Talking Back: Essential Marriage Skills 101

David Mansfield 1973

David Mansfield 1973

Three-year-old David snuggled on our friend Jeanne Astor’s lap in an Ithaca clothing store.

“What’s your daddy like?” a saucy saleswoman asked curly-topped David.

“My daddy’s tough as nails,” David said with all the bravado he could muster.

“So what’s your mama like?” the woman challenged.

“My mama talks back.”


Our marriage was usually harmonious, but we knew how to have a fair fight to move things forward and avoid permanent damage. Even during Vic’s illness, we sparred occasionally as we became exhausted by the constant crises of lymphoma.

During one period, Vic depended on Tylenol to prevent high fevers, but he repeatedly forgot to take it. Forgetting led to a 104 fever in the evening while I witnessed his distress and scrambled to lessen his symptoms. To prevent this nightmare, I put a Tylenol bottle on the kitchen counter next to his pill box. Beside the bottle, I put an open note pad so he could write down the time and amount of Tylenol he’d taken. He remembered the dose in the morning when he took his other medication, but then he forgot. His lapse was related to the mental effect of other medicines, but mostly it was his resistance to taking more drugs and his desire to think about other things besides cancer. He refused to set a timer as a reminder.

Vic, David, Anthony, and me--6 weeks before Vic's death

Vic, David, Anthony, and me–6 weeks before Vic’s death

“You need the Tylenol, Vic. You can’t expect me to follow you around all day to make sure you take it,” I said one afternoon, choking back a sob.

“Well, I forget,” he said defiantly.

“You need to figure this out,” I growled. I didn’t want to spend another night covering his body with heating pads, hot water bottles, and down comforters while he shook violently with fever rigors, his teeth audibly chattering. I didn’t want to run for the Tylenol and watch the clock, waiting for the drug to take effect and shivers to turn to sweats.

“You don’t have a choice,” I ordered. “Take it and write it down.” Tears of anger flowed down my face.

“You’re a cry baby,” he snapped, one of the few times in forty-two years that he targeted my tears.

“OK, I’m a cry baby,” I roared like a poked bull, “but you’d better take the damned Tylenol or you can shiver alone tonight.”

Within an hour, we calmed down and made a plan. Next morning, I put a little bowl on the counter and dropped in 8 Tylenol, the amount he needed each day. On the notepad, he wrote morning, noon, afternoon, and evening. All he had to do was make a mark after taking the pill, and if he forgot a dose, we could tell by the number of pills left in the bowl.

He remembered. The fevers were controlled. We forgave the growls. The flare-up brought more consciousness to the issue and a resolution.

This often happened in our marriage. A flare, angry words, a compromise, and a plan. We rarely hit below the belt or flattened each other’s ego.  We knew that anger was a sign of an unconscious issue that needed attention. We struck out and yielded, resolved and forgave.

When Vic died, I lost a lover, partner, friend, and companion, but also my sparring partner. Who will put up with me now when I’m angry about something trivial? Who will talk it out when wrongly accused so we can become conscious of what’s underneath? Who will put up with what Vic called the lightning rod effect–a jab of misplaced anger over disappointment or defeat that had little or nothing to do with the person receiving the jolt?

“I married a worthy opponent,” Vic often said with a grin.

So did I.


For another post about essential marriage skills, see The Art of Argument. Another strategy is avoidance or changing the subject. It sometimes worked for us as we got older and better at laughing at ourselves. What works for you?

  1. What a wonderful nugget of a story.
    Such a willingness to ‘let’ emotions. Such tenderness in the face of his horrible illness. Such skillful psychological introspection to be able to see an outburst as a flag and look at what it was marking.

    My sister told me a rather unconventional method she and her husband worked out in their marriage.
    If one had acted really badly to the other and was clearly overstepping the bounds of…let’s say graciousness…to put it mildly, the one who had acted out had to do ‘the cockroach’. This meant the offensive party had to lie down on their backs with their legs and arms wiggling in the air for at least a minute. This was a sign that they were repentant and the other would then forgive. Needless to say a lot of laughter was generated as well.
    We all have our ways.

    • I love this, Lauren. The ultimate posture of submission. I laugh just imagining the possibility. If I offend you, I’ll willingly (OK, maybe begrudgingly) do the cockroach. Sending love your way and lots of conflict resolution skill.

  2. OMG I have so much I want to say but am crying too hard. Remind me to come back to this place to discuss!! I love you, Elaine, for finding the words to describe the indescribable.

    • Dear Liz, that David was a smart-tongued little guy, wasn’t he? But he got it. Thank you for your loving response. That’s what I’m after, you know, but I look forward to more words if you have them. With love and gratitude that my son has a wife who talks back.

  3. great piece, Elaine!

  4. Elaine, I feel you have surrounded yourself with so many friends who have the sparring skills you describe. Yes, it’s fabulous to have that in a marriage, but it is also a wonderful gift with friends.

    • Absolutely true, Barb. Conflict invariably shows up in relationship–two egos grating against each other’s needs. So these thoughts can be generalized to any relationship if the two people are willing to talk it out or even go to counseling. Thanks for pointing that out, and thanks for reading and responding. Sending you a cool breeze.

  5. “Our marriage was usually harmonious, but we knew how to have a fair fight to move things forward and avoid permanent damage.” Yes, Elaine ~ exactly! Thank you! ♥

    • You pulled out the essential sentence, Marty. My marriage was always a learning and growing process, and in many ways, it still is. Thanks for your encouragement and kindness.

  6. Hi Elaine! I’ve ‘found’ your website instead of using e-mail. As always, I love hearing the ups and downs and strategies within that wonderful marriage of yours!!
    What Johnny and I have sometimes done, is: the ‘offender’ creeps over to the other, with a teal-blue bow (which lives on the fridge door when not in use) on our head, symbolizing the ‘gift’ we have just ‘given’ so that the other could grow! That usually brings a smile.

    • Peggy, this is a wonderful idea–a designated way to lower tension level and bring a smile or perhaps a laugh. I love how you know just where to find that teal bow so that you aren’t pretending that conflict won’t happen, but instead designate it a gift. Thanks so much for reading my posts and taking the time to share your delightful technique.

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