Woodpecker Syndrome: How Not to Talk to Your Spouse
Remember the saying “Don’t go to bed angry”? Well, yesterday I did just that. While he did not come to bed at all. Falling asleep was an effort. My body was charged by adrenaline and my brain busily counted reasons why during our argument I was right. I was determined to regroup overnight and progress our wicked discussion until his proclamation of defeat. Letting go felt like a sign of neglect.
In the morning I woke up hollow eyed and drained. My anger was no longer intense but wobbly. But it did not go away completely, making it tempting to give him another run on the ways he had wronged me the day before. Just one more time, with greater resolve and firmness. But then again, he had a different take on things, was not ready to listen, shutting down and tuning me out. Charged with frustration, we did not speak for a few more hours. Lots of steam and fire and no resolve. Should I just try again? Maybe to make my point well requires just a tad more tenacity.
One partner keeps lecturing and persevering on his or her point, while the other one feels increasingly wary and disconnected. It is a toxic cycle that I see in many couples I counsel. So common that I named it: “Woodpecker Syndrome”. One partner is just not willing to give up, continuing toxic conversations and repeating rash lectures. It does not lead to any constructive dialogue, but a partner affected by the woodpecker syndrome perseveres, as if seeing some invisible “keep going” sign. She becomes a diligent and insensitive lecturer, making forceful monologues that drown in defensive silence. Nothing gets resolved, relationship deteriorates further. Both partners get exhausted and wary. This is a communication pattern of ever diminishing returns. Soon just the mentioning of “lets talk” makes one want to run or hide. A pattern of talking at someone, not to someone. It breeds disconnect and widens the relational rift. It does not matter how well intended the comments are, once they are delivered as a bullet point list of suggestions, as a stern monotone monologue with no intermissions. Such a way is doomed to just sink in silence and can’t serve any good purpose.
Loving well means telling it all and being persistent, if necessary, right? Not always. Sometimes you are wrong. And being wrong, angry, and stubborn is an annoying combination that never lets you to get through to anyone. A scavenger hunt of accusations will never lead to dialogue or connecting. Or sometimes it may be good advice delivered with bad timing. Person is not ready or capable of change at the moment. They need more support and empathy and less instructions. As said by Theodore Roosevelt, “Nobody knows how much you know, until they know how much you care.” For a change to take place, it has to be a good advice, delivered in an appropriate time, in a sensible manner.
A mixture of warped good intentions and self righteousness, charged by anger and repetition will never produce a way to communicate in a connecting way. Woodpeckers are persistent, critical and insistent on their point of view. Woodpeckers are prone to blame, don’t listen, keenly repeating things over, because someone’s reality dared to disagree with theirs. Their goal is not to communicate but to win at all costs, leading to compromised trust and loss of any hope of connecting and really hearing each other.
Once you turn into a woodpecker, you obsessively peck into someone’s skull, driving a pathway to their brain, insensibly ignoring the agony you may inflict. The other person gets pained, frustrated and defensive, trying to insulate themselves with silence. In turn, you feel like a tired driver wanting to get home but caught in thick traffic. You say more things, repeat them over, hoping for at least something to stick. But it feels like pressing the “scan” button on the car radio, trying to find some nice tunes but catching only static. With stress cells fully activated in both people, the situation only feels increasingly hopeless and agonizing.
Just stop talking. Take a hike, have a date with your TV friends, or take a bath and go to bed early. Rest, regroup, and then strategize. Try to seek a different approach, but please don’t quadruple your effort when something is not working. May be you are not going to get your way. Maybe not this time, or may be not ever on this specific matter. But then, perhaps you can love each other anyway? Or you may get through at some point, but not by pursuing things in such a destructive manner. If you recognize some patterns described here, just stop prodding and pecking. Or your heads will hurt and your relationship will get hollow.