Tired of the Cold Shoulder

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Dear Robin, or is it Dear AskDesCamp?  Anyway, I love your blog and I heard you on the radio when I was in Palm Desert a couple weeks ago.  When are you getting your own damn show?  🙂

Here’s my problem: my fiancé (who I love very much!) and I have been together for 2 years and we are getting married in June.  It’s a second marriage for both of us.  My prior marriage was very volatile with lots of loud and angry fighting and I am really happy to not have that in my life anymore, but now I’ve got a new problem.  Life, right?

When she and I have a disagreement about something she closes down and won’t discuss it with me.  She then is very aloof and removed for a couple days, then she warms up and everything is OK again.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain, but I don’t think this is a good way to handle conflict in a relationship.  Do you have any thoughts on how I can get her to be more communicative?  Thanks, Robin!  Keep up the great work!

-Tom

Dear Tom:

Funny, that’s my husband’s name.  He most certainly does not have this problem, let me tell you.  That’s one of the reasons he is called “Mr. Patience and Understanding.”

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(uh-oh)

Thank you for your letter.  How couples communicate is the bedrock of a successful relationship and your concerns are not to be ignored.  Thanks also for chatting with me on the phone last week and telling me about your childhood.

You grew up in a highly dysfunctional home with two alcoholic parents and four kids, of which you were the youngest.  Screaming matches were a regular feature of your picture-perfect home, as were physical altercations.

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Man, sorry about that.  Your parents really did a number on you.

With Wife #1, you repeated that pattern and resided for a time in your old paradigm of chaos and extremely poor communication methods.  I suppose I could congratulate you for being consistent, but I won’t because we can see how that worked out for you.

Now you seem to be swinging the pendulum wildly in the opposite direction, and that’s understandable but ill-advised.

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Marrying a woman incapable of open and honest communication in an effort to remediate your history of volatile and histrionic relationships is like chopping off your hand with a meat cleaver because you have an ingrown fingernail.

In other words: not a good idea.  I am happy you have found love again and I am optimistic you can change your relationship with your fiancé for the better, but if I were you I’d postpone the wedding until you are sure this issue can be resolved in a positive manner.  Otherwise, you will likely end up in another divorce, and nobody wants to be a two-time loser.

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Your fiancé is what I like to call a Silent Seether.  The Silent Seether enjoys marinating in their own special recipe of anger, resentment, blame, mistrust and denial.  Mmmm…doesn’t that sound yummy?  While you claim she only marinates for a couple of days until returning to her normal nice self, I wouldn’t count on that time frame in the future.

Being married is difficult and gets more so as the years go on, until you’re old and so addled with dementia that every time you see your spouse it’s a first date all over again.  Fun!  Except you can’t get it up for hot new relationship sex – not fun!  But you forgot you couldn’t get wake up Cardinal Stumpy because again: dementia.  Life is good again!

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(“Will I do WHAT?  It’s not your birthday!”)

If you and this woman can’t communicate about troubles in the marriage, the only way I see you surviving this relationship is if you feel exactly the same way, and you don’t.  So instead of you changing, you have to change her.

“But wait!” some of you are thinking to yourselves, “I can’t believe Robin is advising this guy to try to change her!  Nobody should ever try to change another person!  Even Robin says he shouldn’t change for her and accept her way of (not) communicating!”

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My belief is that you should never marry someone hoping to change them.  But for Christ’s sake, give it a go before the wedding, if and only if it is a noble cause and a deal killer, as is this one.

Should you try to change someone’s taste in music or sense of humor?  No.  But helping your lover learn how to have productive and honest communication with you is a cause worth fighting for.

How do you do this?  Well, I’ll tell you.  Duh.

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This is going to be a very tough conversation, because you are supposed to get married in two months.  Way to procrastinate, buddy.  Asking a woman to postpone a wedding can be a very risky proposition, so I suggest you do so in full hockey gear and in the presence of a counselor who can help you navigate the conversation plus serve as a witness at her trial for assault with a deadly Rorschach print.

If I were you, I’d start with an effusive mea culpa and a David Yurman bracelet in apology for not raising this issue sooner.  You really fucked up here, so instead of this:

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I’m going to suggest this:

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I’m drooling over here.  This bracelet could make me forgive anything.  OK, back to your plan.  I’m in a rush so let’s do this by the numbers:

1. Tell your gal you are concerned about how the two of you communicate and that you need to be able to talk to her without her avoiding conflict and giving you the Silent Seether routine.  Be sure to back up this conversation with SPECIFIC EXAMPLES you have come prepared with.

Nothing says “my argument ain’t worth shit” more than someone who can’t illustrate a complaint without historical context.  This is a major pet peeve of mine.

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2. After she refuses to talk about the issue and gives you the silent treatment for two days, tell her you have made an appointment with a relationship counselor to help explore this problem.  If she refuses to go, skip immediately to #5.

3. In the session, make it clear to your fiancé that you cannot marry her until you are certain your marriage will include positive communication habits.  Explore why she thinks she approaches conflict the way she does.  Perhaps she was raised in a Norwegian household and is repeating her own paradigm.

4. Work on the problem until you are satisfied she has altered her style by picking petty fights with her and seeing how she reacts.  OK, don’t do that, but just wait for her to pull her Silent Seether act, call her on it, and initiate a productive conversation.  It’s like training a dog: repetition, consistency and reward are critical.  Keep little treats handy.

Once you are convinced she has changed her ways, go ahead and get married again, you silly optimistic damn fool.  Don’t forget the prenup!

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5. If nothing changes, dump her and find someone who lives in the happy medium between the hell you grew up in and the igloo in which you reside now.  Let her free to seek out another person who, like her, is so afraid of being unhappy that they will never be happy or make anyone else happy in their presence.

I hope to hear back from you soon with an update.

-Robin

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Chad

    again… you hit it out of the park, well done. Conflict resolution is on my dating profile… I learned so much from my first marriage and this is area is at the top of the list! … though its not great bait for the hook. Asking if they know about the 5 to 1 ratio from Gottman is a great start tho…. Great response 🙂

  2. mikedescamp

    Hi Robin,

    Dan here again; two time loser who finally got it right at the age of 62. It may have something to do with the fact that I’m a recovered Catholic and she’s a non-practicing Jew and we addressed a lot of basic issues on the first date. Ex: Her: Are you gay? Me: No, I’m a screaming hetero. Both: OK, then…

    Anyway, we got really lucky, for starters, AND we’ve done a lot of hard work, so it can happen.

    Here’s a huge issue that I almost never hear acknowledged when people talk about their divorce. There are still a lot of people who belong to one faith-based community or another. When a substantial part of your life is tied up in your church – and your primary self-identification may even be as a member of whatever faith you belong to – then divorce can be especially devastating. Basically, when two people split up only one of them gets custody of the church.

    I went through this with my former wife over a decade ago, and it still hurts to think about it. One Sunday I could count on a congregation of over 200 parishioners if I became ill or lost a job or needed financial help. The next Sunday, when the word got out about our impending divorce, there were only a handful of people who would even return my calls.

    I’m curious if any of your other readers have shared this experience.

    Keep up the great blogging, and good luck with the radio show.

    Dan

  3. echinachea

    Excellent response, as usual! However, I don’t think it was very nice of you to post that picture if me and you-know-who right under the sentence “life is good again.” Some day in the distant future, you too will be old!

  4. jeff

    “Tell your gal you are concerned about how the two of you communicate” smells a lot like, “Honey, we need to talk.” And we all know how well that work for a conversation starter. A truly meaningful and productive conversation usually starts with a question, not a statement. Good, now that we’ve agreed on that, what would the question be? Faced with a similar situation occasionally, I’ve found success with an opener that implies a shortcoming on my part that could be resolved with some help from my wife, “sweetheart, I don’t think I said that right” or “dear, I think I probably misinterpreted what you meant”.

    One of the challenges that faces the person who tries to initiate the healthy productive conversation is that the significant other sometimes feels like the decision has been made and all that’s really going to happen is a solution being presented instead of jointly sought after. Everyone wants to feel like they matter, like they’re part of the solution, not just part of the problem.

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