Tell Me About It: now I am very concerned that this lack of communication by me due to fear of conflict could end my marriage
I am a 44 year old married man, now living in Germany. I have been with my wife for 14 years, and we have two wonderful children. In a lot of ways we were very happy.
However, I have a problem with conflict and as opposed to saying things to my wife that I felt would make her uncomfortable, I would avoid her questions or give basic answers.
For example, I have two friends she doesn’t like and instead of telling her that I am meeting them once in a while, I would say I am off for a cycle and drop into them on the way home. In that way I could talk about the cycle, but not mention meeting my friends.
About a year ago, a woman contacted me for businesses reasons and we met up to discuss it. Again, I felt uncomfortable to share this with my wife. Nothing happened between me and this woman but we met maybe once a month for coffee for about a year. My wife checked my mails, got really angry and is so disappointed I did not confide these meetings in her.
She has ignored me now for over 1 week and her wedding ring lies in the room, not on her finger.
Up to this she really loved me dearly. Now I am very concerned that this lack of communication by me due to fear of conflict could end my marriage.
You sound quite distressed but there is a huge opportunity in this situation for you. Your withholding of your life from your wife suggests that you were afraid that if she were to find out about your monthly coffees or your clandestine friendships that she would withdraw her affection or get angry.
While this may be true it does not justify your secrecy and the effect is to create a lack of trust and a lessening of intimacy. It seems that you used the motto “anything for peace” as a slogan for your marriage and now you are full of fear and intimidation. Perhaps some information of what makes relationships work might be useful.
John Gottman conducted research on thousands of couples since the 1980s and his research is widely accepted and acclaimed. He found that all couples argued as it is important that we are understood by the person we are most intimate with.
What determined the success of the relationship was not the frequency of the arguments but the “How” couples argue. In fact he discovered that 69 per cent of all couple arguments are never resolved in the course of their lifetime together so coming to an agreement is not actually necessary for a successful relationship. What is important is that we engage fully with each other and that we avoid what Gottman found out are the four things in an argument that signify separation: contempt, defensiveness, criticism and stonewalling.
You are in the “defensiveness” category which means that you withdraw and justify your position by thinking it is not worth bringing up the conflict but the result is a withdrawal from the relationship and your wife responds (perhaps unconsciously) by becoming suspicious and checking your emails.
We only engage in conflict when we think it is important or it is a point of principle and therefore it is a measure of what we are willing to stand up for. What you got with your wife was some peace but no engagement on the very important matters of your right to your own friendships or perhaps there was more to your monthly coffees than you are willing to take responsibility for.
The possibility is that your coffee companion had more intimacy with you than your wife as perhaps you were not keeping anything secret from her and again there are consequences in that your wife feels betrayed and angry with you.
If you are not heard fully by the important people in your life, your confidence suffers and it seems that this is currently the case with you. The aim is not to say something to pacify your wife, but to speak honestly and be heard fully about why you are so unwilling to engage in conflict with her.
Nothing less will re-create intimacy and certainty between you. This entails that you are completely honest even if it means that there is further hurt and conflict between you – the danger is that you go back into your previous mode of saying what you think will keep the peace thus furthering the emotional distance and repeat the pattern of dishonesty.
You cannot make your wife stay in the marriage but you can give her the gift of your true and honest self and she can decide if she wishes to take the risk of continuing. The reward for you will be an increase in confidence and an ability to face conflict when it is necessary and important.