I visited an experimental preschool one day many years ago and was immersed in a very different culture for one day of school. Remarkably, the founder of the school, Margaret Skutch, had been able to enforce a rule that every conversation would be structured a certain way: Three positive statements and then the question, criticism or negative aspect of the conversation.
Conversations with the children started with the positive, but so did the children’s encounters with parents or staff, or between parents and staff, or between visitors. The theory was that this was the most nurturing climate for a preschool child, and what mattered the most was the way everyone was spoken to. This reminds me of a couple of things. First, how much the way we talk matters; and, second, how vulnerable we can be to negative statements. Skutch was teaching that we don’t listen well or accept another perspective until we have been calmed by some positive feedback. She was also acknowledging that we have serious, risky things to say to each other that may trigger defensive reactions.
Perhaps you were not handled so carefully as a child, or have not been in your adult relationships. Perhaps you don’t feel listened to or important or very visible. Perhaps you can identify the moment when a partner has not shown an interest in you, sexually or in some other way. It can be very powerful to feel unwanted or undesirable, and it is very difficult at those moments to have perspective on your partnership.
As we noted in Chapter 14, the person having less (sexual) desire acquires tremendous power, and one way the power is transferred is through the inner workings of the person being ignored or unappreciated, who desperately wants to recover the love, attention, or intimacy that had been expected. Our neediness empowers the other person, but only from our perspective. On their side, they don’t necessarily feel powerful or big. You can put the other person in charge of your needs when you need them to appreciate you even more, but although you are feeling entitled and justified, you could simply trigger your partner’s helplessness—not their support. In times like this, it is important to ask what you both really want and need.
It is helpful in those moments to remember that there is different weather on each side of the boat, and that you are both captains with the ability to discuss your perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.
What is the weather like on your boat? What kind of emotional climate are you and the rest of the household experiencing? Stormy or calm? Lots of sunlight or not so much? Lots of positives or more negatives?
Whether you are raising children, or you are simply the captains of your private boat, you are establishing a family culture regarding communication style, ways of connecting with each other, and ways of handling tippy moments. If you are a parent, you are establishing your family’s climate while your behavior is demonstrating and modeling what appear to be the best practices for young people eager to learn how to cope when they feel small and the weather is stormy. Your parents had that responsibility, as well, and your children will create their family climate for the next generation.
Hopefully, calling this the “climate” or atmosphere on your boat gives you some ideas about how to manage it. I have found this to be useful when I visit leaders of organizations and they need a solid handle on how to take leadership. They grasp that they are responsible for the climate and begin to see ways to have an effect on it.
Your boat is a personal and emotional place, and each perception of that place is valid. Many times, when working with a family, I have taken the time to pass a normal (nonwedding) kaleidoscope around the room, asking each person what they really see when they look at the rest of the family.
You can imagine the youngest child seeing everyone as impossibly old, the father seeing himself outnumbered by women, or the oldest child seeing authority figures and younger siblings who need caretaking. These are very different perceptions and experiences, yet they can all happen in the same family.
One family I would be curious about are the adorable turtles named Slowsky who inhabit the advertisements for our cable TV and Internet service. They see the Internet as too fast for themselves, and instead gaze lovingly at each other and listen carefully to each other as they react slowly to the changes around them, including having children. What would the climate be like in a family like that? Would there be more consideration and conversation? Would children and adults feel listened to? Would feelings be understood and validated? Would people feel like they mattered? The only obvious value they have enforced is that they operate slowly in tandem, not like captains moving in opposite directions or drivers moving at wildly different speeds. This gives tremendous dignity to their interactions and could be a very healthy value to enforce.
The String Quartet
If you develop a healthy shared climate in your partnership, what needs to happen when the ship still seems to be tipping? One way to slow things down is to simplify what you talk about, perhaps recalling the “rules” about describing your own perspective and having intense curiosity about your partner’s.
One year, at the annual conference I love to attend, the keynote speaker for thousands of therapists was, of all people, an orchestra conductor named Benjamin Zander. It was an interesting combination. What would he know of “our world,” and how would he handle talking to all of us? He thoughtfully was provided with an excellent string quartet, which we presumed was so that he could have them play something beautiful if he lost his nerve or forgot his train of thought.
Indeed, the speech was so inspirational and insightful that many of us couldn’t wait to hear more of his ideas, and decided not to attend the workshops we had signed up for. Instead we found ourselves moving to an overcrowded ballroom for more of Zander and the string quartet. During his next presentation, Zander stated that he could illustrate an effective family therapy session for us—which at first seemed a little presumptuous, considering that he wasn’t a therapist. As it turned out, he knew exactly what he was doing.
What he did was have the string quartet play a beautiful piece of music, and then ask each member, one at a time, to say what they wanted as they experienced the piece of music. Each musician had his or her own private point of view about the well-rehearsed and beautifully presented masterpiece. Each of them saw the music through their own precious kaleidoscope. Each person had something they wanted, perhaps wanting to play their part differently, or wanting someone else’s part to be more prominent, for the good of the group. They knew the music intimately and welcomed a chance to openly express their feelings about how to make it even better. The leader of the group shared his own wishes, including his observation that it was hard to have to be the leader, to be so decisive, and to have so much responsibility. Zander then simply had them play the music again.
It was abundantly clear to all of us that the music was played even better after the intervention. We were collectively stunned. He had not worked with this “family” before, but he knew that they were experts on their own dynamics and wanted something beautiful to be even better. All he asked was for them to say what they wanted, and the results were measurable and obvious, even to an audience of outsiders.
From Brain-dead to Authentic
One way you can make a relationship more complex is to measure how much you are giving and how much you are getting in return. An intimate partnership is an invitation to create a complicated contract, and then start measuring who owes whom—kind of like keeping a bank account or a ledger.
Consider the situation of Marty and Sue, who decided to get married and then spent more than a year in suspended animation. Marty, by his own admission, was “brain-dead” and had developed “tunnel vision,” while Sue waited for action that would indicate Marty was ready to move forward and get married. They had homes they needed to sell, legal papers to locate, and promises to keep, but none of it seemed to be happening. Sue felt she had been promised that they would live together and blend their lives together, but Marty had delayed so much that Sue began to charge “interest” on her investment, wanting better and better evidence that Marty was serious. Marty was behind on his payments, so to speak, the bank was raising the interest rates, and he sounded just as exasperated as a customer at a bank who couldn’t see their way out of debt.
Marty still wanted to marry Sue, but the relationship had become very conditional and he couldn’t improve his behavior enough to make up for his earlier failures. Each slip made Sue more certain that Marty didn’t really want to follow through. Eventually, after both of them had clarified their positions with me, Marty decided he had nothing to lose, and chose to name his real needs and wishes. He calmly declared that he wanted to be considered and accepted—faults and all—as someone trying to be better and still wanting to be married to Sue. He had found a solid, authentic truth and could claim it and repeat it, regardless of Sue’s reactions.
Over the next month or two, Marty began to believe in himself, realize that people depended on him (especially his children, whom he had custody of), sound more authentic, and sleep much better. He became much clearer about his feelings and needs, and was able to relax and privately laugh at himself about how he had been brain-dead and had clearly been frustrating Sue for over a year.
As an intimate relationship involves growth, constant transactions, and rebalancing of the ledger, the relationship also, then, became different for Sue, who needed to adjust to this new way of getting what she had been hoping for and somehow drop the interest charges. This was difficult, as we all know that being the bank is a powerful and secure place to be. The eventual result was an ongoing conversation about themselves, with less focus on the balance of the account. When his children graduated from high school, the couple was able to bring their lives together in an authentic, collaborative way.
In contrast, we can consider the fate of James and Becky, who came to me for a lengthy intensive session, walked in the door saying that they didn’t expect the session to help, proceeded to tell me their complaints, and then eventually relax, take their shoes off, face each other on the sofa and share a very genuine eye-to-eye quiet discussion about their issues for several hours.
At the end of the day, they put their shoes on, told me the session hadn’t changed anything, and walked out the door— presumably still more comfortable with their standard way of not communicating, not taking risks every day with their relationship, and feeling justified in thinking that nothing could really change. To my mind, they had the vast potential to change their lives, but found it more comforting to continue the reliable, yet unfulfilling, dance they were already doing, maintaining the patterns that didn’t challenge them or demand awareness of their changing relationship with each other. They had presumably benefited from a few hours of responding slowly to each other and exploring positive ways to communicate, but were not ready to embrace it with their everyday shoes back on.
If it helps so much to be mostly positive, to slow down, and to say what we want in a sincere way, let’s consider some useful ways to consistently approach a relationship:
Lobsters apparently do have another partner in mind in case a partnership doesn’t work out well. Is that how you operate? What impact does that have on your relationship? Have you considered making sure you’re there to love your partner and yourself when you need support? Are you lovable and available in a slow, positive, and thoughtful way?
It is hard work to develop the awareness and the courage to communicate and share in an authentic way. Perhaps you can keep the conversation positive, or get a grip on the climate, or be like the Slowskys, or maintain authenticity even with your shoes on. It will help to ask yourself and your partner what you really want. Encourage yourself as you take on this journey and try to enjoy the ride.