Why Being A Husband Is Harder Than Being A Hostage Negotiator
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I've been shot at while talking with barricaded gunmen, talked suicidal persons off of ledges and convinced killers to confess to murder. All of that is easier than communicating as a husband.
"Why don't you talk to me like you talk to people at work?! Don't you have some skills you can use to communicate better?"
My wife has asked me this question on more than one occasion, usually on the heels of a disagreement or misunderstanding. She believed, somewhat understandably, that because I was an avid communicator during crisis situations, that I would be that much more effective when communicating with her as a husband. The truth is, if I was ever called in to negotiate with my wife during a tense situation, I'd likely inadvertently push her over the edge before I could pull her back from it.
For a short season during my law enforcement career, I served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator. I also served as a crisis intervention officer and as detective assigned to specialized units like the Special Victims Unit (SVU). All that really means is that I've had to navigate quite a few difficult, uncomfortable or down right life threatening conversations. Throughout the course of my career, I've snatched a suicidal person off of the edge of a highway overpass, convinced child predators and killers to confess to their crimes, talked guns and knives out of hands, and sometimes I've done it while being shot at or physically attacked. Of course every conversation wasn't successful, but generally speaking, I had a great deal of success obtaining confessions from criminals and negotiating with dangerous people. Without exaggeration, all of that is easier to do than communicating with my wife during an argument.
It's not complicated, but it's hard.
Hostage negotiation has a model and a framework. Granted, every situation that you apply the framework to is uniquely different, the strategies that we use, the steps we take, in an effort to find resolve remain relatively unchanged. Ultimately, my goal as a negotiator was to find resolution by changing the behavior of an individual. We would do this by employing active-listening, empathy, rapport, and influence during conversations, and that would eventually (hopefully) lead to a change in behavior. The FBI refers to this as the Behavioral Change Stairway Model.
So naturally, whenever Alicia and I would get into it, she would ask me to use the negotiation tricks of the trade in hopes that I wouldn't act like an idiot during our own arguments. She thought that's what she wanted. She assumed that these techniques would allow me to be more patient, empathetic, and a better listener. She thought that we would ultimately communicate more effectively without being so stressed out if I was as tactful, empathetic and as patient as I was with suspects. While some of that is true, here is why those assumptions are ultimately wrong.
She's complicated, so it's hard.
#1 She can see me!
Low-key, this one took me a while to figure out. It finally dawned on me one day though that my wife can see me! Like, visually see me. Whenever I was negotiating with someone who wanted to kill me, I did it on a throw phone, cell phone or through a robot. All I had to do was sound genuine. At home though, my wife is usually right in front of me. In front of her, I had to sound genuine and act accordingly.
What that really means is that my face had better match my words, or else my wife will see through me. Have you ever had one of those exchanges in which your spouse asks, "What's wrong with you?" In an effort to just avoid problems, you might blurt out, "Nothing, I'm good.“ Whenever I do that, my wife is real quick to say, "Yeah, but you don't look good though."
To that point, even if we aren't in front of each other, my wife knows my voice. She knows my tone, cadence and timbre. She knows my grunts, groans, breathing patterns, sighs and my social security number. If I don't sound good, she will definitely do something about it.
#2: I can't change my wife's behavior.
That is to say, I shouldn't be focused on trying to change her behavior. As a negotiator, my job was to be in control and to change someone else's behavior so that they would do what I wanted them to do. Ultimately, if they failed to do it, they were met with a significantly greater level of force.
In marriage, it's easy to want to control the actions and behaviors of your spouse, especially when they aren't doing what you want them to. This kind of mindset leads to tension as a result of unmet expectations. When the expectation isn't met, I can't then force my wife to comply with a threat of force (or by withholding intimacy, financial provision or emotional attention, to name a few). Instead of trying to change my wife's behavior, I really had to learn how to change my own. Plus, my wife is a G. If I'm being honest, she changed me. For the better, of course.
#3: Rapport has already been established; we have history.
One of the blessings and curses of negotiating with distraught individuals is that they don't know you and you don't know them. It's a curse because it's hard to talk to someone you don't know, but a blessing because they don't know when you're bluffing or being insincere.
It's also a blessing and a curse in marriage. Mainly a curse though. See, my wife and I have history. When we argue, she's not just arguing about what happened today, she's arguing about everything I've put her through for that past 17 years. It's really hard for me to use rapport in an argument if she already has an opinion about who I am that is based on who I was. Even if I have changed, she's likely to remember the old version of me during arguments. As a result, I have to work consistently to show her the new and improved me before she will accept my new normal.
#4: She doesn't always want me to fix a problem.
Why bring it up if you don't want me to fix it though! Like for real... that's like calling a negotiator to a standoff and telling them to listen but not talk...
But I digress.
As negotiators, we are fixers. As husbands, most times our wives just want to get us fixed. I find that sometimes, our arguments end without a resolve. This is a tension for me because I really don’t like walking away from a conversation that was intended to garner understanding, but offers no defined path forward. If there is nothing for me to do at the end of a conversation, I tend to feel like it was a wasted effort.
My wife thrives on being understood, however. Most of us do actually. Sometimes, she just wants me to listen. I've learned that when I simply shut up, it helps her to get her thoughts together. When I'm silent, she can speak more clearly because the voice in her head is no longer competing with the sound of my voice. When she can get her thoughts out and feel understood, it allows us to regroup and reconnect at a later time and actually solve problems. She's got to feel good to be good. I have to be good to feel good. The process is frustrating for me, but healing for her.
#5 We don't always say what we mean.
This is actually more of a similarity than a difference. During tension and conflict, people tend to say things in the moment that they don't really mean.
In a hostage negotiation, a suspect may say that they want to end it all, but they likely just desire to escape their reality and avoid the consequences of their behavior.
Similarly in marriage, we may say harmful and damaging things out of anger and frustration, when all we really want is to be safe, secure, heard, loved, pursued, appreciated, or cared for. At the end of a heated exchange, you may think that you've heard your spouse's heart, but you might have only heard their hurt.
Our rule of thumb is this; never say or do anything that might cause your character to come into question. For that matter, don't weaponize your frustration or say something that you will ultimately regret or that you aren't actually willing to walk out. Empty threats turn into heavy burdens, and your credibility is on the line.
Don't negotiate with your spouse, resolve conflict.
The word negotiation sounds like a great term for marriage, but I prefer to avoid it. In my experience, the word negotiation is a cover for the word control. By definition, the word negotiation means to reach an agreement. In reality, we won't always have control of situations and we won't always agree on things.
I prefer to resolve conflict with my wife. If I'm negotiating with her, that means that I'm usually campaigning for my own benefit [Selfishness]. If I'm resolving conflict however, that means that I'm focused on finding peace with her. I may need to concede some things, apologize and repent, humble myself, or console and comfort her [Selflessness].
More importantly, we should both be asking what the Lord wants for us on the front end of any conflict. If we are both chasing his plan, instead of our own, it makes it so much easier to focus on the other's wellbeing than our own desired outcomes.
About The Authors:
We are Ryan and Alicia Dunlap, marriage coaches and the the founders of ThisIsKnotLove.com. Like a knot, we believe there are two types of marriages; those which are miserable, tangled messes and those which are intentionally fashioned together to join two separate things together as one. We work to remove the bad knots that cause marriages to unravel, and fashion secure knots that hold marriages together. We're just here to help you get the kinks out! #TIKL #KnottyLove