Communication and Conflict: Lessons in Life and Love

Excerpted from "Making Healthy Families" Copyright © by Shadow and Light Publications (2000) and used with permission.

Effectively communicating with other family members is not a luxury, but a basic emotional need. We marry our partners with the best of intentions. Still, learning the lessons that love has to teach us is not always smooth sailing. The ability to see the problem is one thing, while the capacity to make a change can feel "out of reach." When communication breaks down, spouses are vulnerable to disconnecting from one another at the very time they need each other the most!

Mistakes happen in life, and the potential to learn and grow from them is our biggest ally against future heartache. "Getting to the bottom" of a traumatic event in marriage requires our best efforts to use communication to rebuild trust and prevent future disconnection. Increasing our capacity to express our needs when in conflict or under pressure is a key factor in avoiding "acting out" feelings in a way that damages relationship. In cases like the one below, deeper understanding and communication are essential to rescue the marriage.

Recovering the relationship after an affair

Dear Dr. Gayle,
I am in the process of getting over the knowledge that after eleven years of marriage my husband had an affair. I now can go back over a two year period and see where it went wrong. I was going through the process of bereavement over my father's death. This took me a long time to get over. My husband and my father didn't see eye to eye. And my husband didn't really know how to help me in my bereavement, so I was left to my own ways. He felt, and was, neglected, various arguments occurred over this point, but I couldn't do much about it.

 

The opportunity for an affair was open to him at work and he fell into it. We had a few very bad months. I believe we hit rock bottom but are slowly climbing our way back up to the top. I still love him. We have one son aged eight years and I cannot just think of me. We do talk and communicate, even to the point of checking if he has any threats made, as the girl in question acted very wild when he finished the affair. My main problem is that I visualize them together, on a daily, hourly basis, even on the morning of my birthday! I have such a pain still inside of me. He refuses now to answer any more questions that I might ask. He says it won't do me any good and only drags up the past.

We must try to put it behind us. He is full of regret, remorse for his actions. He continually states his love for me and is very attentive and I know he means it. But how can I stop thinking about it? I think I am going mad!

Debra

Dear Debra,
You are not going mad. You are grieving your husband's betrayal! But questions you need answered are not the details of the sexual affair, as much as the motivation for his behavior. Except for clarifying issues of safe sex, details often become overly focused upon and can lead to unhealthy obsessions with a life of their own. What is more important is to focus your energy on understanding the emotional meaning of the affair in the context of your marriage.

Your husband broke the rules of your monogamous agreement. He has broken your trust, and you have every reason to feel angry and sad. Accepting these feelings and working through them includes understanding what was truly going on for him when he chose to so jeopardize his marriage. Only through understanding the meaning of the affair will you be able to determine whether you may be able to regain trust in him for the future.

 

You believe that his motivation has to do with your preoccupation with mourning your father's death. Though his reasons by no means validates his destructive acting out in your relationship, it would be critical to explore this aspect in depth. In this way the two of you will be taking responsibility for the gap in your marriage that might allow other people to come between you. And should this kind of gap present pain in the future, communication in place of dangerous acting out behavior will be more likely to occur.

It is the responsibility of both of you to create the connection that is lacking in your relationship rather than ignore it. Perhaps you were too quick to accept that your husband cannot help you in your bereavement. Your self-reliance, or in his perception, your dependence on your parents, may have left your husband feeling like he was peripheral to you instead of your main support. The silver lining in your situation may be that the obvious symptom of infidelity is blatant enough that neither of you can ignore it. In some way it may present the opportunity for focusing on your relationship and bringing you closer together. Clearly this has already occurred with your alliance against the other woman, and this is how it should be if the priorities for the marriage are basically sound.

The "other woman" in this case does not seem to represent any desirable replacement of you in your husband's mind, but may symbolize the predator of disconnection that you and your partner were falling prey to in your own intimate relationship. Without attention, this gap may have caused your marriage to atrophy and die a slow death over time. Your love for one another, your desire to remain as a family unit, his deep remorse and your belief in his genuine regret for hurting you are all reasons to consider remaining in the marriage.

 

Do not get seduced away from the problem by having an emotional obsession with the affair itself! Express your anger and hurt. You might want to create a ritual that includes making a fire and burning the pain, sharing it with the flames themselves. From the ashes may come the possibility for a renewed relationship with your husband. Expect a change from your husband in how he expresses his dissatisfaction in the marriage. Ask him for clarification regarding his acting out behavior. What would he have done differently, looking back on it? Instead of having an affair, what did he need to express to you about his own needs in the marriage? Is he talking to you and are you listening?

The overriding danger is that without a change in your ability to connect and communicate with one another, the two of you are vulnerable to using the affair as a continued source of distancing-perhaps one that replaces the gap left by the separate grief you experienced with your father. The rift between your father and your husband may have left you with conflict about your closeness to your husband. The distance between you and your spouse may have set the conditions that are ripe for affairs. Your best insurance as a couple is to build a bridge to one another.

Make this an opportunity for self reflection. Look deeply and honestly at your own intimacy issues. Have you been available to the marriage? Are you willing to depend on your husband for your emotional needs? Does anything keep you from making him a significant source of nourishment? He may need to feel that he is important to you and that you need him. Is he there for you when you do reach out? Determine together what kind of bond you would like to have with one another, and what may have kept you from forging it.

 

Make your relationship the main focus. Do not allow jealousy the power to ravage your life or to undermine your self worth! If your husband's behavior can be understood and does not represent a pattern of infidelity as a response to stress, it is unlikely to occur again. Contain the jealousy fire and like any fire deprived of its oxygen, it will eventually die out. Instead, direct the wind bellows towards the marriage relationship!

We are more likely to avoid "acting out" our feelings and needs through behavior that damages relationship if we take time to consider our communication patterns and how they contribute to, or detract from, successful conflict resolution and ongoing dialogue. Communication tools that promote rather than inhibit discussions is what the rest of this chapter is all about!

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