Linda: Once I was on a plane flying to Little Rock, Arkansas. I was seated next to an older woman. I remember her as having kind, intelligent eyes. We struck up a conversation and she seemed delighted to find out I was on my way to facilitate a workshop for couples. She was on her way to teach a seminar on forgiveness. Seeing that we had much in common, we quickly fell into an animated conversation. When I mentioned that I often taught with my husband, her mood changed, and she became melancholy. She told me that her husband had died four years earlier and that she still missed him terribly. They had been married for forty-six years. She had tears in her eyes as she spoke. I was deeply touched by how open she was about the beauty of their life together.
At one point, I gently asked, “What was the secret of your long happy marriage?” “Just keep talkin” she said with barely a moment’s hesitation. “I beg your pardon?” I said waiting for more of an explanation. She repeated herself. “Just keep talkin’. No matter how late it is, no matter how frustrated you are, no matter how tired you are, no matter what you’d rather do, if you’re not feeling good towards each other, just keep talkin’ until you do.” We both laughed and I promised that I would tell my class. I quoted her that weekend, and many times since.
Those couples that delight in a working partnership have free-flowing communication and connection. Both partners make a strong commitment to be available to spend time together and show interest in each other’s experiences. They show up, pay attention, tell the truth without blame and judgment, and are open to the outcome. If your relationship is not working at an optimal level, you would be wise to do an assessment of your availability to your partner to bring all of their experience, their concerns, disappointment, triumphs, frustration, unmet needs, and resentment. If you are only available to hear the good news about what’s working in your partnership, you are riding for a fall.
If, when you do an examination of your availability to your partner, you find you don’t get high marks, you can begin right away to put in the corrections. Here are some examples.
Distracted Focused Attention
Uninterested Genuine Curiosity
Short Tempered Patient
Distant Come Closer
Argumentative Respectful Listen
Unfriendly Bringing Warmth
Unapproachable Receptive and Inviting
The characteristics in the first column are the ways some people keep their partner from coming close. These are their defense mechanism that they have adopted over the years in an attempt to keep them safe from emotional pain. While they are protecting themselves from harm, they are causing harm to their partner who desires to be more closely connected, to speak their truth of both of their experience more openly, so that they can have a closer bond. Also accompanying their unapproachable stance, they too are missing out on the joys of having a closer bond.
The avoidant pattern can change, but both partners have responsibility for moving their interactive system to the higher plane of well-being. It’s difficult to self-observe and the distant partner needs caring feedback to discover how much they are keeping themselves apart. The partner who wants a more genuine and consistent connection is required to continue to tell the truth of their experience, their sadness and loneliness, their desire to be closer, to continue to bring up the tough subjects, and to appeal to their partner’s enlighten self-interest catalyzes movement in the direction that will be beneficial to both of them. The partner that wants closeness can be a strong support to the one who has been unavailable by holding the vision of the successes awaiting them.
The largest portion of responsibility lies with the partner who has been distant. Taking ownership of the patterns that have held the partnership down is a good beginning. And making a full-hearted commitment to change their stance is the relationship to one that is available and welcoming makes all the difference.
So often couples give up in resignation when they don’t feel understood. There is so much miscommunication, and distortion, taboos, sensitivity, and missed opportunities. Sometimes, we have to go over the same topic a hundred times, in different ways, from different vantage-points, before real understanding can be reached. Each conversation can be like filing down rough edges where we get snagged. The secret seems to be in not quitting. Just keep “talkin’!” is simple and profound wisdom from a wise elder.