Do you ever NOT deal with something between you and your spouse, hoping it will just blow over or that it’s a passing issue? And perhaps life does sail smoothly for a while and then later, BOOM, it comes backs to bite you!?
Making it a principle in your marriage to talk about issues sooner rather than later will save you a lot of headaches.
For example, it is my nature to procrastinate (or avoid) dealing with issues and just hope they’ll blow over or go away. Unfortunately, it never seems to work that way, and instead, all these minor issues collect behind a temporary dam.
Whenever I react with WAY TOO MUCH emotion over something small (that’s the dam bursting), it’s a good indication to me that I haven’t been dealing with the issues as they arrive.
So, what I want to know is,
WHY DO WE HOLD BACK?
As usual, let’s look at the research:
A study was done in 2004 which looked at decisions to withhold complaints in marriage. It points out that even in a satisfying relationship there are almost daily relational irritations. (We’re normal, Yay!) Even though the couple may uphold the principles of open and direct communication, the spouses frequently hold back on addressing the irritations. This study then looked at how these complaints related to power in the relationship.
It turns out that the person who complains the least holds the least power because they’re withholding in order to avoid negative consequences. A spouse who values his/her relationship is more likely to encourage the expression of complaints to their spouse.[i]
Learning that blew my theories out the window. I always thought that it was the “strong one” who would let things go or suck-it-up. Turns out I was wrong…
Another thing that affected whether a spouse would bring up irritations, was the type of relationship. In a relationship with more independent spouses, where they valued companionship and closeness but also valued keeping their independence, couples were most likely to express their irritations.
More traditional relationships that are invested in stability over spontaneity and hold traditional sex roles, tend to report a moderate proportion of unexpressed irritations. Finally, more individuated companionship type relationship that maintains psychological distance and values individual freedom report the high proportion of unexpressed irritations.
What we see here, is that the ore you build a relationship focussed on a strong emotional bond and respecting each other’s individuality, the more likely you are to bring things up. Or, in more psychobabblish language, the more differentiated the relationship, the more likely you are to deal with things sooner. We have a whole episode on differentiation, but the quick gist of it is the idea of being securely bonded yet individuated is a healthy posture for marriage.
A differentiated spouse knows their marriage is not at risk and can handle the anxiety of pointing out something about their spouse that has upset them.
Daily & Palomares (2004) also looked at couples avoiding topics. They found that the more individuals reported avoiding topics overall, the less satisfied they were with their romantically involved dating relationship. They also found a negative relationship between topic avoidance and satisfaction in families.
They conclude that people avoid topics because they are unsatisfied, and those that are satisfied are lead to discuss freely. BUT, they’re not sure about cause and effect. Does dissatisfaction lead to avoidance? Or avoidance to dissatisfaction?[ii]
We actually don’t know, but we DO know there is a correlation.
Does Holding Back Work?
We don’t think so, and neither do Daily & Palomares. The more you avoid current relationship concerns, the less satisfied you are relationally. It only makes sense that you can’t feel intimate if you can’t discuss everything.
The closeness between you is mediated by the range of topics you are free to discuss with each other. The more you limit that, the more you expand the fence line around untouchable issues, and the less you share together.
The Bible principle of Ephesians 4:27 is cited in one of the research articles we looked at. It says “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath”. Deal with things before the end of the day. (If you’re like me and are an emotional wreck when you’re overtired – agree to discuss it in the morning.)
And then there’s the good ol’ confirmation bias. This is just a big term for searching for information in a way that confirms our own preconceptions. For example, I kick the table leg and spill Caleb’s coffee when I put it down in front of him. If he already has an irritation he hasn’t brought up with me, he could easily think, “Wow, she’s mad at me for something”, and then things escalate.
Confirmation bias is the reason you can start with a small issue and then build a really big case on it.
What Do You Let Go versus What Do You Address?
There is a balance between high expectations and a healthy tolerance for each other’s humanity. We don’t want to be militant about dealing with everything, but at the same time, it’s not good to expand the untouchable fence or build up things behind the dam.
Gottman, Swanson, and Murray did a study looking at newlyweds. The results suggest that couples need to fix problems quickly and detect even small issues. Their recommendation is to not let things ride, and not let them have a chance to build up.
That still leaves me wondering; what do you need to deal with versus let go? Well, they felt that having a lower tolerance for negativity was better. Ie., it was better to be more sensitive just so that things never had a chance to escalate.
To me, this makes sense because it’s a lot easier to sort out an issue between Caleb and I when it’s really fresh and well defined and hasn’t snowballed with other issues into something much bigger.
So the conclusion? Holding back does not work. You do need to talk about it sooner rather than later.
A word of caution though, in case you’re reading this and you’re just as human as the rest of us and you’re thinking “Oh wow, I’ve got some sorting out to do… How can I ever catch up on this?” If you have built the dam up or made this large cordoned-off area of topics you can’t touch, it won’t go away overnight.
If it’s too big, overwhelming and thorny, then get help. But if you’re looking to do some work on your own and you feel you can handle this, we’ve got a worksheet to help you break down the issue. It will also help you understand why you need to discuss what you want to discuss as well as help you prepare for that discussion.
Having these discussions are essential, but be sure you approach them with certain virtues in mind. Fowers studied good listening skills in marriage: Non-defensive listening, and active listening.
Non-defensive listening: This is a skill that helps you to focus your attention on what the other person is saying and to attempt to really understand it. Refrain from interrupting and refrain from being preoccupied with formulating your own defense. This requires a good deal of self-control.
Active-listening: This includes nodding, making eye contact, grunting, summarizing your spouse’s statements and validating them. These things all send the signal back that what he or she has to say is valid and worth acknowledging.[iii]
Not only is it important to talk about things sooner rather than later, but it’s also critical to learn to do it well.
[i] Denise Haunani Solomon, Leanne K. Knobloch, and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, “Relational Power, Marital Schema, and Decisions to Withhold Complaints: An Investigation of the Chilling Effect on Confrontation in Marriage,” Communication Studies 55, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 146–67.
[ii] Rene M. Dailey and Nicholas A. Palomares, “Strategic Topic Avoidance: An Investigation of Topic Avoidance Frequency, Strategies Used, and Relational Correlates,” Communication Monographs 71, no. 4 (December 2004): 471–96.
[iii] Blaine J. Fowers, “The Limits of a Technical Concept of a Good Marriage: Exploring the Role of Virtue in Communication Skills,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 27, no. 3 (July 2001): 327–40.