Maria consulted with me because she was frustrated about the distance she felt in her relationship with her husband, Carl. He wanted to be close to her, but she didn't feel close to him.
"I think the problem is that he often talks to me in a judgmental or condescending way. He sounds like a parent rather than a partner. I just hate being spoken to like that."
"How do you respond when he speaks to you like that?" I asked.
"I withdraw and feel badly. Then later I sometimes try to talk with him about it, but he doesn't know what I'm talking about. He thinks I'm too sensitive and that I just want to blame him."
How often have you had the experience of not knowing what to say in conflict? Later, after thinking about it, you think of all the things you wish you would have said. Then you go back to your partner to try to deal with the issue, only to discover that it's too late — your partner doesn't understand what you are talking about.
"Maria, imagine that the part of you that hates being spoken to like Carl speaks to you is a small child. Would you let him speak to a child like that?"
"No. Actually, I don't let him speak to our children like that. He speaks to them with kindness and caring because he knows that I will say something if he is mean to them."
"So you stand up for your children in the moment, but you don't stand up for yourself, for the child within you, in the moment?"
"Yeah. I just never know what to say."
"What have you said when he spoke to your children that way?"
"I've said that it's not okay to use that judgmental tone with them. But somehow it doesn't occur to me to say that when he's judgmental toward me."
"What do you say to him later?
"I tell him I didn't like his tone of voice. But he isn't aware of it."
"Right. He will be aware of it only if you say it in the moment. Most people are not aware of their tone of voice. When you tell him about it later, he really doesn't know what you are talking about. You need to be responding in the moment for him to hear his own voice. You need to be saying something like, 'Carl, I hate it when you speak to me in that judgmental, parental voice. I don't feel like being with you when you talk to me like that.' You have a much better chance of him understanding what you are saying when he can hear his own voice in the moment. And you will feel much better when you speak up for yourself in the moment. You will not feel so much like withdrawing when you are not abandoning yourself in the face of his judgmental tone."
While Maria certainly didn't like Carl's tone of voice, her distance from him was more due to her self-abandonment than to his behavior. As long as she was being a victim and not taking care of herself in the moment, she was feeling badly. It's easy to blame Carl and believe that her feelings are his fault, but her feelings were really the result of not having learned to taking loving care of herself around Carl.