"Our Son Is Off to War and It's Tearing Us Apart!"

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The Counselor's Turn

A Foundation in Need of Repair

"Annie and Charlie's marriage had veered off course years ago," said the counselor, "but their son's imminent deployment to Iraq ratcheted up the tension between them. They had a strong foundation that was grounded in love, but after years of neglect, it was in desperate need of repair.

"While they were raising their kids, Charlie and Annie put their marriage on autopilot. Over the years, they fell out of the habit of communicating, verbally or physically. In time, Annie slipped into a spiral of negativity, storing up anger until the slightest incident triggered an outburst. Charlie, accustomed to a critical wife, minimized contact to avoid confrontation, which made the situation worse because Annie took his withdrawal as a sign that he didn't love her. This, in turn, fueled her ongoing hurt and tendency to strike back in anger. The crisis with Sean forced them to face the huge gulf between them.

"Identify What You Want"

"Annie, for example, had developed an almost knee-jerk reaction of thinking negatively about her husband. Instead of withholding judgment or asking for more information when he did or said something that distressed her, she automatically assumed he was failing her or being critical and went into attack mode. As her resentment became entrenched, it seeped out in sarcastic, hurtful remarks that made him retreat even further. When they recounted various disagreements in my office, I encouraged Charlie to explain what he had been thinking and feeling in each situation. Annie assumed her husband's withdrawal after work or on their weekend trip meant he wasn't interested in being with her, when, in fact, his need for serenity was prompted by his stressful workdays.

"Before therapy, these two spent a lot of time chronicling what was wrong instead of expressing their needs and feelings. 'Identifying what you want, rather than what you don't want,' I said, 'leads to solutions and an overall positive feeling.' For example, Annie could say, 'Honey, I'm feeling anxious about Sean. I'd like to talk for a few minutes.' To stop disagreements from escalating, Annie had to learn to recognize when her tone was harsh. Substituting words like 'seldom,' 'sometimes,' or 'occasionally' for 'always' and 'never' also took the sting out of her comments.

"As the overall tension ebbed, Charlie and Annie used their newfound collaborative skills to negotiate daily decisions peacefully, such as the choice of a window treatment for the kitchen. They both also began to suggest activities they could enjoy together -- whether taking a walk or sitting down to a game of Scrabble. Reinfusing their lives with meaning also revitalized their long-dormant sex life. To help that along, they decided to go to bed earlier, read, talk, and see where the closeness led.

"By assuming good will toward each other, they were able to feel like allies instead of adversaries. This was crucial if they were to deal with their son's departure. Charlie's 'I just won't think about it' attitude infuriated Annie because she desperately needed to talk about her fears. So did Charlie, for that matter.

Continued on page 5:  The Counselor's Turn, continued


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