How Not to End Up Hating Your Partner

It is no secret that the evolution of traditional domestic roles has kicked up a lot of dust in relationships. There seems to be a pronounced power imbalance that’s becoming increasingly pervasive, where both partners work, yet one partner is (unhappily) bearing the brunt of household responsibility. Writer Jancee Dunn, who lives with her husband (also a writer) and six-year-old in New York City, found herself experiencing the shift—and furious about it. Her new book, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, is equal parts romp and eye-opener, as she tackles relationship self-help from every angle—and through many experts and therapists. A few chapters in, one goop staffer had already photographed a dozen pages to send to her spouse. Here, Dunn explains the spot she and her husband found themselves in:

Before my husband and I became parents, we rarely fought. Then we had a baby—and started fighting all the time. The smallest issues set me off. Granted, I was deranged from rampaging hormones, sleep deprivation, and the quadrupling of at-home work that fell largely to me, even though I married an evolved guy. My husband Tom seemed almost bizarrely oblivious that I needed help. So I lost my temper, and he closed down and retreated—a classic dysfunctional pattern that psychologists call demand/withdrawal.

Demand/withdrawal often stems from a power imbalance: In our case, I wanted to change our domestic status quo and have Tom do more housework and childcare, while he was, perhaps unsurprisingly, perfectly happy to keep things the same. But as our baby grew, so did the frequency of our arguments. The louder and more demanding I became, the more Tom walled me off.

Of course, traditional gender roles don’t have the same sway in every relationship, and fraught dichotomies aren’t exclusive to hetero relationships, or just married couples with kids. Dunn’s journey to restore the peace (and fun) in her relationship carries some lessons in it for all of us, but particularly poignant is her experience with the notoriously no-BS therapist, Terry Real, founder of Boston-based Relational Life Institute:

A little hesitantly, I booked a day-long session. A friend warned me that while Real may have saved her marriage, he was exceedingly blunt (as she put it, “prepare to have your hair blown back”). As Tom and I drove from our Brooklyn home to Boston, we grew increasingly jittery.

Real’s specialty is drilling down quickly and forensically to your problems—mere minutes into our session, I was divulging things that I’ve never told another human being. Then he delivers, with brutal candor, some painful truths that are hard to hear. The whole process was grueling, yet strangely exhilarating. He yelled. He cursed. Sometimes, he made us laugh. At the end of that long day, Tom and I were so shaken that we drove in white-faced silence back to our Boston hotel and immediately fell into a deep sleep at 8 p.m.

We started treating each other differently the next morning. Did we magically stop fighting? No, and we continued counseling with a therapist in NYC. But our mega-session with Terry Real was the catalyst that turned our marriage around.

Below, Dunn and Real talk through his M.O. for all relationships (called full-respect living), sound advice for healthy arguing, and how to actually get what you want—and need—from your partner.

Jancee Dunn & Terry Real Talk Repairing Relationships

JD: Terry, you’re a proponent of what you call “full-respect living,” which was a game-changer for us. The concept of full-respect living is pretty straightforward: that none of your interactions with your partner should drop below the level of simple respect.

TR: Exactly. You don’t have to deny or repress your feelings, or shy away from squabbling, or even intense anger. But you make a deep commitment that, no matter what, the line separating anger from disrespect—from contempt, control, retaliation, or punishing withdrawal—is never crossed.

JD: Meaning that if you say something in the heat of the moment, first ask yourself, is this respectful? And if it isn’t, then, as you put it, with all due respect, shut up.

TR: It’s as clear as that. And it means that name-calling, ridiculing, shouting, and yelling are off the table.

JD: Which I’m ashamed to say I was doing to my husband. You told me it was verbal abuse, which I found sort of surprising.

TR: I’m not surprised that you hadn’t heard that before because many people don’t call it that in a relationship. But it was verbal abuse, which has no place whatsoever in a healthy relationship. None. That doesn’t mean that you can’t stand up for yourself. But there’s a difference between assertion and aggression. Everybody knows what that difference is, but we don’t abide by it. I’m not talking about being a wimp—I’m just talking about not being disrespectful. You can say, “please change your tone,” or, “this conversation is over,” instead of, “you’re a jerk.” You can get the job done, and still be respectful. You can stay sane. You can stay moderate. Good manners, even in your own living room, pay off.

“That doesn’t mean that you can’t stand up for yourself. But there’s a difference between assertion and aggression.”

And I saw in our session that when I told you that you were verbally abusive, you woke up. You were suddenly sickened by it.

JD: Yes, but at first I tried to deny that yelling was verbal abuse! I said, “What’s wrong with a little venting?” Oh, you did not like that. I saw you start gathering force, like a tornado.

TR: Ha. Look, we’re a venting culture, and I have to blush that psychotherapy has been a major proponent of it over the years. The Freudian idea is that if you have an emotion, you either express it or suppress it—and that suppressing it is a bad idea. This is nonsense. You do not have the inalienable right to haul off and be miserable to your partner. Spewing out every feeling you have the second you have it does not foster intimacy. It does the opposite.

“The Freudian idea is that if you have an emotion, you either express it or suppress it—and that suppressing it is a bad idea. This is nonsense.”

So yes, I’m against it. And I got you to see that it was harming your relationship. In your intensive, I moved you from ego syntonic, which is being more comfortable with your behavior, to ego dystonic, or being uncomfortable with it. It’s the process of reaching in to find the decent person underneath the crap, and empowering that part of you to stand up to the other part within you. We therapists sell our clients short, because here’s what you did after that session: You stopped giving yourself permission to indulge it. I told you that your verbal abuse was going to stop that day, and full-respect living was going to start. And by and large, you did it.

JD: If I could sum up our session in one sentence, it’s this: You told me to stop being a self-righteous angry victim, and told Tom to join the twenty-first century and get his ass off the couch and help me out.

TR: You’re America’s power couple, who I see over and over again: a hard working, secretly shame-filled, overtly entitled man with an overtly compliant and covertly resentful woman. That couple will be a success in the world and make a hash of their personal lives. So my job is to lead them out of the patriarchy, and help the disempowered one to have a real voice and power in the relationship, and take the entitled or grandiose or blind one, and open their eyes and their heart.

“You’re America’s power couple, who I see over and over again: a hard working, secretly shame-filled, overtly entitled man with an overtly compliant and covertly resentful woman.”

JD: Yet the advice that I often read about how to keep the peace at home is: Women should just relax their standards and let everything go—who cares if the laundry piles up?

TR: I think what’s different about my work is that I take sides. When I went to therapy school it was: Thou shalt not take sides, and God help you if you side with the woman. If you lost your therapeutic neutrality, you were sent to your supervisor and you had to talk for a while about your mother.

But here’s the thing: The lives of women have changed radically in the last thirty years. Yet many men stay irresponsible and/or emotionally detached. They don’t know how to deal with frustrated partners who want their mates to show up and grow up.

“You needed to stop playing the martyr.”

Your husband is a sweet, lovely guy, and a terrific father. But what he wasn’t getting, and this is true for most men I see, is that it was in his interest to move beyond his knee-jerk entitlement and laziness, which may have short-term success, but results in long-term resentment. And you needed to stop playing the martyr—something I see quite a bit with my female clients—and be direct about what you wanted. You were fuming that he wasn’t reading your mind.

JD: And I had somehow deluded myself into believing that our fighting wasn’t affecting our young daughter. For years, Tom and I were trapped in that classic pattern where we were curt with each other, but elaborately sweet to our child. I remember one time when they both slept in on a school day: I went into my daughter’s room and gently touched her shoulder and said, “Honey, you overslept, you little rascal! Mommy has some oatmeal ready for you!” Then I barged into our room, yanked up the shutters, and said to Tom, “It’s already 8:15. Get up.” So there was a slight difference in tone… You let me know that kids see through this little charade.

TR: You know, there’s a saying in family therapy: If you really want to know what’s going on in the family, ask the youngest child. They’re sponges. They absorb it all. You can’t hide anything from your children. They’re living with you. They pick up all of your energy.

“This is how sh*t gets passed down through generations.”

Your daughter may be secure in how you both feel about her, but you’re also handing her a model of an adult intimate relationship that is full of strife, which is what she’ll expect from her guy or gal when she grows up. You were falling into this bad dynamic where you were the aggressor, Tom was seen as the poor victim, and Sylvie was becoming the peacemaker. And this is how sh*t gets passed down through generations. I talk to people about what I call “witness abuse.” When you yell at your husband, it goes into your child as if you are yelling at her. Young children can’t actually distinguish the difference.

JD: The exercise that you gave me to stop my temper in front of our child was so painfully effective that I only had to do it a couple of times. You had me take a time out, go to my bedroom where I kept a picture of Sylvie in my bedside table, and say to her picture—

TR: “I know that what I’m about to do is going to cause you harm, but right now, my anger is more important to me than you are.”

JD: I tear up every time I think about it. Can you talk about how you fight fairly, and sanely, like a grownup?

TR: First, ask your partner if he/she is willing to listen. Remember that your motivation is that you love them. Then do this exercise, based on a psychological model called the feedback wheel. You only need one or two sentences for each of these four steps, and they must be said in a respectful manner:

  • Tell your partner what you saw or heard.

  • Describe the behaviors that troubled you, and make them specific—never “you always” or “you never.”

  • Tell them what you made up about it—your own thoughts that are not the story, but your story. Describe how you feel about it.

  • Then tell them what you would like to have happen.

JD: I like having a simple model to follow when my thoughts and emotions are swirling, so something like this is helpful. One thing that I loved that you told us, is to use this magic phrase regularly: What I’d like now is… Which does work. It’s much more effective than raging, I’m doing everything around here! I did a lot of that. Banging pots and pans around. Glaring.

TR: Telling someone what they’re doing wrong is a weak way of motivating them to do it differently. Instead of simply being assertive on the front end so that you’re not resentful on the back end, people seem to subscribe to the idea that an effective strategy for getting what you want from your partner is to complain about not getting it after the fact. That has got to be one of the worst behavioral-modification plans ever. It boxes your partner in and leaves them nowhere to go. Here is one of my rules: You have no right to complain about not getting what you never asked for.

As nutty as it might seem, arguing or complaining can actually feel safer to most of us than simply and directly making a request. But a request is infinitely more effective than a complaint. Instead of saying, you did this wrong, you can say, you could do this right, and here’s how.

“Here is one of my rules: You have no right to complain about not getting what you never asked for.”

Telling someone what pleases you, what they’re doing right, and what they could do even better, is a wonderful motivator. We know this with children. And I tell clients, once your partner is trying, don’t stomp them—help them.

JD: You have identified five losing relationship strategies that foil full-respect living: needing to be right, controlling your partner, venting, retaliation, and withdrawal. What do you tell clients who say, But when I get angry, I can’t control myself?

TR: Over decades of practice, I’ve almost never known that to be true. There is a very small group of people who truly can’t control themselves, and most of them are either in mental institutions or in jail. So when anger overtakes you, take a time-out, which is an everyday manifestation of practicing full-respect living. No matter how angry you are, you have the power to close your mouth, turn around, and walk out of the room. You have that much control.

A time-out is like a circuit breaker, and stopping the emotional violence between the two of you is more important than any point you have to make. It’s saying, I don’t like how this is going, I’m going to lose it, I’m taking a break. Whoever calls the time-out must leave. Go to the bedroom, go to another floor, wherever. If your partner won’t leave you alone, leave the house and go to the coffee shop (or wherever). Then you have to check in shortly—email, text, whatever. And you either say, I’m coming back, or I’m taking more time.

“There is a very small group of people who truly can’t control themselves, and most of them are either in mental institutions or in jail. So when anger overtakes you, take a time-out.”

While you’re taking a time-out, regulate yourself. You can do deep breathing, meditation, walk around the block, splash water on your face. Don’t come back to your partner until you are your adult self, centered, and not having a fit. Make a commitment that you’re just not going to do it.

In my work, I talk a lot about what I call relational mindfulness. That means that when you’re triggered, you take a breath and reach for your better self. If my wife Belinda is mad at me and says something that makes my blood pressure go up, I will say to myself, Terry, stop. Breathe. Come down from this. Don’t make her bad day your bad day, and put up a boundary. Hold yourself in warm regard. Hold her in warm regard. Think about what you can do that will be constructive.

JD: And relational mindfulness is an ongoing process. I love your assertion that a good relationship isn’t something you have, it’s something you do.

TR: I tell people to think ecologically. Your relationship is your biosphere, and it’s in your interest to keep it clean and not breathe in the pollution of your partner’s resentment over the years. You pollute it, and you’re the one getting lung cancer.

“The work on a relationship is not even day-to-day—it’s minute to minute.”

You build your relationship thoughtfully and skillfully. The work on a relationship is not even day-to-day—it’s minute to minute. Being relationally fit is like being physically fit. And look, the wish for increased intimacy is a good thing. It’s good for you, good for your partner, good for the kids (if you have them), good for your health. I stand up for that wish.