When we see two people who are angry with each other, we often find that their argument is about feelings of injustice on a personal level. One or possibly both will become angry because they feel they have been treated unfairly by the other. Each wants justice; it’s part of their human nature. In their minds they believe that if they could just set the record straight or get the other to change their behavior then all will be well and good. Unfortunately, this fight to balance the scales of justice frequently leads to further hurt and unhappiness.
Sharon is a stay-at-home mom looking after her two young children and managing the household affairs. Her husband, Nick, runs his own small construction company and has to work long hours to please his clients and manage his workers. He frequently works six or seven days a week. Sharon has come to resent Nick not being available for her and the kids. She sees him making his job a priority and his freedom to meet a client for a beer after work as being unfair and an abuse of his “freedom”. Nick is tired of being criticized when his primary goal is to provide for his family and secure their financial future.
Both Sharon and Nick believe they are been treated unfairly. Sharon believes that her efforts to convince Nick to spend more time with her and the kids fall on deaf ears. He always has so many excuses for spending time on work-related matters. He seems to view her stress and concerns as petty annoyances that he is unwilling or powerless to address. Sharon feels ignored, unappreciated, and, essentially, abandoned.
Nick does not particularly enjoy the long hours and the difficulties in dealing with unreasonable clients and unmotivated workers. But he sees this as the price he must pay to get ahead and give his wife and kids the best life possible. When he gets home after a long day at work he is devoid of energy and, more than anything, wants to be left alone. Sharon typically complains about his long hours and lack of help with the kids. Many days he wonders why he even bothers coming home. He generally feels criticized, unappreciated, and attacked.
Needless to say, these individuals each feel their partner is being grossly unfair. The result is numerous conflicts as each expresses their hurt and frustration in an effort to seek justice. And if we analyse these conflicts closely we find that the themes of Sharon feeling “abandoned” and Nick feeling “attacked” appear time and again. Without finding a way to communicate more effectively, this relationship may not survive this stressful time in their marriage.
In therapy Sharon may be asked to describe what she does when she feels abandoned. She might concede she gets angry at Nick, criticizes his long hours away from the family, and accuses him of being an absent husband and father. In addition, she tries to impress upon him the difficulties of her operating as a “single parent”, and she withdraws her affection.
Likewise, Nick would describe what he does when he feels attacked. He would relate that he shuts down, withdraws, refuses to discuss Sharon’s complaints for fear of creating a conflict, and he finds reasons to come home later than necessary.
Both would be asked if their response to feeling abandoned and attacked respectively is helping to improve the situation. The answer, of course, is no. And both would be shown how their behavior fosters the strong negative feelings that each experiences. Only now can we focus on individual changes in behavior.
There will be a wide variety of more appropriate behaviors they could each adopt. In this scenario Sharon may agree it is more helpful to greet Nick warmly when he gets home, ask about his day, and save her own frustrations for a later time. In turn, Nick could show appreciation for all Sharon does during the day, offer to help put the kids to bed, listen more attentively to her concerns, and make more effort to increase his time at home. In addition, this couple would benefit from a daily “talk time” and setting aside a weekly time when they can be alone together without the kids.
Sharon and Nick undoubtedly love one another but their search for justice has clouded their ability to listen to one another. Once they admit to their individual roles in each conflict and understand how they can interrupt the negative pattern that leads to conflict they are on the road to a more open and healthy relationship.