In my writings, clinical practice, and musings, I have a tendency to simplify very complicated emotional and psychological processes in a way that I hope is helpful. One of my favorite ways to do that is to take the four dimensions of “feeling small AND looking big” and pondering what order they actually happen in. Is it our own feeling small that tips us off? Is it our awareness that we look big or that our partner feels small? Or, is it the other person looking big that triggers our own complicated emotional and mental process? I suspect it is the last option, that it is our perception of someone else’s behavior that sets the stage for our emotional response, our behavior, and the other person’s perception of our behavior.
When someone important to us does something, or says something, or doesn’t say something, or doesn’t do something, we are in a hurry to make coherent sense of what just happened. We quite apparently employ a rich mixture of an entire lifetime of memory, the other person’s past behaviors, our own associations with the current behavior, and whatever perceptions we believe in or are testing out, to define what we have just experienced. What eventually gets us in trouble is a) this is our own history at work, not there’s and b) we are in a hurry because of our own insecurities and need for control. Better to have a clear sense of what just happened than a really perceptive one. In this momentary rush to distortion, we are not likely to consider the intentions or feelings of the other person, or the complicated context for the behavior we are striving to define. Our emotional need for perspective and order outweigh our ability to see the whole picture.
One of the devices I use to illustrate this is a kaleidoscope with two ends called a “Wedding Kaleidoscope®.” I ask couples to consider an issue that causes tension, typically money, sex, in-laws, kids, jobs, or the house, and look into the kaleidoscope. They can not both see the issue the same way, and that is the purpose of the kaleidoscope, to remind them that they each have a unique perspective on what they are disagreeing about. In fact, neither of them has a clear view of the beautiful pebbles in the middle of the device. They each see their own fascinating distortion of the pebbles. The problem is not only that they can’t see the issue the same way, but that they are both in a rush to distort what they are actually looking at.
It takes a lot of work to slow down this process. It happens in an instant. We all have memories, expectations, opinions, beliefs, familiar perceptions, and strong associations from our own lives to apply to this immediate need to understand a situation. Slowing that process down makes us vulnerable, or at least that is what our insecurities tell us. It takes courage to consider the context for the behavior and the actual intentions of the other person. Nonetheless, this is a legitimate goal for our relational health.
If, or when, we can be less surprised and more aware of the complexity surrounding a behavior that alarms us, we have a better chance of eventually responding in a more constructive and able fashion. That response of ours is likely to be less irritating, scary, threatening, or surprising to the other person as they rush to their distortion of our behavior. By being more prepared and risking more awareness when events happen, we can contribute to a calmer outcome and thus a deeper safer connection with our partner.
As a marriage counselor, a crucial part of my work entails the arrival of a couple that is devastated by the discovery of infidelity. Their intimate bubble has burst, raw emotions have been unleashed, and immediate resolution is unlikely, to say the least. I always consider it hopeful that both of them have come for help, as that is an indication that the relationship still matters to both of them. But, there is immediate pain and guilt to deal with first.
I have learned that infidelity takes many forms, from pornography or a secretive lunch, to a full-blown parallel relationship over a long period of time. One of the reliable themes for this work is that secrecy matters at least as much as any sexual behavior. It is trust that is broken, and the security implied by vows of fidelity that is shattered. From the perspective of the victim, the guilty party has withdrawn from their partner in the most aggressive way possible, with little understanding of the other person’s emotional sensibilities, and the injured party has interpreted this passive secret aggression as betrayal. Healing is complicated.
It is often said that people will forgive and not forget. How is that so true? When a couple is working on healing from infidelity, the guilty party often complains that they are still having to explain their actions multiple times, and that there should be a time limit on the anger, fear, and pain that has enveloped the couple. Actually, even though forgiveness can be genuine, forgetting is practically impossible.
One technique I use is to ask the partner who wandered to tell me about their own personal memories. When in their lifetime were they rejected, defeated, or insulted? When have they felt an excruciating loss? When did they feel like a failure? How strong and clear is that memory? What are their feelings now about that coach, sibling, teacher, parent, or lover that made them feel so helpless and hopeless? The answers are profoundly emotional and clear, often from decades before. How on earth can they expect their partners to forget a similar experience if they can’t forget their own?
For couples dealing with this disruption and injustice, good will and hard work can lead to a new acceptance and forgiveness, but it is not reasonable to expect the behavior to be forgotten.
You may have the impression that the healthiest most honest response is your first pure emotion. You may have come to believe that showing your emotions is the way to be authentic. Actually, this may be a trap, keeping you from slowing down and exploring your more complex internal process and actual intentions. You may be relating to others in a hurried, expedient and impulsive way while thinking that you are doing the best and right thing.
I like to explore words, so it is fortunate that I am a marriage and family therapist, because words are what I spend my working ours using and managing. Recently, I have had the good fortune to learn more about the words freedom, responsibility, and integrity while working with couples and families.
I’m quite familiar with the adult who enters therapy and values their independence and freedom, possibly having spent much of their life trying to push back against a demanding and judgmental world. It is important that nobody “tells them what to do” as one visitor put it. What begins as self-protection can morph into expedient and impulsive behaviors whenever there is a perceived threat or pressure in a relationship, with paralyzing results. Behavior becomes reactive and defensive, and the consequences become personal. The costs for the individual become self-punishing rather than self-caring. Consider the language Alcoholics Anonymous when an addict is advised to consider their addiction as like being in prison, imprisoned by their own behavior.
One of my visitors had spent several years challenging himself to grow, improve his marriage, and change significant behavior patterns. I asked him to tell me how it was better to be a changed man and after considerable thought he told me that he was experiencing freedom from his old impulses and patterns, now free to express something deeper and more meaningful and honest about himself. I was stunned by the use of that word, seemingly the opposite of that original freedom from oppression and demands.
Inspired by this re-invention of a familiar word, I wondered about the difference between reacting and responding in a relationship. Again, some may feel it is most honest to simply react, but isn’t it actually more authentic to respond? Doesn’t it require some strength and courage to stay in the moment, consider the context, listen to the other person, and give a personal response to that person? Isn’t that what you really want to be able to do? Isn’t that more response-able than simply reacting? Perhaps it is more freeing, also, allowing you to be more aware of yourself and your natural responsibilities.
If we are naturally more considerate, able to listen well, and intentional about being thoughtful, then we must be more able to handle contradictions, pressures, surprises, and changes than we usually believe we are. Actually, it may well be that our natural process is kind of messy and noisy, with a complicated bunch of thoughts and impulses fighting each other for attention all of the time. For some reason, we just want to get it to stop or get under control all of the time. What would happen if we just let ourselves listen to the noise, seek a way of balancing the different impulses, and be more ready for the consequences? Wouldn’t this be more consistent with the way we operate naturally? Wouldn’t we be integrating all of those different thoughts and urges? Wouldn’t we be able to call that integrity? Wouldn’t that be great?
Maybe the really healthy answer to the challenges and pressures of relationships is to seek freedom from our automatic defensive impulses, have response-ability for ourselves instead of being reactive, and seeking integrity. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you just got out of your own way.
Valentine’s Day can be a mixed blessing for couples. Of course, it is ideally a moment to celebrate your special partnership and shared mission, but it also puts your expectations and behaviors under a brightly lit microscope. Actions and reactions are felt deeply, noted and accounted for, and perhaps debated with passion.
Many couples find themselves “walking on eggshells” instead of really enjoying the celebration. The day can turn into an unwelcome opportunity to argue, establish who seems to be winning and losing, and may set the tone for many interactions to come.
When a couple comes to my office after a rocky Valentines Day, quite often their voyage has gotten complicated and is disappointing and draining for the couple. I encourage them to look at the way they are building an account with each other, full of payments, withdrawals, bills overdue, and maybe some borrowing and charging of interest.
The reality is that Valentine’s Day puts the fragile world of intimacy in the spotlight. If becoming part of a committed couple has turned one or both of you into an accountant, it is not surprising, but you have done so at some risk, and it may cost something. It is not surprising that either of you would want things to feel fair, and to start demanding equity and comparing behaviors, but it is also part of how relationships get complicated and confounding. What tends to happen is that the person feeling some sort of injustice begins to justify their own behavior in response to the perceived unfairness. It is only a short step to calculating, keeping a balance sheet, and making a case for your own behavior. Once this begins to happen over time, it is easy to fall into normal banking practices of measuring how much you are giving and taking, holding back credit, borrowing good will, loaning acceptance or forgiveness, and then charging interest. The borrower owes and the banker feels good about the position of power they are in, and the account doesn’t really get balanced again. It is the relationship that suffers as grudges develop, feelings get hurt, and neither person feels safe or satisfied.
Perhaps the best way to celebrate Valentine’s Day is to take stock. Are either of you building up resentment about things that don’t feel fair? Are you taking time as a couple to check in with each other about what the ledger looks like? Is somebody beginning to borrow too heavily or charge interest and enjoy it? Call time out and listen to each other instead of reacting to each other.
When and if Valentine’s Day causes a stressful degree of tension and toxicity, perhaps the healthiest way to handle it is to step back, breathe a little, and basically blame Valentine’s Day for the disruption. It is not the end of the world if your day of celebration does not meet your expectations. It is disappointing and worth discussing. For your own well-being, it makes sense to hit the pause button, focus on the usual way your relationship feels, rather than the emotional extremes that are triggered by this day. Remember that you are navigating a voyage together, with manageable ups and downs. In the more familiar middle, you can define the deeper well of balance, cooperation, teamwork, and integrity that actually gives your partnership depth and meaning.
A shared growth experience on Valentine’s Day may be the best gift of all.
As a couple, are you experiencing a lot of tension? This is not all that original, but there could be a way to apply the Goldilocks principle to your cherished relationship.
Remember the curious and confident Goldilocks, exploring the lair of the Three Bears. Each time she came to a difficult decision, such as what to eat, where to sit, or where to rest, she weighed the extremes, emphatically rejected them, and chose the middle ground and said it was “just right.” Perhaps she just had a natural sense of balance.
Imagine what it would be like to manage your partnership with the same nimble sensibility. For instance, if one parent is consistently punitive, angry and reactive about a child’s behavior and the other is consistently accepting, passive, and accommodating about the same behavior, there is an in-between response from both parents that may be “just right.” Or, if one of you is always inclined to spend money freely, and the other never inclined to risk spending much money, it may be the momma bear response that makes the most sense for you as a couple. Or, if one of you talks much more than the other, or does things much more quickly than the other, or takes charge much more often than the other, what you may both want is a middle ground that features a balanced conversation, or both of you operating at the same speed, or a sense of shared responsibilities. This takes hard work, clarity about what your desires are, flexibility, and attentive listening to each other to create that sense of balance, synthesis, or integration.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see yourself as practicing integrity in your daily life, and have others get the impression that you have that quality? It takes self-control and awareness to catch yourself when you are inclined to make an impulsive radical exaggerated decision and consider a balanced one. You can take care of yourself and the impression you make on others by trying to have the integrity to integrate opposite or extreme urges as you create your own behavior.
One of the benefits when you make these intentional choices is that you feel like you have controlled something (yourself) when you feel like there is chaos breaking out around you. Trying the Goldilocks principle may be your quickest way to feel like you have mastered the situation, and enhanced your partnership at the same time. Just as Aristotle advocated for finding the middle ground, and Georg Hegel wrote about the dialectic and synthesis, it makes good sense to seek just the right balance in all aspects of your personal life. It’s worth the effort.
H. Laurence Schwab, MFT, June 22, 2015
One of the compelling problems facing a couple as they navigate a relationship boat together is how to keep communication genuine and effective. The best communication for the sake of the boat includes sincere “I statements” and accurate “active listening” by both captains.
Aside from the challenge of making statements that actually describe what you are thinking or how you are feeling while using the word “I” (example: “I feel confused… hurt… dismissed… lonely… isolated… useless… invisible,… unimportant,… unwanted,… unappreciated… undesirable”…. as opposed to… “It feels like you have abandoned me and you have never appreciated me or loved me.”), it is really difficult to listen well.
Even when your partner is making a heartfelt statement about themselves it often feels like just another attack or criticism of you, but to communicate fairly, with consideration and compassion, you need to listen to them and validate what they are saying and what they are feeling before you tell them your thoughts and feelings about what they are saying. You need to manage your own defensiveness.
In The Mentalist or Criminal Minds and other similar television shows that portray detectives who focus on the psychology of the suspects in a crime, as they are being told the story that the suspect is weaving, they are listening for the I statements hidden in the story. They are listening for the genuine person who is feeling small and communicating about how they feel or what matters to them. They have trained themselves to use a filter that only registers the deepest statements, even if it is spoken in code. This allows the detective to disarm the person they are interviewing with some insight into their resources and motivations.
And I don’t mean that we listen in order to win the battle of what the other person is “really” thinking. I am talking about good detective work so that you don’t make false assumptions or accusations. You are curious and discerning about the other person’s intentions and ideas, not trying to solve the case or find guilt. After all, most of these shows have important moments where the ‘mentalist’ proclaims that the person meant no harm or was innocent of any crime.
Why not use this skill with your partner? What is the harm in asking whether they are really talking about something important they are trying to express about themselves? Why not help them talk about what they really want you to understand about the mental and emotional state they are in? This is not the same as telling them what they mean or what they are thinking or feeling, it is skillful listening, working with them to communicate as clearly as possible.