Linda: Ginger and Tom came for marriage counseling as a result of the physical and emotional stress brought about by the recurrence of Ginger’s cancer. Her health condition had required her to hire household help in order to manage things that she could no longer do herself.
During their session Ginger criticized Tom for overworking and spending an excessive amount of time on his community volunteer activities. Beneath her words was a plea for more of his time and attention, but she didn’t acknowledge this desire. Consequently, it came out as judgments of Tom.
When he felt attacked, he responded by justifying his actions, but was unable to explain things to Ginger’s satisfaction. In response, Ginger sat passively, unmoved by Tom’s words and efforts to provide her with reassurance of his concern for her. He felt he deserved her forgiveness and sought a statement from Ginger to absolve him of any responsibility for her unhappiness. When Ginger failed to provide that absolution, Tom kept restating his case in different words hoping somehow to hit the winning combination.
In this example, which was all too common to Tom and Ginger, neither one of them was able to articulate their true concerns and were stuck in a repetitive cycle that was leading to increased frustration and resentment on both of their parts.
When a couple is stuck in a repetitive pattern, the way through lies in the willingness to address the concerns, desires and fears that underlie the content of the dialogue. Both partners are choosing to remain at a low level of connection to spare themselves the discomfort of revealing their vulnerable feelings. They (unconsciously) opt for the discomfort of being stuck in negative cycles rather than risk the discomfort that may be experienced with an authentic exchange. While it often appears as though one of the two partners is the “resistant one”, it is usually the case that both partners resist (in different ways) vulnerable levels of communication.
After observing Tim and Ginger’s go-rounds for several minutes, I stopped them and had them check in on their current experience. This question provokes an interruption in the cycle by redirecting awareness away from the other and towards themselves.
In response to my question Ginger stated that she was feeling sad and hopeless and “a little angry”. Tom expressed disappointment that he had been unsuccessful in his efforts to influence Ginger’s mood. Tom also acknowledged that he was tired of “trying to get her to understand my side of things when it seems that she doesn’t want to”.
Both Tom and Ginger are conflict-phobic and will do anything to avoid a fight. Instead of arguing, which they see as being dangerous, they engage in superficial exchanges which protect them from the possibility of a full-blown confrontation but leaves them feeling frustrated. Because the quality of what they experience together isn’t authentic or satisfying, they compensate with extended conversations that add to each of their frustration.
Many couples, like Tom and Ginger, spend vast amounts of time trying to relate with each other, but fail to communicate with meaningful connection. Each covertly blames the other for the deficiency in the relationship. They have trouble seeing that they are both responsible for creating the problematic pattern, covertly colluding to keep the relationship ‘safe’ by trying to minimize the possibility of experiencing conflict.
When couples redirect their attention to their own experience, they stop demonizing the other person, which interrupts the impasse. This move can cause a shift in their partner’s perspective. When there is a willingness on the parts of both partners to lower their defensiveness, a shift can occur without outside help. If a couple cannot do this on their own, they can engage the services of a counselor to help them until they can do it on their own.
Shifting from the intention to protect to the intention to learn.
As Ginger and Tom began describing their perceptions, the tension between them began to cool down. They had, shifted from a mode of attack, justify, and defend to one of opening, listening, and understanding. The shift in communication is a manifestation of a deeper shift that has already occurred on an internal level. The shift is from the intention to protect to an intention to experience understanding. This shift creates the opening that allows each of them to their vulnerable truth, where a different kind of relationship is available.
The steps that meaningful connection requires are simple but not easy. Ongoing patterns of defensiveness, many of which began long before we ever met our partner, don’t dissolve immediately. But with committed effort, significant changes can occur in even deeply troubled relationships. It’s never too late to take the first step.