(This post continues our exploration of lying and trust in love relationships; you’ll want to read my previous post before you read this one.)

#3 Use Four Steps for Working on Your Relationship

Susan B and others may be frustrated by now, because I haven’t said anything yet about making her boyfriend stop his behavior.

That’s because my hope is that the boyfriend is going to decide for himself to stop, or that he and Susan B are going to work out some mutually satisfactory common ground.

Believe me, I DO NOT think that Susan B should just accept the situation as it is now and choke back her pain and suffer in silence.

It’s always possible for Susan B to issue an ultimatum: Quit secretly seeing female friends, or I’m leaving you! But whereas this sort of “solution” might end his behavior, it also weakens the relationship because it doesn’t help the partners understand or trust each other. It’s a threat, and not an act of love.

My fondest hope is that Susan B and her boyfriend are going to be able to use this difficult relationship issue to understand each other better and grow closer.

Another of the things I’ve discovered through tutoring is that the surface issue is often not the REAL issue; it’s a distractor. Kids (and all of us) blow smoke in order to deflect attention from more painful, concerns; it’s called rationalization, or self-deception, and it’s a mostly unconscious, reflexive process.

Here are some protests a tutor hears constantly:

The teacher hates me! (code for: I find this subject really hard and unpleasant and it makes me feel dumb every time I study it and so it feels like the teacher is purposely trying to hurt me.)

The test wasn’t fair! (code for: I thought I did well but I failed, so now I’m confused and embarrassed and scared.)

I don’t need help, I already understand everything. (code for: I don’t want to be tutored, I don’t want to think about this subject, I just wish it would all go away.)

When parents hear these things they often take them at face value. They begin having an argument about how Of course the test was fair, or they call the teacher to ask Are you picking on my kid? She says you hate her! or they begin explaining Yes, you do need help, look at your bad grades…

…and the result is a wild goose chase away from the central issue, namely, the student’s academic struggles.

Here’s what I’ve learned to do instead:

  1. (Temporarily) Set aside the surface complaint. Maybe the teacher really is unfair, etc, etc, and we’ll eventually have to deal with this problem…but it’s not my first concern.
  2. Instead, tune in to the underlying emotions. I guess at how the student might be feeling: failed, embarrassed, angry, misunderstood, etc.
  3. Join them in their feelings. I say things such as Math sure can be hard sometimes, Lots of kids have trouble with algebra, Getting tutored on a Sunday afternoon sure isn’t fun, right?
  4. Offer hope, control and support. Look at how many problems you got right!, Let’s tackle this question; you were so close to the correct solution, Which section would you like to work on first?

Four Steps to Begin Rebuilding Trust

  1. Set the details aside for now (this is WAY HARD to do!!!). But I’m assuming Susan B and her boyfriend have been round and round about how he wants to have gal pals and she doesn’t like this…so, put that discussion on the back burner for the time being. It may be a wild goose chase, a distractor from some deeper concerns.
  2. Instead, tune in to the underlying feelings. Ideally both people will do this; they’ll unearth their own feelings and they’ll also guess at their partner’s feelings. Making lists and then comparing them would be a great approach. Does Susan B feel frightened, unloved, excluded? Does her boyfriend feel insulted, untrusted, misunderstood?
  3. Join each other. Take turns sharing feelings and acknowledging them. Listen without debating or rejecting. Use comments like I can see how you would feel that way, or I hear you, or Tell me more, or I hate to see you suffering like this, or I want this to get better.
  4. Offer hope, control and support. Search for common ground, compromises, solutions. Maybe Susan B can meet the gal pals or be included in the socializing? Maybe the boyfriend can minimize these interactions and find other social outlets? (This step is VERY HARD and we’ll explore it in more detail).

The main idea is: Use the relationship problem as a window onto deeper feelings. Treat this problem as an opportunity to communicate, understand each other, and practice answering one another’s needs.

Next time I’ll be talking about jealousy, and we’ll finally get to what Susan B’s boyfriend needs to do differently…