Several commercials and programs are using humor – an age old technique in the advertising business – to portray misunderstandings and clearly a pattern of interaction too familiar to couples. One starts out with the husband coming home with an affectionate greeting and his wife sitting on the sofa with her legs propped up eating soup. She says, “The flame is out.” He responds with defeat, ‘today, it’s my attitude, tomorrow, her mother, ….”. She says, “Antonio, the stove, it’s not working…” Clearly, their perceptions were 180 degrees apart!
A popular program highlighted unspoken fear and discouragement that was demonstrated in the behavior of the husband. The wife, always fixed up, sexy and energetic, was expressing herself honestly to husband about why she took time and made special effort to present herself in a way that was attractive to him. He retorted that she didn’t do it for him, she did it for herself.
The next scene showed her meeting him at a restaurant to join colleagues for dinner. She was comically dressed, her hair a mess, and lipstick extending well beyond the natural lines of her mouth. He made excuses to leave the door, but she had those covered. Finally, they sat down on a bench by the entrance and he expressed to her that he had experienced a situation in a department store when younger guys laughed at him as he was trying on new styles of clothes.
He told his wife, “I just decided that since I was old, I’d just be old.” She responded with understanding and encouragement, referred to him as still appealing to her and as sexy as he was when they met, and urged him to stay with her to enjoy as much of their romantic life together as they could. By hearing each other and understanding that their behaviors stemmed from their individual perceptions, empathic responses replace defensive reactions.
These examples are funny, yet bittersweet. The truth is that among many couples, the same types of frustrations, disappointments, and misunderstandings occur. I tell my clients often that no one taught us how to be in relationship with each other. I didn’t know what questions to ask, much less any answers. The biggest problem is that most of us try so long to work with the only ways and means we have, and only when we have become so discouraged, isolated, empty, and unhappy will we do something about it. Avoiding what we consider to be the only outcome – divorce – our delay in speaking our truth leads us to the point of no return.
The lack of communication, and the comfort of expressing oneself in the safety of assurance and connection, leads to the isolation that plagues many couples. It is “a shame”, as my Mother would say. I say, it doesn’t HAVE to be that way. Just being heard promotes assurance that you are valued, and the information provided enables partners to ‘get’ each other.
When differences show up, the knee-jerk reaction to ‘fight or flee’ can be toned by reasoning, and the feedback provided as to why our partner is seeing it in their own way. Perceptions can change quickly with just a little information. The shift can make a world of difference in the reactions we have.
Thirty years ago when I faced this crises, the help that is now available to understand what was happening, at least something about why it was happening, and certainly…what to do about it – was NOT available. Even when we sought professional help, counselors took ONE side, seemed to demean the other, and did not provide the information or support that gave hope or provide a path toward resolution.
It was heartbreaking, and I can feel it even now, because divorce was not really what I wanted, nor is it what most of my couples want. I needed CONNECTION, and my attempts to obtain it had failed for many years. I was unable to ask for what I needed, state the fact that I was not happy for fear that my husband would get mad and our relationship would be over right then and there!
Well, guess what? By NOT speaking up, it took a long, hurtful road to it’s final demise. Fortunately, we were able to survive those first months and co-parent with minimal volatility and no parental alienation. It has not been without impacting our children, but life is about paradox, and some things we cannot change. To embrace the entirety of this imperfect existence is what it’s all about, and it can be done with a sense of resolve and acceptance while we carry on with what comes next.
Emotionally Focused Therapy, based in attachment theory, provides excellent and easily applied ideas and examples to help us gain the perspective necessary to create the connection we all desire, “from cradle to grave.” Dr. Sue Johnson’s work is written for couples in all kinds of circumstances. I urge individuals and couples to explore her work with me through face-to-face counseling and/or online therapy with me from the comfort of your home.