Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Diagnosing a Troubled Marriage

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have attended Crucial Conversations Training, read Crucial Confrontations, and listened to the audio companions. I have spent a lot of time with your materials as well as other books on anger. Reading your first two books helped me clarify some gut perceptions I had about my marriage.

I’ve tried using your communication methods in my forty-three-year marriage, but I’m not having success. Most of our conversations still turn into arguments. I’m very weary of arguments but not ready to give up or shut up. I’m guessing the next step is involving a marriage counselor, but I don’t want to waste time in lengthy talk sessions with therapists if I’m already up to speed on the skills you so insightfully describe.

What do you do when using the skills you teach results in what feels like a wall of conversation-stopping behaviors? In your books, you stop short of addressing working with a therapist. What next?

Wits’ End

Dear Wits’ End,

You say, “Most of our conversations turn into arguments.” If that’s an accurate statement describing a forty-three-year relationship, I’ll begin by asking, “What do you really want?” My goal is not to talk you into a divorce, but I certainly want more for you than forty-three years of sustained misery. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to let life wear you down. Don’t surrender your aspirations and resign yourself to coping. You clearly want more for yourself or you wouldn’t have worked so hard studying crucial conversations skills. However, it could be that by taking a class or reading a book, you are avoiding the real steps you need to take to address more fundamental issues.

Let me suggest three fundamental possibilities to consider. I’m going to focus them on you, but please don’t misread my meaning. I am not suggesting the problem is entirely your fault. My reason for focusing on you is that you are the only thing you can control, so the only fruitful thing for you and me to discuss is what you can do. I’m also quite limited because I have no view into your reality—only conjecture from your brief note—so I frame these as possibilities, not prescriptions.

1. You’re blind. Most chronic conflict is skillful. If you fight regularly with another person, it’s usually in a very patterned way. You literally develop proficiency in pushing the other person’s buttons. The problem is most of us don’t recognize how skillful we’ve become at this. We’re blind to our own role in a conflict.

I once offered coaching to a couple whose pattern was for the husband to get loud and emotional. He realized his loudness wasn’t helping, but he was blind to how frequently he used derogatory and dismissive terms to describe his wife’s opinions and feelings. Instead, he attributed the majority of cause for conflict to his wife. The wife, on the other hand, saw herself as a peacemaker in the conflict. She never raised her voice, but she smiled condescendingly or harrumphed under her breath in a way that drove her husband nuts. She was a master of nonverbal disgust. Her contribution was subtle but just as powerful as his.

One possibility is that you need help Learning to Look. If you’ve tried to change your conflict “skills” on your own, you may need outside eyes to help you see more. A counselor can help with that. A good one can have you reenact an emotional exchange and help you see ways you can de-escalate the conflict. You may want to consider seeing a counselor, not because you need new skills, but because you need to become more aware of the negative ones you’re already using.

2. You’re settling. I keep returning to your statement, “forty-three years . . . of our conversations turn into arguments.” If one of your patterns is exaggeration, you may want to ignore everything that follows. But if that quote is an accurate description of your four-decade relationship, I have something I need to say.

This year my wife and I celebrate twenty-five years together. About three years into our marriage, I came home from a trip and she was pretty non-communicative. I felt kind of sick and nervous because I could tell something really big was up. And it was. After the kids were in bed, I asked if something was wrong. She said “Yes. I’m really unhappy in our marriage. Most of the time I just don’t like you that much. I want to be excited when you’re home. I want that for you and for me.”

I was crushed. I felt like I was giving everything to our marriage, but the person whose opinion mattered most to me was telling me I didn’t measure up. I wasn’t even likeable. The life drained from my body and I wondered if it was all over.

As waves of dark fear washed over me, I began to process her full message. She wanted this to work. While the disappointing truth still hurt, the terror subsided and we began to talk. We both opened up about what we wanted from our relationship and what was getting in the way. It was a watershed moment that changed the next twenty-two years, and it began because she was unwilling to simply cope.

I suggest you find a way to tell your husband three things:

  • I want to be married to you. You are the most important friend in my life.
  • I am unwilling to continue with the quality of relationship we currently have.
  • I’d like to find a way to have a safe conversation so we can figure out how to make our marriage wonderful for both of us.

You could do this in writing, then ask for a time to get his considered response. You could ask for permission to make the statement, then schedule a time after you’ve both processed what you’ve shared and decide on how to structure a productive conversation about your mutual desires and concerns. Perhaps this is a role for a counselor as well, but you would let the counselor know this is the topic the two of you want to address and ask for his or her help facilitating. If things are as bad as you describe, every path forward includes this conversation.

3. You’re lying to yourself. The third possibility—as I suggested earlier—is that you’re mischaracterizing reality. Exaggeration is a control strategy. It’s intentionally distorting the facts to compel compliance with your demands. If you have extended moments of peace and happiness with your husband, punctuated by occasional nit picking or bickering, then admit it. You’re not wrong to want to make things even better. Going from good to great is exactly what you ought to want, but this kind of self-deception and manipulation creates three problems.

  • It robs you of the chance to appreciate the marriage you have. If you’re failing to see the good in your marriage, you are not experiencing the happiness of the relatively good relationship you have. I can promise you an immediate doubling of your happiness if you simply take time every day to make one genuine expression of gratitude for what is wonderful about your husband or your marriage.
  • It makes you unfairly intolerant. Overstating negatives isn’t fair. It’s unfair to the truth, but it’s unfair to people as well. It diminishes their appreciation of themselves and distracts them from enjoying a full measure of what’s working well.
  • It undermines your influence. It’s rare that someone hearing overstated criticism responds as you’d like. When you are more truthful, you are more influential. If you’re hoping to interest someone in changing, don’t create an unnecessary debate about the problem itself by exaggerating it. Trust that the truth is strong enough unadorned.

I hope reflecting on these three different views of your situation serves you. I applaud your diligence at self-improvement in past years and am confident that your sincerity will keep you moving in a more productive direction. The past year of my marriage has been the happiest of all. I hope your next one is for you.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

10 thoughts on “Diagnosing a Troubled Marriage”

  1. Reta

    I highly recommend getting help from someone who you can both trust and respect enough to open up and be real with. It saved our marriage 13 years ago. We were helped along in really hearing each other and understanding what the other person meant in the words that they said. It gave us the skills to continue to have the hard discussions in a way that was productive and not destructive. It does require a desire and a commitment from both partners. I am always saddened when people let this go on so long that they no longer care any more when help can make such a difference and restore love to a marriage.

  2. Mark

    I have walked through a marriage that decayed over 12 years and died in divorce. After my failure I worked hard to address my part and learn how to relate well in marriage. A few books helped greatly like Crucial Conversations and another significant relationship book is Love and Respect. A woman’s core need is love and a man’s core need is respect. The challenge for all men is loving when you feel disrespected and for all women it’s respecting when you feel unloved. The strength of the book Love and Respect is helping men love regardless of perceived disrespect and helping women respect regardless of perceived unloving behavior. A deeply respected good natured man will respond in time with love. A deeply loved good natured woman will respond in time with respect. It’s in our nature to. I found reading Love and Respect paired with Change Anything to be very helpfull at creating a good solid second marriage. All the better that you get to do this with your current spouse.
    Working hard to love better,

  3. JB

    This addresses so much of what is going on in my own situation. I feel sick and afraid and hopeful.

    I’m going to bite off a small piece and try it.

    With gratitude.


  4. Henry

    This is probably not a resource you have seen, but one that is going through our close friends, It is a book called The Garden of Peace – A Marital Guide for Men Only. There is another one for Women Only.

    This is a translated work that is working amazing results in marriages.

    This is looking at the goal of Peace in the Home.

    From the Forward -” a peaceful home surpasses any imaginable paradise. Those who live in a peaceful home have the feeling that they’re walking around in an exotic garden of peace. ”

    Communication has improved where people have used these concepts.


  5. A Goodman

    I went through a difficult struggle with my spouse ~2 years ago. I used Crucial Conversation techniques in an attempt to communicate with her and negotiate breathing room for myself; however, my spouse was and still is a verbal abuser and she was unrelenting. The methods taught by courses such as Crucial Conversations do not work with someone who is a verbal abuser. I reached out to counselors for help, educated myself, and removed myself from a hopeless situation. Patricia Evans has a very informative book on the subject, “Understanding the Verbally Abusive Relationship.” I suggest reading it if all else fails; it may provide the necessary information to a victim, who otherwise may not understand.

    Used-to-be a victim.

  6. Becky

    Joseph, thank you for posting this response. It was like you were speaking directly to my marriage. I plan on reading it through a few times, then try to address my own issues.

  7. Joseph Grenny

    Thank you for this comment and advice. My guess is that others out there will benefit from it. Personally I believe that the Crucial Conversations skills help even when dealing with a verbal abuser – but only if you’re having the right conversation. That conversation needs to be about boundaries and confronting violations of them. If it’s anything less then you become an enabler. @A Goodman

  8. Joseph Grenny

    I know the feeling. I wish you the best. It’s terrifying to face such uncertainty. And yet it’s the only way to a better reality. My thoughts and support are with you and so many of us who are trying to create change in a healthy way. @JB

  9. A Goodman

    The other part of verbally abusive relationships is that it often takes many years of dealing with it before you see it for what it is especially in a marriage (for me it took 16 years). I’m wondering if you read Ms. Evan’s book; it was a real eye opener for me. I felt as if it was a call to action. I found that when I confronted the violations and refused to stand for them and issued a warning as well, the only way to get traction was to carry out my warning after repeated violations. Someone can change only if they want to and in my case it was clear my spouse was unable to do just that. We clearly did not share the same “reality” (to quote Ms. Evans). @Joseph Grenny

  10. joe maressa

    Went through similar situation after 20 tears of marriage. Wife said “do not like you any more” I then thought about; what we had in common; reasons we married were still same: children, God, values,common activities. She said people change ; maybe we need to divorce. I did not buy it; prayed a lot about it and worked hard at it. 100 times harder than Infantry Boot Camp. Found out what was really bothering her, changed most of it –still working on things. I suspect you are really not “listening” to your wife; you are listening to all the past arguments and saying “Here she goes again” when tha argument starts. Great books; Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman. Listening :The Forgotten Skill by Madelyn Burley-Gottman and “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone” by Mark Goulston. If you value marriage you can make it work; you have your work cut out to make the changes you need but it will be worth it. I will say a prayer also

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