Forgotten when you last had sex? Argue all the time? Meet the wife who went to extreme lengths – sessions with an FBI negotiator and an $800-a-pop therapist – to save her marriage
Over the past year or so, quite a lot of women have told me that they are cross. They’re successful women; they’ve written a book, or starred in a film and I’m interviewing them and asking them about American society, groping around for some larger theme. This is when they would say the thing about women feeling angry. Sometimes I assumed they meant a righteous anger over wage inequality, or boardroom sexism, or America’s struggle to elect a female president. But it felt much more personal than that.
Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City, put it most plainly. “My sense is that women are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with men, and that men really don’t have a clue,” she said. “And in the sort of off conversations when someone doesn’t feel like they’re being interviewed or whatever, I’d say, ‘You must be so happy you’re married,’ [and they would say], ‘No, let me tell you something: I hate my husband. I hate him all the time.’”
Well, it just so happens that there is a book that might help with this. The book is called How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, by Jancee Dunn. It’s that rare kind of book – excrutiatingly revealing about what’s really going on in many middle-class marriages.
The problem, it turns out, is simple. Men are not doing enough at home. We are better than our fathers. We believe in feminism and equal pay and equality in the workplace. It’s just that we are not very good at applying those principles to real life.
Hence the anger. A generation of women was led to expect more. In the playground, Dunn sometimes hears mothers discussing theoretical scenarios in which they must choose between saving the life of their husband or one of their kids. “It is never a real question; women would always save their child,” she says. The real question is why it comes up so often. “It is partly a way to reinforce that you would do anything for your child,” says Dunn. It’s not that mothers would like to see their husbands fall from a high bridge. They just like to consider the idea.
Dunn is 50 and has the kind of regular features that will get you on television. She was once a presenter on an MTV channel; she has also been a writer for Rolling Stone and for Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, an interviewer of actors and rock stars.
She lives with her husband of 16 years, another writer named Tom Vanderbilt, and their six-year-old daughter, Sylvie, in an apartment in a converted church in Brooklyn. Their home is extremely neat and well organised. When I arrive, one evening midweek, Tom takes Sylvie out to a nearby park and Jancee and I sit down to talk about the time that she first became really furious with him.
The fact that his life did not change one iota after our daughter was born got on my nerves
The fights began a few weeks after Sylvie arrived, although things really went south a year later. “I looked around and I realised that I really was kind of doing everything,” she says. She did the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry and most of the basic childcare. He didn’t seem capable of changing a nappy.
The night before I meet Jancee, I make the mistake of leaving the husband-hating book on our table, where my wife begins reading it. She quickly becomes enraged by Tom.
“Who does he think he is?” she asks.
I’m at the sink, doing the dishes. Every so often, as I load the drying rack, I hear my wife exclaim at something Tom has done. She recites the stories of his worst offences.
Jancee looks after Sylvie all day but asks Tom to take her for one hour while she interviews Jennifer Hudson on the phone for a magazine. “One single hour,” says my wife.
During that hour, while Jancee is in the midst of this interview, Sylvie interrupts to say she needs the loo. They are potty-training her so it’s really urgent, but Tom has not noticed because he is playing chess on his phone.
“If he were my husband that phone would have gone down the toilet a long time ago,” my wife says.
Yeah, I bet, I say, as I load the dish rack.
Dunn and Vanderbilt with their daughter, Sylvie, at home in Brooklyn
She returns to the crimes of Tom. He gets up late; he plays football on a Saturday morning; he goes out whenever he wants. “After they had a kid, he took up long-distance cycling!” she says. “He goes off for hours.”
No doubt about it. The man is a genius.
Jancee quotes a sociologist named Michael Kimmel, of Stony Brook University in New York, who is director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Professor Kimmel says men select the fun childcare duties. “Dad takes the kids to the park on Saturday mornings to play soccer and Mom cleans the breakfast dishes, makes the beds, does the laundry and makes lunch.”
“I can’t even look at my husband’s Instagram account, because it makes me jealous,” says Jancee. I tell Jancee I suspect she is exaggerating, to make her book more dramatic.
“Did you see the bikes upstairs?” she asks.
Yes, I did. Two sleek-looking racing bikes. I wanted to touch them.
“There’s a doorway there that his surf boards are going into, because he’s taken up surfing.”
I would love to take up surfing. Perhaps I can go with Tom.
“The fact that his life did not change one iota after Sylvie really got on my nerves,” she explains. Jancee thinks she was partly to blame. As a celebrity interviewer, she would learn everything about her subject, until, “I know the name of their dog,” she says. “I threw myself into motherhood the way I did with all my jobs.” There was the initial shock of it; then a feeling of: “Oh, OK, I’ve got this,” she says. “I just took it to an extreme where I shut Tom out and I could do everything better myself. Not true – he does many things better.
“I was surprised at that sort of ingrained traditionalism that even I had,” she says. And she felt herself inadvertently passing on the same lessons to their daughter. “I realised how many speeches I gave to my daughter about how girls rule and you can do anything, you know?” she says. But, “She said it all the time. ‘You do all the boring jobs.’ Because I was like a stage hand. If we would go to the beach, I was the one bringing the sandwiches and setting up the beach towels while they went and frolicked. This was my own martyrdom also. My words meant nothing and my actions meant everything. That was passing it on.”
She found herself shouting at Tom, using ‘terms that had not crossed my lips since I was a New Jersey teen in the Eighties’
Before I’d pitched up at her house, Jancee had been talking with a friend who has a high-powered job, but couldn’t help feeling that her husband’s job mattered more. “I probably had a little of that too,” says Jancee. “There is a darker fear, the fear of being a pain in the ass … Some darkness that’s carried over from earlier generations. That fear of having a big mouth.” She developed “a little bit of tunnel vision, about feeling oppressed all the time”, she says. “That was the narrative that I kept sticking to over and over again.”
She found herself shouting at Tom, using “terms that had not crossed my lips since I was a New Jersey teen in the Eighties”, while he retreated, confused. Their daughter, Sylvie, would tell her not to shout at Daddy. “We were at loggerheads. He was shutting me out. He didn’t want to talk about it; he didn’t want to deal with it. I think he was just waiting for me to calm down, you know?” she says.
She told Tom she wondered if they should get divorced, a suggestion that stunned him. Apparently this is a common dynamic: most divorces, for couples over the age of 40, are initiated by women, and a sizeable proportion of the men say they didn’t see it coming. Although America’s divorce rate has remained stable since the Eighties, it has doubled among the over-fifties and one cause of this midlife divorce epidemic appears to be housework. In her book, Jancee quotes a sociologist named Scott Coltrane, who observes that “one of the biggest shifts in recent years is that many women will simply not put up with partners who don’t contribute at home”.
Faced with this prognosis, Tom agreed to marriage counselling. He had thought of this as something couples did when they were already doomed and I did too: I’ve been surprised, lately, by how many of my friends in apparently contented relationships are doing it.
Jancee and Tom went to see a terrifying-sounding man in Boston named Terry Real. Unhappy couples fly to his clinic from all over the country for a thoroughly unpleasant talking-to which costs $800 an hour.
Real gave Jancee a media discount, but it still cost them $2,500. A relative pointed out that they could have flown to the Bahamas for that kind of money. “Then we would have come home to the same problems,” she says. “I don’t know how, he drills down to your problems in this really quick way. There’s something about him. You just tell him everything,” she says. “I was telling him stuff that I’ve never told a human being.”
Jancee says she recorded their conversation. They told him their life stories, their romantic history, and how they fight. Tom had recently returned from a magazine assignment, cycling through the Italian countryside. Returning, he was jetlagged, and stayed in bed for the next two days.
Jancee says Real glared at Tom, and said, “You want to go away for ten days, having the time of your life, biking through the countryside? You come home, you’re there for the kid, and your wife’s off her feet.”
He berated them both for never going on dates – even for this wildly expensive counselling session, they were unable to find a babysitter, and Sylvie was in the next room at the clinic, playing on the iPad.
And he berated Tom for never doing the housework when asked. “You don’t like being controlled and attacked,” Real said. “You’re falling into roles where Jancee’s the aggressor, Tom is seen as the poor victim and Sylvie’s the peacemaker, and this is how shit gets passed down through generations.” The fact that Tom was clearly great with Sylvie only made the dynamic worse, he told them.
Real offered them a broad view of the marital landscape, as he saw it. It used to be that if a man was a good provider and didn’t go beating his wife, everyone said he was a great husband. “What men I work with don’t get is that their relationship job description has changed,” he said. “You don’t realise that it is in your interest to move beyond your knee-jerk selfishness and entitlement and to take good care of your wife so she isn’t such a raving lunatic all the time,” he told Tom.
My conversation with Tom is tremendously awkward. I feel like a massive hypocrite. I’d like to say, ‘Women, eh?’ and ask about when we can go surfing
There’s someone we really ought to hear from at this point. Tom and Sylvie had returned from the park while we were talking; Tom even went to the fridge and got a beer, and wandered off to another room, as if attempting to illustrate a point Jancee was making. Now Jancee goes into another room, Sylvie goes to her room, and I sit down with Tom to discuss his past failings as a husband.
It is a tremendously awkward conversation. Tom seems gentle and thoughtful; he also seems inclined to address all things, up to and including the business of doing the dishes, as if he were preparing a PhD paper on the topic. All the while I feel like a massive hypocrite. I’d like to say, “Let him who has done the laundry cast the first sock.” I’d like to say, “Women, eh?” and ask about when we can go surfing.
Instead I ask Tom how he felt when Jancee proposed writing an intimate book about their marriage, in which he might be cast as the villain.
“How to describe that?” says Tom. He is 48, tall and tanned – presumably from all that surfing. (“The guy’s doing great!” Jancee had exclaimed. “He’s in the best shape of his life!”) Now Tom hunches up in his chair and frowns. “I guess in the beginning she was talking about some moms at the playground she was speaking to,” he says. They were going through the same problems. They were fellow citizens of hipster Brooklyn, liberals and progressives “who probably talk a certain talk. If we were sort of blindsided by this, I assume other people are,” he says. Tom loves thinking up ideas for books. “So I’m thinking, ‘That probably hasn’t been done. And it seems to come up a lot.’ So I was probably thinking just purely from, ah, a removed point of view.”
Then, of course, it got real, in their session with Terry Real. “Just to have this raw, unadulterated feedback was quite unsettling to me, but I’m also thinking, ‘Well, you’re sort of right,’” he says, chuckling. “I got the unnerving sense that he had heard this a lot.”
Before Sylvie was born, “I’m sure we had disagreements and things, but in terms of household labour, I did the cooking, more or less,” he says. The arrival of Sylvie coincided with the release of his first book. “I was just gone a lot,” he says. “For me going on the road and giving talks was not a natural thing.”
Talking to him now, I can absolutely imagine that to be the case.
“So I’d come back drained and suddenly be dealing with a six-month-old.”
Going off on these trips, Tom began to wonder, “Oh, am I the breadwinner now or something?”
Ideas he considered outdated popped into his head, he says. “You almost find yourself putting on this mask. You feel a slight creepy chill, like, ‘Oh my God, did I just say that?’”
It’s the vestiges of something, I say. Probably from our fathers.
“There’s just those moments,” says Tom. “Coming home from some trip. I’m on the plane thinking, ‘Oh, is there going to be dinner made?’”
He believed in equality and all that. “It’s just the house is a funny thing,” he says. “How to describe it? You don’t think about it politically, because it’s your environment … It doesn’t need a plan; it doesn’t need a structure.”
Jancee and Tom had sex for ten nights in a row. A friend said: ‘Why?’
But then a child arrives. “From the moment Sylvie wakes up, until the moment she’s at school, a set of things need to happen. And unless we’ve actually sat down and written out a plan, who is to say how that’s going to happen? There’s no kind of overwhelming force that decides, except for my own passivity or laziness or kind of not being used to dealing with it, for whatever reason,” he says. “This equality that’s espoused and is represented in earnings and amount of hours worked, just seems to kind of fall by the wayside. I have to remind myself that it’s not a spectator sport.”
I ask about long-distance cycling. Tom says he started to think about pedalling away on a bicycle before Sylvie was born. “It was kind of turning 40,” and wanting to try something new, and feeling that “you couldn’t just sort of get by on your youthful fitness”, he says. He will acknowledge that it was “a bad time to take up, like, racing, which requires a lot of training”, but he saw other parents “throwing themselves on the altar of fatherhood”, and felt there had to be another way.
I tell him about a night just before my first child was born. My father-in-law was staying. I went out with some friends, saying I wouldn’t be home late. Round about four in the morning, on the sofa of a tiny bar in the East Village, I noticed I had lots of missed phone calls from my heavily pregnant wife, who was fretting that I had been stabbed or run over. My father-in-law gave a mortifying speech when I got home. I needed to understand something about fatherhood, he said. “It’s not about you any more.”
Tom says the parenting business has gradually got easier for him. “So much of that one or two-year-old period was just sort of grunt work, you know?” he says. “You just have to be there with them. They’re problematic.”
They don’t talk.
“Exactly. Now I feel like we’ve passed through that and we’re in a place where I can take Sylvie to a six-hour chess tournament.” And his various hobbies “are being whittled back a little bit”, he says. He is silent for a moment. “I don’t know. I probably should have had a little more of that aspect of: ‘It’s not about you,’” he says.
The various counsellors they saw, along with the terrifying Terry Real, and a former FBI hostage negotiator Jancee consulted, gave them lessons on how to talk about all this, and how to draw up plans. They were urged to start paying attention to each other again, too.
They did the things that couples do. They resumed having sex regularly. Writing about this “was excruciating for me”, Jancee says. “Even talking about it now, I could die of embarrassment,” she says. “It must be discussed … It really did help.”
At one point, they had sex for ten nights in a row – a festival of shagging that was only brought to an end when Tom had to go off on another tough assignment to the Virgin Islands. She told her friends and they looked horrified. “Why?” one asked her, she writes. “The others nod and murmur, ‘That’s just what I was thinking.’”
They did note that her skin looked fabulous. Jancee cites a study, showing that regular sex in midlife does indeed make you look younger. This must be why she looks so youthful now.
Jancee says she and Tom adopted “the old adage of ‘Just do it’ ”. Sex was rather like housework, in that respect: you imagine it would happen automatically, when in fact you need to get down and put your back into it. “Even now, in the back of my mind, I kind of think, ‘It’s been a week. Gotta get cracking,’” she says.
Now all is well between Jancee and Tom. They are living happily ever after, but for a minor dispute two nights ago about the washing up. “Help me out here,” says Jancee. “Maybe I’m overreacting. I’d love it if I were overreacting. He does the washing up, and he always leaves the little drain catcher thingy filled with food. It just reminds me of forensic stomach contents. You know? I don’t want to be reminded of what I just ate.”
These things always sound petty, but as one of the psychologists she and Tom consulted told them, “I have yet to see a couple that fights about world peace.”
Harmony reigns at my place too, but for my wife’s occasional outbursts about Tom.
“He’s taken up surfing?” she says.
It’s for a book, I say. It’s his work. I feel obliged to defend the man.
There was also a small falling out recently over International Women’s Day. My wife had planned to join the march through Manhattan. But we didn’t have any childcare provision in place and I was too busy writing this piece about how men need to do more to support women. It had to take priority.
On the other hand, the kitchen looks awfully tidy.
What Terry Real, the $800 therapist said…
ARGUMENTS Before you get into an argument, take a few deep breaths. If the agenda is to control or prove that you’re right, these are losing strategies. Do not just express how miserable you are; talk about repair and what could make it better.
NEGOTIATING People get locked into positions. I want a child; I don’t. I want to live in a city; I don’t. The key is to stop bashing each other with your position but get up a level to what these things mean to each of you.
RESENTMENT When one person is harbouring resentment and feels disempowered in the relationship, that is a set-up for unhappiness and divorce. So if you are unhappy about what’s happening, speak up. If you can let go of it and really, honestly, truly let go of it, then go ahead and be magnanimous. But if you are going to harbour bad feeling, it’s bad for the relationship. If you are angry, deal with it.
SEX It’s not about a formula for how often, it’s really about: is this satisfying to both parties? For some, once a month is fine, and for others three times a week is a bad week. The rulebook is: is it mutual; is it satisfying; is the quality good – do you love it when you’re doing it? That’s more important than how often.
The therapist’s relationship test
1. When I open up to my partner I mostly feel:
A. Understood and supported.
B. Like my partner is interested but not very involved.
C. Like my partner moves in to “solve my problem” or else gets defensive.
D. At this point, I don’t open up to my partner much.
2. I feel like I understand my partner’s insecurities because:
A. He/she talks to me about them and asks for my support.
B. He/she mentions them without much discussion.
C. I can tell when my partner’s upset even though he/she doesn’t talk about it.
D. I don’t know what’s going on with my partner.
3. Spending time alone with my partner is most often:
A. Relaxing and a treat, just hanging out together.
B. Fun if we are sharing something we both enjoy.
C. Not as much fun as being with other people together.
D. Sometimes enjoyable but sometimes tense.
4. When we have a conflict we:
A. May get heated but then talk about it and work it out.
B. Do sometimes disagree but it works out somehow on its own.
C. Have a lot of conflict, open or unstated, but we don’t address it.
D. Used to fight a lot, but we’ve pretty much given up.
5. In our views on how to live life (money, children) we:
A. Don’t always agree but do to respect each other’s differences, even if they grate sometimes.
B. Our values seem similar enough to not create problems.
C. Have very different values on issues, but don’t discuss them.
D. Usually disagree. My partner tries to control our lives.
6. When I share ideas with my partner, I generally feel:
A. Respected. I’m interested in my partner’s opinion and feel the same back.
B. Like my partner listens but is more concerned with his or her own ideas.
C. My partner turns to other people for intellectual companionship.
D. My partner rarely gives me credit. He/she acts like I’m stupid.
7. I feel judged and criticised by my partner:
A. Only rarely.
D. Most of the time.
8. My partner and I are physically affectionate (hold hands, cuddle, put our arms around one another):
A. A lot.
D. Almost never.
9. Sex with my partner is:
A. A place where we connect, even though it’s hard to make the time for it sometimes.
B. Satisfying if a bit routine.
C. Something I’d like to see more of, but I need to feel more connected first.
D. Something we often wind up fighting about.
10. When I think of growing old together, I:
A. Imagine it will be great to enjoy the world together.
B. Think we will be good companions who can trust one another.
C. Wonder if we will have enough in common.
D. Worry that without the glue that’s been holding us together things may get worse.
A = 4 points
B = 3 points
C = 2 points
D = 1 point
Yours is likely to be either a highly psychologically abusive relationship or one with virtually no intimacy at all. You are stuck in either retaliation mode or in the final stage of withdrawal/non-communication. If you have been silenced, you must dare to speak up. Your feelings about the relationship are rapidly becoming so toxic you will either break up anyway or persist in a situation you find miserable. You need to make a decision to embrace the relationship while standing up for yourself or leave.
There is little positive between the two of you holding the relationship together. When things go wrong, they stay unresolved because you aren’t equipped to fix it. You are losing the good feelings that brought you together. The relationship has begun to revolve around control and revenge. You need to commit to stop abusive behaviours before things escalate.
Your relationship is in trouble. You either share little intimacy (if your score was consistently low) or you are highly volatile with a lot of unresolved conflict (if there was a lot of scatter in your answers). It is hard to imagine that you are happy or that this is a healthy emotional environment.
If your score was made up mostly of Bs and Cs, then you are in a workable relationship but one that lacks connection. You need to start sharing more. If your score was all over the map, then you are in a volatile relationship and you must learn the skills of mature intimacy.
If you scored mostly Bs, you are highly companionable but might work to further a more passionate connection and richer communication. If your score was mixed (highs and lows), you are still in a solid relationship although on the surface you may look volatile.
You are rich in intimacy. It may not match up with our idealised vision of a “perfect” relationship, but you are in great shape. While there may be rough spots, as a couple you are not stuck. Relax and appreciate it.
How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids
One morning, as I am halfheartedly doing the elliptical at the gym, the television cuts from a morning talk show to an unfolding hostage crisis at a Texas bank. The gunman is distraught, but within a few tense minutes, a negotiator has quickly calmed him down and persuaded him to surrender his gun. This sparks an idea: would it be possible to use the same methods to swiftly pacify a livid spouse? Do negotiators follow a formula? If my husband Tom had those sorts of skills in his back pocket, they might be handy to pull out when my face starts to turn dark purple.
Back at the apartment, I research hostage negotiators. Soon I come across Gary Noesner, a thirty-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit for a decade. Noesner spent his career reasoning with highly agitated people in life-or-death hostage situations, kidnappings, prison riots, and right-wing militia standoffs.
I promptly phone him up. Noesner, a father of three married for over forty years, is as affable and even-keeled as you would expect. Crisis intervention, he tells me, generally involves an intense effort within a relatively short period of time to lower physiological arousal and restore a person’s ability to think more rationally – and its strategies, he tells me, could definitely apply to marriages. Noesner designed the FBI’s conflict-resolving Behavioral Change Stairway Model, five steps that include active listening, showing empathy, building rapport, and gaining influence – which leads, finally, to the fifth step: behavioural change.
Noesner tells me that the harder we push – our usual impulse in a disagreement – the more likely we are to be met with resistance. “I always tell police officers, when you get a barricaded subject, if we do things like make loud noises or try to agitate him to get compliance, it typically creates the opposite effect,” he says. “It’s a universal human trait that people want to be shown respect, so negotiators must avoid intimidating, demeaning, lecturing, criticizing, and evaluating subjects.” (All the things, ironically, I tend to do in my marriage.)
Noesner gamely sketches out a plan, based on FBI protocols, for Tom to de-escalate a crisis when his wife becomes a highly agitated individual.
First, he says, contain the situation. “When we show up in law enforcement to a dangerous, evolving situation, we know we have to contain it so it doesn’t get worse or spread beyond its current confines,” Noesner tells me. In a relationship, he says, don’t allow the specific issue that’s prompted the conflict to overflow into digging up dirt from ten years ago.
Next up: employ the seven active listening skills taught by the FBI. Do you want your mate to change? Then pay genuine attention to what he or she is saying. “Despite the popular notion that listening is a passive behavior, abundant clinical evidence suggests that active listening is an effective way to induce behavioral change in others,” says Noesner. And when you actively listen to your partner, he adds, they tend to listen to themselves more carefully, and clarify their own scattered thoughts and feelings. They also grow less defensive and oppositional, and more open to solving problems.
As you’re actively listening, put your own swirling thoughts on hold, adds Christopher Voss, the FBI’s former lead international hostage negotiator and now the chief executive of the advisory firm Black Swan Group. “No one can listen and think about what they want to say at the same time,” Voss tells me. “It truly is an either/or. Hearing the other side out is the only way you can quiet the voice in the other person’s mind. A full two-thirds of people in negotiations are more interested in being heard than in making the deal.” He thinks for a minute. “Also, just as an aside, if you let them go first, it gives them the illusion of control.”
Active listening consists of the following seven techniques:
This is simply restating the person’s message in your own words. “In law enforcement, I’ll hear, ‘You damn cops, you no-good sons of bitches,’ ” says Noesner. “And I’ll say, ‘It sounds like you really are suspect about why we’re here and what we’re doing.’ ‘You’re damn right – you just want to kill me.’ ‘You’re concerned we’re going to hurt you, is that what I’m hearing?’ I don’t tell them they’re right or wrong, I just paraphrase the way they feel. It’s a way to say, ‘I get it. I understand.’ ”
This technique quickly communicates that you comprehend the person’s perspective, which is immediately disarming. “It’s powerful stuff,” Noesner says. “And tone is everything. You want your voice to convey sincerity and genuineness and come across as nonthreatening. I tell officers, do not do the military cop voice.” (Which probably doesn’t fly in relationships, either.)
This technique helps a keyed-up person identify their emotions, some of which they may not even be aware they’re experiencing. Don’t use definitive language in case you miss your mark; use phrases such as “You sound as though” and “You seem as if.” (A husband could say, for example, “You sound as though you are angry that I have no idea who our child’s doctor is.”) Naming and validating the person’s feelings instead of minimizing them – or, worse, ignoring them – can take the person from a purely emotional, reactive frame of mind to a more rational state.
A brain imaging study at UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory appears to back this idea. Scientists found that the act of identifying our feelings makes anger or sadness less intense. In one experiment, they showed people a photo of an angry or fearful face and then measured their brain activity with an fMRI. They found heightened activity in the amygdala, which acts as the body’s alarm system to trigger the “fight or flight” response if it senses danger. But when they had people say it was an angry face, rather than simply seeing it, the mere act of putting feelings into words caused their amygdala to calm down.
People want to be understood, Noesner says, “particularly when we’re dealing with agitated individuals. When you say, ‘I can see you’re very, very angry over what happened,’ they say, ‘Yes! I am!’ ” This exchange takes the wind out of their sails, he says, because “it reduces their need to continue to demonstrate what you have already acknowledged clearly.”
Concentrating on the other person’s emotions also keeps your own blood pressure from soaring, adds Voss. “We have research that says the more you’re focused on the other person’s emotions, the more you’re away from your own. It automatically makes you rational.”
Offering Minimal Encouragements
As the person is talking, use short phrases to convey interest and concern: Yes. Okay. I see. “You’re not really interrupting, you’re just saying, ‘Okay, I’m still tracking with you,’ ” says Noesner. “It’s a little thing that lets them know you’re along for the ride. And it’s also hard to argue with somebody who is saying, ‘Mm-hm. Yep. Yep.’ ”
Repeating the last few words of the other person’s message builds rapport and allows them to vent. If a hijacker concludes a rant by saying, “and I’m angry,” a negotiator will simply say, “And you’re angry.”
Asking Open-Ended Questions
The goal is to avoid “yes or no” questions, advises Noesner. “Instead, just say, ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ Or, ‘I didn’t understand what you just said and I’d like to; could you help me by explaining that further?’ ” Open-ended questions convey that you’re sincerely interested and de-escalate violence by helping people collect themselves.
Using “I” Messages
The use of “I” statements personalizes the negotiator or, in law enforcement phraseology, lets you “drop the cop.” An “I” message is also a way to express how you feel in a nonprovocative way without being pulled into an argument. For instance, a negotiator might say to a hostage taker, “I’m trying to understand what you’re saying, but when you scream at me, it’s hard for me to comprehend.”
“So instead of saying, ‘Don’t scream at me,’ ” says Noesner, “you’re kind of putting it notionally on your shoulders, like, ‘I’m having trouble understanding— my bad.’ But you’re still telling the person why, so it’s sort of a roundabout way to get them to quit behaving in a certain way.”
Allowing Effective Pauses
Remaining silent at the right times and deliberately using pauses is hard to do, but it’s particularly helpful during highly charged emotional outbursts, says Noesner. Why? Because when the person fails to get a response, they often calm down to verify that the negotiators are still listening. Eventually, even the most overwrought people will find it difficult to sustain a one-sided argument.
After the person has been calmed through active listening, it’s time to move through the FBI behavioral staircase: showing empathy, building rapport, and establishing influence (in which you work collaboratively to develop “nonviolent problem-solving alternatives”). Your subject is then primed for the final step: behavioral change (hostage taker surrenders his assault rifle, wife stops yelling).
Two weeks after I consult the crisis negotiators and school Tom on their techniques, he creates a prime opportunity to try them out.
Our daughter Sylvie has just started a new after-school art class, and because I am meeting with my Vogue editor for a rare drink in Manhattan, we arrange for Tom to pick up Sylvie from class at 5 pm.
I have just settled into a booth with my editor when my phone rings. It is the proprietor of the art class. “Um, your daughter is still here,” she tells me, “and we are closing soon.” She had called our backup contact – a mom friend from Sylvie’s preschool – but as it happened, the mother was at an urgent care facility dealing with her daughter’s sudden heart palpitations.
I text Tom: WHERE THE F R U? No reply. Usually he gets back to me quickly, so I am certain that he is on his bike somewhere. The beauty of cycling at high speed and for long hours is that you can’t text (one cycling buddy of his, a father of two, learned that the party was over when he returned from an epic ride to find that his wife had pointedly left her wedding ring on the kitchen table).
I text another mom and don’t hear back. I flash my editor what I hope is a reassuring smile, but I know it’s more like a demented grimace that shows all my molars. I reach a third mom, who tells me she can’t help because she’s at her son’s soccer practice. However, her babysitter is in our neighborhood park with her daughter, and she will ask her to pick up Sylvie. As my editor waits, I send a fourth text to Tom, who does not respond. Then I call the art class and convince them to allow Sylvie to leave with the babysitter, who isn’t on their emergency contact list. After that, I burble apologies, postpone our meeting, and race home to relieve the babysitter before she leaves work at 6 (stopping first to pick up some chocolate as a thank-you).
At 6.30, Tom bursts into our apartment, his bike uniform soaked. “The park was empty today – it was so great!” he says with a grin. Then he stops, suddenly wary.
I stand motionless, chest heaving, eyes unnaturally bright.
“What?” he says guardedly.
Tom follows me into the bedroom and closes the door. “Unreal,” I whisper furiously, so Sylvie can’t hear me from her room, where she is singing and drawing pictures. “What did I tell you this morning? Please pick her up at 5. Then I followed up with an email! Do you know how long it took me to pick out an outfit before this meeting so that I wouldn’t look like I was trying too hard?” One of my eyelids starts twitching. I can see him watching it with fascination, which makes me angrier, which prompts it to spasm more crazily. My shoulders sag. “I can’t count on you.”
He runs over and stands next to me. “You think I’m unreliable,” he paraphrases. “You don’t like… uh, you don’t like feeling panicky in a business meeting. You feel overwhelmed, like you have to do everything.”
I nod, and tell him it’s especially annoying to take the extra step – no, steps – of reminding him. “I’m not your mother,” I hiss.
“Mm-hm,” he says mechanically, looking into my eyes. “Go on.” I know full well he is “offering minimal encouragement,” but it is still sort of endearing, mostly because he’s never uttered the phrase “go on” to me in our entire married life.
“And,” I remind him, “you still didn’t show!”
He nods gravely. “Still didn’t show,” he mirrors. I can sense him trying to remember the next step, which works inadvertently as an effective pause. I deflate just a bit.
“I know how you feel,” he says. “I’d be frustrated, too.” A double “I message,” I think. Well played.
“I normally am good about picking her up, so why don’t we figure out ways that I’ll absolutely remember?” he asks, open-endedly and collaboratively. And stiltedly, but I don’t care too much: I appreciate any sort of effort. He is absentminded, not evil. I tell him later that if I hadn’t been so mad, I would have laughed at his baffled, what-did-I-do expression when he burst through the door.
We construct a plan for his phone to issue a spate of reminders before all school pickups.
A week later, Tom’s crisis negotiation skills are required yet again. It is a school morning, and he is sleeping in after a late night of binge-watching a Swedish crime series. I am up at 6 a.m. with our daughter, making her breakfast and lunch, supervising her homework, ordering a replacement water bottle after she somehow lost hers at school, filling out a form for a class trip, and baking carrot muffins for Tom.
Tom rouses himself fifteen minutes before she is due at school. As I am helping Sylvie get dressed and brush her teeth, he waits by the door to take her, absorbed in his phone. As she pulls on her coat, she reminds me that she must take in a dozen paper towel tubes we have been saving for a school art project.
“Where did I put them?” I say as she and I ransack her closet. “Oh, Lord, you can’t get marked down as late again.” Because I am often scrambling as we leave the house, one of the first phrases that Sylvie learned as a toddler was Oh, Lord, which she pronounced as Oh, Yord.
Tom is still standing in the front hallway, tapping on his phone. “Why wasn’t this done earlier?” he calls.
Yord, give me strength.
When Tom returns from school, he steps into the swirling eddies of a tropical low-pressure system massing toward Category 5.
“You didn’t lift a finger this morning!” I seethe.
Tom is genuinely surprised and aggrieved that I am upset. He explains that he was just figuring out how we could have done something better – or, as he nerdishly terms it, “counterfactual troubleshooting.” He thinks for a minute. “You were frustrated that I didn’t help,” he paraphrases. “You feel like…you feel like you are doing everything by yourself.”
“‘Why wasn’t this done earlier?’ Like I’m an employee?”
“Like an employee,” he mirrors. “Mm-hm.”
“I know what you’re doing,” I remind him. Although it is sort of funny. “Why didn’t you jump in and help us find the paper towel rolls?” He pauses here, which gives me a second to reflect on the fact that I am raging about paper towel rolls.
“I… feel embarrassed that I didn’t help,” he says. Bull’s-eye! My anger slowly ebbs away as I wait for the open-ended question. “Why don’t you tell me what things I can take over in the morning?” he asks.
I know Tom’s recitations aren’t entirely sincere, but the FBI’s techniques do calm me – if they work on armed hijackers and violent militia leaders, it’s not surprising that they are effective on an angry wife. And maybe with enough practice, his questions will move from scripted to genuine. As Noesner and Voss tell me repeatedly, people just want to be heard – and in order to actively listen, you must pay real attention. You can’t fake a paraphrase – if you do, you have failed to contain the situation with the agitated and potentially dangerous individual.
“Also, Sylvie was not marked down for being late,” Tom points out as normalcy resumes. “A nanny showed me a side door, and I had Sylvie sneak in.”
Extracted from How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids by Jancee Dunn (Hutchinson, £14.99)