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Husband demands 'yes' or 'no' answers

HELLO CAROLYN: My husband of 10 years and I have a communication problem. Sometimes he asks me a question he thinks is very straightforward, and he wants to know "yes" or "no" — but I reply with a contextual answer. He gets impatient, interrupts me by repeating the question in an emphasized way, adding, "Yes or no?" with some exasperation. This is very irritating to me on several levels. It feels controlling and I've told him he cannot tell me how to answer. As well, the question is often not as simple as he thinks. But I tend to withdraw after these episodes or give him a bit of silent treatment, which feels controlling on my part. Years ago, we had a heart-to-heart about this and he confessed that my answers were confusing to him, that he is a simple man and he needs a simple answer. There aren't other controlling behaviors on his part. But I'm not doing this on purpose, it is a reflection of the way I think and the way I am. So it feels like he's rejecting my personality. How can we reframe this without someone being "wrong"? Humor might work, but I haven't tried. That's hard to pull off when I'm bristling.


BRISTLING: If he's rejecting your personality, then you're rejecting his.

And yes, shutting someone down with exasperation can be a form of control, and yes, the silent treatment can be a form of control.

So your impulse to reframe things sounds like the right one.

That said, seeing these frustrating conversations this way — as reflections of his personality as much as they reflect yours — is a useful place to start. It's a warning not to try to change each other.

Instead, look to the controlling reactions to see whether they can be reverse-engineered: He thinks he's getting an answer to his questions that you know he can't understand. You think he is asking for answers he knows you can't give. Both of you feel powerless here for valid reasons. So both of you react to these communication misfires with, basically, emotional power grabs.

It would be much healthier for both of you to empower yourselves going into these conversations, to prevent the outcome that gets you upset.

Your husband has actually done his part already, or at least started to do it. He has explained himself. He doesn't understand you when you say these things.

Now for your part: Listen to him, and take at face value that he doesn't understand "contextual answers." Then, when he asks you a question that doesn't lend itself to the quick, clean answers he prefers, say that exactly: "I can't give you a simple answer here." Then say, "Would you like me to try to answer anyway?"

If yes, then start your answer. Then stop, ask: "Am I explaining this well?" Continue, or not, accordingly.

Keep at it and what used to be a lecture becomes an exchange. An exchange allows him to say, before the frustration hits — "Wait, I don't follow." Or, "Never mind, it's not that important." An exchange is good practice for answering him your way in a form that honors his.

An exchange, in other words, allows you both to feel whole and in control — hence no need to act controlling.

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