Time and again I speak to women who tell me: ‘I don’t like the person my husband turns me into.’
They claim that the awful things he says and does brings out the worst in them, pushing them into behaving in ways they can hardly understand.
They are quick to tell me that they never openly fight back, never have blazing rows. But then come the confessions, all too often a litany of acts of passive aggression: snide comments, spending money they can’t afford from joint funds, or deliberately turning up late to events that are important to him out of spite.
These women honestly believe that, because they never scream and shout, their role in the marriage is that of peacekeeper. In reality, their actions demonstrate that they are anything but.
Dr Jenn Mann explains that women feel they are the peacekeepers in their relationships, but by bottling up frustration it can lead to the opposite (file photo)
That’s not to say their husbands are faultless. Almost always, this unreasonableness is playing out in a relationship where the husband repeatedly says and does things that deeply upset his wife. While she sees her silence as a way of keeping the peace, it is actually making matters worse.
Just because the feelings his words or actions provoke haven’t been voiced doesn’t mean they simply disappear. Instead they snowball underground, resurfacing in the form of bitterness and resentment that spills out in other ways. So the relationship ends up in a far worse place than if she’d expressed her feelings at the time.
Which is why I believe in couples having a good old-fashioned row once in a while. Of course, I’m not suggesting they scream and shout at each other until one person’s righteous indignation drowns out the other.
Nor would I condone endless rows that are more about fighting for control and petty point scoring than tackling justified grievances and searching for solutions.
And there is no place for confrontations that are physical, nasty or personal, with one party bullied by the other.
Those are the kind of conflicts that will have you heading in the direction of the divorce courts.
Dr Mann believes that couples with healthy relationships keep disagreements out in the open (file photo)
But when one or both of you is no longer prepared to argue a point, stand up for what you believe in or insist that your partner treats you better, then that, too, is a recipe for disaster. Couples in healthy relationships keep disagreements out in the open — they feel safe enough to be able to air grievances despite the row it might cause.
Neither sees their role as peacekeeper, too insecure to risk getting involved in a disagreement.
They understand that a row can be cathartic — it releases tension and halts brewing resentment. It demonstrates that you value yourself and your relationship, and teaches you what matters to the person you are with.
Point scoring and tit-for-tat passive aggressive behaviour, on the other hand, is corrosive. But it’s an easy pattern for couples to fall into without acknowledging it to each other, or themselves.
What starts out with one deciding to take the path of least resistance, keeping quiet even though you’re genuinely hurt by something the other has said or done because you can’t face a row, easily becomes a destructive pattern of behaviour.
I had one client who admitted deliberately burning her husband’s favourite shirt with the iron, telling him it was an accident. Somehow, it was easier to vent her frustration at him choosing a work event over dinner with her parents, than tell him how hurt she felt face to face.
According to Dr Mann, point scoring and tit-for-tat passive aggressive behaviour is corrosive, but it’s an easy pattern for couples to fall into (file photo)
And, of course, men are just as guilty — I’ve had male clients tell me they’ve stopped helping around the house and deliberately double-book themselves so they’ll be unavailable to childmind or attend social events their wife has arranged. All this inevitably impacts on the children. Instead of watching and learning as parents confront relationship problems and work together to find resolution, they see differences being covered up with fake smiles and snide comments. And end up thinking that is normal.
I have counselled thousands of couples with plenty of occasions where I’ve witnessed dreadful vitriol between people who, deep down, are very much in love and want to save their relationship. But they have fallen into destructive patterns of behaviour to punish their partner or gain control.
Take Jenny and Steven, who ran a successful publishing business together. Jenny was withholding sex to punish Steven for showing more interest in his golf handicap than her; Steven would perpetually tease and make jokes at Jenny’s expense without her ever telling him that she found them hurtful, not funny.
Inevitably this damaged the self-esteem of both, and ate away at the loving and emotional connection they once shared.
Couples in healthy relationships keep disagreements out in the open — they feel safe enough to be able to air grievances despite the row it might cause
You could be forgiven for thinking their situation was hopeless. But any couple who can find the energy to shout about being unhappy in their marriage is invested in it enough to want to find a way to put things right.
They just needed to improve the way they went about it. Six months on and Jenny and Steven no longer need couples therapy, having learnt to voice their grievances and resolve them in a reasonable way.
I once counselled a couple that couldn’t understand why their marriage was soulless.
‘We never share a cross word,’ Susan, a doctor, told me, before tellingly adding that over the decade they’d been together she and her accountant husband had found it easier to always agree than challenge one another.
There was plenty of passive aggression though. Susan’s husband would procrastinate over getting jobs done around the house or even agreeing on where they might go on holiday.
Susan might not pick fights with her husband, but she had become expert at being uncommunicative, giving him the silent treatment for days without ever saying: ‘You’ve really upset me.’
Meanwhile, by persistently taking the path of least resistance, this couple failed to truly get to know each other.
Neither knew what truly mattered to their partner; they had no inkling of their passions and found each other bland and uninspiring.
This couple had checked out of their relationship long ago. Now they wanted help splitting amicably, not therapy to keep them in a long-dead marriage.
If indifference is allowed to take root in a relationship, then you’re as likely to end up with a decree absolute as the couple who rows so bitterly you wonder how they ever got together initially.
The Relationship Fix by Dr Jenn Mann (Sterling, rrp £19.99).