Can Actions Speak Louder than Words When Communicating with Your Man?

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Q.

A male friend told me a story about how he decided to remove his wedding band before going to a bachelor party with his unmarried friends. His wife was not pleased but, rather than fight about it, she decided to show her disapproval in action: He came home to find all of his belongings outside their room and the door locked. Surprisingly, he applauded his wife for her method of getting her point across and said it actually made him respect her more. Are actions simply more effective than words when trying to communicate with men?

A.

My two cents: No. Actions are not simply more effective. In this case, your friend’s wife made a bold choice and she was rewarded, at least for now, with greater respect. And I bet your friend will wear his ring going forward, so she wins.

But I think the winning is problematic. When couples play games, it sets a dangerous precedent, especially when one partner’s win is the other partner’s loss. Dr. John Gottman labels this kind of maneuvering as a zero-sum game, which results when couples pile up mini-betrayals designed to help them get the upper hand in the relationship.

In this case, the wife has been hurt and justifiably so. Your friend’s decision to remove his ring represents a betrayal of sorts. He prioritized his own comfort and agenda over the relationship . . . or at least over the symbol of his commitment to the relationship. That said, her removal of his stuff from the room is also a betrayal. She prioritized her pain, and desire to teach him a lesson, over the sanctity and security of the home they shared together.

Maybe your friend's wife knows her husband so well that she knew exactly what would get his attention. Clearly they have a deep reservoir of trust and goodwill stored up—that’s apparent by the reported outcome. But her decision to deal with her displeasure through action alone could just as easily have backfired.

Vulnerable, empathetic, courageous conversation is always a better option than game-playing. It’s very easy to slip into the zero-sum scenario, especially when one or both partners bases their decisions or actions on assumptions that are unstated or unknown. In this kind of game, the real loser is the relationship.

If a couple wants to play a game, it’s best if both partners know and have input into the rules, and that both partners believe “a win for me is a win for us.” This kind of perspective leads to what Gottman calls we-ness and leads to stronger trust and commitment in the relationship.

I applaud your friend’s wife for her strength and resolve and creativity. But I would have encouraged her to connect more intentionally with her husband, even if he was acting a little bit like a tool.