One of the saddest tasks I ever performed as an attorney was handling the divorce of a Bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had known him for many years. The divorce itself was not acrimonious. The bishop and his wife agreed readily about most elements of their settlement. Both were disposed to be fair to each other. Both were concerned about the impact the divorce would have on their children.
The divorce was not about adultery or other dishonest behavior. There was no physical abuse involved. Instead, it was a very common dynamic. The husband was a very passive sort of person. He didn't readily express emotion. He was one of those very agreeable sort of people who just wants everybody around him to be happy. His wife was a much more passionate person, and was never really satisfied with the level of emotional intensity he brought to the marriage. She was inclined to "turn up the volume" in order to be heard and in the attempt to provoke an emotional response.
A number of times in the aforementioned marriage, the wife said she wanted a divorce. Later, she told me that she never really did want the divorce. She only said so to light a fire under her husband and get him to be more responsive. I told the husband this and suggested that maybe they should try to go to counseling and work things out. He told me that he had not originally wanted the divorce; but once it got going he was more excited about it and ready to go forward. He said he was sick and tired of his wife's yelling and screaming at him, and her threats to divorce him. He said, "If she's going to keep saying it, she better be ready to do it!" Their divorce proceeded forward to its conclusion, even though I don't think it was really what either of them wanted deep down.
This sad story has a number of elements that can be instructive to us.
1. Don't try to change people. In this circumstance, the wife wanted her husband to be more expressive. I can understand that and I know MANY women feel that way. (Some men do too.) This man had a basically soft-spoken and more passive temperament. I have known him since he was 15 years old, and he was always that way. She married him knowing this. I think, ironically, it is one of the reasons she married him. She liked his soft touch with people and his amiable personality. She lived with it for awhile and decided she wanted more passion.
Dr Jennifer Finlayson-Fife has sometimes talked about how, early in her marriage, she would push her husband John to be more expressive in his feelings for her. She came to a point of realization that this wasn't who she married. She had dated plenty of guys who might have been more expressive. She chose John for other reasons, including his openness to her feedback and basic kindness toward her. She knew he loved her and that was enough. So don't try to change your partner to be what you want, whether you are dating or married.
If you are dating, be intentional about what kind of person you want to marry. As Don Miguel Ruiz says, if you want a dog don't get a cat and try to make it bark. Get a dog. Find what you want. Don't simply take what you can get and try to make him or her into what you want. That really never works.
Once you are married, appreciate what you have. Remember the reasons you married your spouse. If you married someone who is not very expressive, look for the other ways he or she shows love. ”The Five Love Languages" by Gary Chapman is a good book that can help you understand how to look for the way your partner shows and receives love.
2. Yelling and screaming is never acceptable. It is abuse. It doesn't matter what your partner did to provoke you. You are never justified in showing this kind of contempt for another person. It also strongly sends the message, "I need you to be different so I can be happy."
I do understand the frustration of being with a partner that is extremely passive. My first wife was very much that way. I sometimes said provocative things in a misguided attempt to get something back indicating any kind of concern for me or our marriage. She was disengaged even when the most sensitive issues were on the table--especially when the most sensitive issues were on the table. In the moments when it seemed like our marriage was on the line, she literally had nothing to say. I felt like yelling and screaming. I never did.
Again, this wasn't a question I even knew to ask when we were dating. But I married a cat when what I wanted was a dog. I wanted a deep emotional connection. She wanted an easy and peaceful existence with zero drama. I never raised my voice to her during the marriage or since. But, looking back, I have sometimes regretted saying provocative things trying to get a response from her. Unlike my friend Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, I never made peace with the person I had married--for all of her sundry strengths and weaknesses. I wanted her to be something else. She sensed this and was dissatisfied pretty early on. I don't blame her.
The main point here is that yelling and screaming or saying provocative words or threatening divorce is not going to change your partner, except to encourage him or her to believe that he or she married a lunatic.
In the case of our Latter-day Saint bishop, the wife said that her dissatisfaction was that her husband would not communicate with her. She told me that when she yelled and screamed at him, she wanted him to scream right back. "then he would be communicating and telling me how he feels." I can say, categorically, that communicating by yelling and screaming never takes you anywhere good. When you are yelling and screaming you are not listening. What you do here is open hostility and your brain instinctively feels like you are defending yourself against a dangerous enemy.
We yell and scream when we are in fight or flight mode. This happens when we are emotionally flooded. In those circumstances, you say damaging things you don't mean, make threats, and both of you come out feeling less safe in your relationship.
Instead, take the "flight" option. Make an agreement that, when either of you says "time out," you hit the pause button right then. You also agree that you will come back together 20 minutes to a few hours later, when you are both calm, and resolve the matter. This little procedure has saved Cathy and me from arguments that could have lasted all day or all night, without resolution--and it has created a marriage where we both feel safe. I know couples who report having argued all night with their spouse. That is beyond destructive. Hit the pause button and come back to the subject when you are capable of a constructive discussion.
I think, sometimes, popular culture and media encourage us to express our frustration with our loved ones by yelling and screaming. I grew up watching The Brady Bunch, where kids talk respectfully to their parents, and their parents talk calmly and respectfully to each other, even when they disagree. Sometime in the last 4 decades, we have television shows that depict people shouting back and forth about their disagreements. It will show one frustrated lover telling the other one off for being uncommitted or some other relationship offense. Kids on TV are often sassy to their parents and our own kids talk to us that way unless we are intentional about teaching them different.
I think even adults often reflect what they see on TV more than they believe. When we are watching TV, I have often pointed out to my step kids when people who love each other start yelling at each other and say, "that's showing you a very bad example of how to deal with a relationship problem." They are probably tired of hearing me say that. But I want them to grow up understanding that these unhealthy and destructive patterns they see modeled on TV are not just normal. In church settings, we often talk about the sexual immorality we see depicted on screens. We ought to talk more about the interactive immorality and abuse of loved ones we see depicted on screens. I think it's having a very corrosive effect on our ability to create happy and stable relationships.
3. Listen and do your best. You can't be someone else to please your partner or eventual spouse. But that is not a license to be selfish either. Try to learn your partner's love languages and give him or her the things that help him or her feel loved--even if it is outside your comfort zone. (Please read this comment for yourself and not to hold over your partner.)
Relationships are complicated. Communication is sometimes difficult. Try to intentionally practice these principles when you are dating. Have open conversations with your partner about them. Try to be self-reflective and observe whether your partner is a self-reflective kind of person. Often you will be attracted to someone who is your opposite. Decide whether that is what you really want, or if you want to be with someone more like yourself. Make deliberate choices and realize that no relationship is going to give you 100% of what you want all the time. You will have moments of deep connection and love, and moments where you will kind of be on your own. That's normal.
For most of us who have found ourselves in the community of mid-singles, being intentional is essential to creating relationship communication patterns that feel both safe and connected.