Part One of a Six-part Series on Relationship Communication
“You are not listening to me!”
Ben felt his fists and jaw clench. He was so frustrated. What was her problem? They had this discussion every week for as long as he could remember. He was not asking for much. All he wanted was for her to fill the gas tank if it ran out. He already woke up tired, and now he was going to be late…again.
It wasn’t as if she did this on purpose, Corrie thought to herself as Ben left the room in a huff. She had a lot on her mind, and she knew that Ben did not really have a set time to go to work each day. He was the boss, after all. What was the big deal? Didn’t he see how hard she was working to keep the house and her job running smoothly? Ben came home all hours of the day, but she rarely made it home until late in the evening. Pumping gas was the last thing she wanted to do each night. Couldn’t he let up some and do this one thing for her? She decided to follow him and continue the conversation.
Corrie: Why are you so angry?
Ben: I cannot believe you did it again! I have asked you a thousand times not to come home on fumes! Are you trying to make my life harder?
Corrie: Yes, of course. That is the reason! All I want is to make you miserable because that works out so well for me.
Ben: I give up! There’s no point. You simply do not care what I need. It’s one small thing I ask, but I guess it’s too much. (Leaves the room again and slams the door)
Corrie (thinking): Is he kidding? Do one thing for him? I do all kinds of things for him. What about me?
Do you see some problems here? Their entire interchange is a mix of pure assumption and defensive sarcasm. Neither one of them have stated the true issue, which brings us to the first letter of the DECIDE acronym.
“D” stands for: Define the Actual Problem.
There may have been a time when Ben and Corrie spoke more honestly, but then again, there may not. As we bask in the warm and enchanting embrace of the early stages of love, our partner can literally do no wrong. Our brains make sure that we do not see (or, at least, do not care) about the whole picture. This is a thrilling and bonding time in a relationship. At a certain point, however, the initial stage passes, and we begin to see reality. It is rarely as pretty as we first assume, but it is also not quite as dire as it can feel.
One of the brain’s main functions is to keep us safe. When there is a perceived threat – notice I said perceived – the brain functions in a sort of deficit mode. At that point, it is very easy to overgeneralize and lose sight of the truth. Our once perfect partner is cast in a very different and not-so-rosy light. This happens in order to highlight the problem and force us to confront it. However, if we are not aware or mindful, we may miss what the signal of anger is meant to do. We justify the other person or ourselves, and nothing changes. In fact, it may become worse!
Ben and Corrie’s argument may have been about the lack of gas in the car or the ongoing nature of the issue, however, other underlying issues are the likely cause of the upset. When pressed to truly think about it, most people will admit that the true problems are feeling unheard, uncared for, disrespected, or belittled. It may also be the case that one or the other never actually communicated their wishes or boundaries only to be shocked when their loved one overlooked them.
When you find yourself in a stalemate or in endlessly engaging the same issues, consider the following:
Define the Actual Problem. As mentioned above, the true problem may not be the empty gas tank, the towel on the bathroom floor, or the wrong toothpaste (again). As mentioned, there are often more fundamental issues, such as feeling invisible or unloved. When you find yourself upset with a person or situation, ask yourself 1) “What am I feeling?” 2) “What did I want in that situation? How did I convey my wishes?” “Is there anything from my past that I am bringing into the present moment? Is the problem really the problem?” Beware of the binary brain that wants to put everything neatly into boxes – it does not always work that way.
Gain “Buy in” and Deal with Barriers. We often assume are partners are just like us and would like all the same things we do. This is not true for most couples. Rather than assuming that “all men fix cars and all women wash dishes,” take the time to ask. Share what you want and as you listen, see if you can detect anything that might hinder the other person’s willingness. Perhaps they are too tired every time you want to do some cleaning, but if you waited until Saturday mornings, all would be well. Maybe, they simply do not have the same standard. Whatever the issue, it is important to make what you want as rewarding to the other side as possible.
Remember Context. Things are not always as they appear. Ben was certainly upset about the repetitive nature of the argument, but he also may have had other struggles. Perhaps he needs his morning routine to be a certain way in order for his day to run smoothly. Stopping for gas could disrupt his daily preparations. Or, maybe traffic was particularly slow. It could be that he just found out his best friend is separating from his wife and his trust in marriage has been shaken. Whatever the back story, there is often much more going on than we can see at any one time.
Maybe, try as you might, you cannot figure out what the basic issues are in your relationships. Perhaps you have made attempts to reconcile every way you know how, but to no avail. In all our interactions, balance is crucial, which often entails keeping “others’ eyes on you” If you and your loved ones are struggling, do not fear seeking help. No one – not even Marriage Counselors – can successfully navigate everything in a relationship all on their own. We need objective and caring input. At The Center, trained and caring staff can help you gain objective clarity and equip you to pursue healing in all areas of your life. If this is something you need, please call for more information.
Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center ● A Place of Hope. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.