode and forget I was his wife. Rarely checking in with me, he'd visit his buddies or take off with his dad—leaving me to fend for myself. He didn't mean to do it, but it felt as if I was invisible, a mere tag-along. And it was terribly lonely.
Finally, in private I asked Les if he realized what he was doing and, like your husband, he didn't. He was having a good time and assumed I was too. I was careful not to blame him or lash out because I felt wounded. But I did tell him how I was feeling and he began to see the situation from my perspective. This would have never happened if I'd accused him of deliberately ignoring me (that's guaranteed to put him on the defensive and solve nothing). But focusing on what was going on inside me when he took off without my input or didn't include me in discussions helped him realize what he was doing. And I realized I couldn't take his behavior personally, as I was tempted to do.
As we talked more, we devised a simple action-plan. Les would include me in discussions and keep me informed of what he was up to. I suggested I'd bring a book for times when he wanted to go off with somebody. Then we devised secret signals only the two of us would know as a way of staying in touch, such as making eye contact for "rescue me." I've used this one on several occasions—such as when I'm on my third round of Monopoly with his nephews.
Another thing that helped was that Les would make a conscious effort to touch me more often. A gentle squeeze on the shoulder as he was walking by, holding my hand every so often, or touching my elbow let me know I mattered and that I wasn't being ignored.
Try this yourselves and see if it works. Have a frank but gentle discussion about how you're feeling, invite him to discuss his experience, and then devise a plan of action to correct the problem.
When Advice Leads to Fights
Q. My husband and I have been married almost a year and it seems as if all we do is fight! He claims it's because I pick on him. That's not true. I just want him to do things right. But when I offer a suggestion, he gets angry. Then we end up arguing. I'm only trying to help, so why does he get upset?
A. Surprisingly, one of the reasons we argue boils down to our "need" to offer unsolicited advice. We can't seem to help ourselves from pointing out areas where our spouse needs to do, say, think, or feel something differently. But it's amazing how much needless confrontation in a marriage can be avoided when we simply bite our tongue and keep from spouting off suggestions—or even commands.
Unsolicited advice is about as welcome as an IRS audit. It implies your partner is incapable of doing something on his own, and it feels like a put-down. Nobody likes to have a "boss" for a spouse. Even if you offer the advice or suggestion with loving intentions, your spouse is still likely to hear it as a negative critique.
One of the smartest actions you can take is to ask your partner before launching into a Dear Abby mode. Say, "I know you didn't ask for my opinion, but may I tell you what I think?" If your husband isn't open to such a suggestion, then it's best for you to keep it to yourself. On the other hand, he may welcome your input, and you can give it in a helpful tone. That will save you from a needless argument over something insignificant.
I Want Some Privacy
Q. My wife accuses me of keeping her in the dark on what I do every day. But I don't see the need to tell her everything and feel we should respect each other's privacy. When I told her that, she got angry and said she couldn't trust me if I was keeping secrets. What should I do?
A. Our rule of thumb is that if something's going to affect the two of us, we talk about it—such as a change at work that will affect the stress level at home. We don't believe, however, there's any reason to go into tremendous detail about something that doesn't have a direct impact on our marriage, such as the particulars of personnel restructuring at work.
Marriages can only take so much honesty. Some things are better left unsaid. So it's best to think before we speak—especially since some thoughts and feelings last only for a few moments and are gone. If you have a fleeting feeling about quitting your job, for example, you don't have to tell your spouse about it if you know it would cause her unnecessary anxiety.
Some things must be told, though, no matter how painful. We've counseled people who've kept significant information from their partner because they didn't want to hurt them. They've gotten fired and invested joint funds in race horses, for example, and never said a word about it. We've known a wife who didn't find out her husband had high blood pressure until she discovered an empty medication vial in the bathroom wastebasket, months after his initial diagnosis. In the long term, keeping these secrets will damage any trust between two dedicated people.
To maintain a balance between openness and privacy, you have to steer clear of deception. While you aren't obligated to tell your spouse everything, you'll build a stronger marriage by speaking the truth in love.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of numerous books, including When Bad Things Happen to Good Marriages. Visit Les and Leslie at www.RealRelationships.com.
2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.