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Couples Reduce Anger By Sharing Tasks

Together but apart

Married for 10 years, Mary and Joe rarely argued, yet were slowly drifting apart from each other, each feeling emotionally distanced from the other. Underneath their emotional distance was anger, but it was “hidden” and lived as resentment, passive-aggression toward the other, and emotional detachment. In therapy, it was learned that a fairly common patterns of estrangement had developed between Mary and  Joe who at one time were deeply in love with each other.

The pattern started with Mary not doing what Joe considered to be her share of the household chores. She worked only part-time while Joe rose at 4AM every day, worked until 2PM and then came home and did all the housework, the yardwork, and then often started dinner. She spent much of her time with her family of origin and her friends. Joe slowly developed resentment toward Mary for having to “do it all.” He complained to her, but she didn’t see what the problem was. Her attitude toward household chores and standards of cleanliness were much more relaxed than his:

“So will the world stop turning if we do the laundry this weekend instead of today?” was a common Mary retort while looking at mountains of dirty clothes. Joe,  meanwhile,  was smoldering inside because of what he saw as her “laziness” and irresponsibility.

After awhile, he stopped complaining and simply stuffed his negative feelings toward Mary, while continuing to do almost all of the household chores.   But, he found himself losing sexual interest in her, which greatly wounded Mary who placed a high value on being sexually attractive to her husband. Of course, sexual deprivation led to further emotional distance and estrangement between them.

The Solution?

Agreement on Division of Labor
Agreement on Division of Labor

Often the problem is the other way around: many married woman justifiably complain that they too work yet are expected to do their “second job” once they get home at night.

Either way, a major breakthrough can be achieved by a  couple sitting down with a pencil and paper, listing all the household chores, drawing a vertical line down the center of the paper, and deciding who is going to do what and when it will be done.And then doing it!!

Sound like a simple solution? As we teach in our local anger management classes, our online anger program, and our local clinical clients (in marriage therapy with us), many times simple practical changes in how a couple does things often snowballs into other, more substantial changes in the relationship. Of course, there were more problems than just division of labor between Mary and Joe, but once Mary started doing more of the home tasks, Joe’s resentment lessened and his sexual interest in Mary picked up. This, of course, motivated Mary to try even harder to do more of her share of household chores.

Do they now have a perfect marriage? Of course not, but they are happier, have less conflict, and are feeling closer to each other.

Understanding marriage behavior doesn’t solve problems

Often couples spend hoiur after hour trying to understand each other or the root of a problem or issue that bothers them. Sometimes this is helpful, but more often than not, understanding a marital issue doesn’t necessarily provide the tools to change it.

Take the case of Karen who become terrified every time husband Ted yells at her. Ted thinks SHE is the problem because she is too sensitive; after all, he reasons, he is just expressing himself like everyone does in the family he grew up in. So, they enter therapy and discover that she reacts that way because she had an emotionally abusive father so she clearly “over-reacts” to her husband’s yelling.

Problem solved, right? Not necessarily! In fact, rarely, in my experience as a marital therapist and anger management trainer. In a case like this it is much more productive for the husband to acquire the skills of communicating without yelling, than for both to understand the reasons for her fear of him.

From a practical point of view, we feel it makes more sense to focus on how to FIX the problem instead of “understanding” it! Of course, sometimes we need to do both, but understanding it by itself without behavioral action to repair it is rarely effective.

Treat spouse as you would a friend

As an experienced marriage therapist as well as anger management trainer, I am often amazed at how badly people in relationship treat each other in comparison to how they treat their co-workers or same-sex friends. Things sometimes get to the point of contempt, which is a major predictor of divorce, according to recent research the the Gottman Institute in Seattle.

It seems obvious that to create and maintain a healthy loving relationship you need to treat your partner in ways that makes your partner feel loved and valued. Some marital therapists call this “real giving.” You can’t just spout-off, “be-yourself”, “say whatever  is on my mind all the time,” or disrespect your spouse one moment and then be loving the next – and expect your relationship to survive.

Part of relationship success involves treating each other with basic respect and civility; in effect, just try being nicer and see what results you might get. Sounds deceptively simple, yet somehow many people find it much easier to do with friends than spouses.

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