While doing couples therapy, I am often struck by how much is left unsaid between couples, both of a factual and feeling nature, that emerges in sessions days, weeks and sometimes months past the actual situation. The back and forth which typically ensues when reviewing transactions that have caused trouble stimulates in each partner the need to clarify or justify their contribution. But herein lies the problem. As one member of the Coupledom adds facts or feelings to show where they were coming from, what they understood, or to a put context into the episode, the partner’s response often is, “Why didn’t you tell me that then?” or “I don’t believe you. You’re just saying that now.” Depending on how “far gone” they are on the trust continuum, instead of the added information serving to reduce agitation, it ignites it.
Then, as the therapist, my job is to ratchet down the temperature in the room from scalding hot to a lukewarm simmer so all three of us can sort out feelings and facts and rebuild a communication that is useful and respected. This is a task that I am fully equipped to take on, over and over again. Yet, the real challenge is teaching folks not to get into this fix to begin with. Or to leave with new tools so it won’t continue to undermine trust and erode the collaborative life.
One of the foundational tools in building better communication and preventing conflagration is to share a lot more of everything with a spouse. Many folks are in the habit, taught by the culture, by familial values or by their own sense of appropriateness and privacy, of keeping much to themselves, to solve problems in their heads and to utilize denial, as in “That doesn’t really bother me,” or rationalization, as in “He doesn’t want to hear this.”
Added to the potpourri of defenses and misguided cultural values, is the lack of time. No time to share, no time to listen to a sharing, no time to respond to what is shared. The couples that come to my office configure this way: both work and have children; one works, the other travels constantly and have children; both work around the clock with no children but may have a pet; both work, both travel, no pets, no children, no time; retired and each with children and grandchildren from previous marriages – no time, no common ground for picking up the slack. Likely I have forgotten other variations. But in short, our fast paced lives, dictated in part by the new technologically inspired clock of work and social linkage that runs 24/7, distracts us all away from the Coupledom connection constantly.
The mix of all these variables results in couples not sharing or informing the other of small and large pieces of information. So often decisions get made by a member of the Coupledom without all the facts and all the feelings that are relevant to the outcome. Or the motivations.
And here is a particular rub – without the understanding of someone’s motivations for forgetting an appointment or leaving a chore unfinished, we humans fill in the spaces with our projections of the meaning behind these slips. This absence of context leads to a toxic mix of misleading convictions and hurtful accusations – most of which could be avoided by talking to each other. No kidding? Just talking?
For the folks who travel or whose spouse travels, time zones and all day meetings can represent impossible obstacles. Children’s sports schedules, school performances and tag teaming often mean no one is in the same room at the same time, unless someone is already asleep. Yet we have technology that lets us connect wherever whenever. The ironic joke of today’s lifestyle seems to be on us.
So what is the solution? First there is the need to out the problem, create awareness that much is missing in the couples’ communication and then establish an agreement between you that sharing even the most seeming insignificant information, fact and feeling, that has any relational aspect to the shared life, is a priority. How you feel as a spouse in the time spent at home alone when your partner is traveling. How you feel as the traveling partner. How you spend your time apart and what feelings are on your mind, in your dreams. Excited about a new friendship, anxious about a new task, challenged in the work setting or social gathering. The weather and its effects and the lawn and the laundry and the heavy-handed boss and the airport delay and what each was thinking about the other that day.
Feeling invisible in the mass of humanity is common. Feeling invisible to your partner is diagnostic. Something needs to change. And the element of comparison plays a role here. People notice where their partners put their energies – community service; in-laws; professional commitments, parents; pet and hobbies all can seem more precious to one’s spouse because of the energy put out for them or the passion put in or the time spent with them. Yet all that output may come from a sense of duty or guilt or financial pressure, or some notion of the good parent or the good person. The true emotional longing for the other may be the deepest pull, yet it gets swallowed up or obscured by the sheer busyness of all the other “stuff” and often the misguided assumption that “you know I love you.” Uh, no, not always so sure.
Being known involves shared experiences in real time and when not together, descriptions of reactions, feelings and observations in conversation – putting into words what was meaningful, fun, stimulating, disturbing. That is the meat and potatoes of relationship – what the exchange of our emotions and interests represent – who we are and when responded to – how we feel known. And if this sharing is unnatural, practice, practice – this is a new contract that your Coupledom has established: we will communicate all the petty and profound of our lives each day as much as we can so each one knows both the facts and the feelings and the motivations of the other – as much as possible. Building the language of trust is not done once but often, daily and with consistency.
What might seem insignificant and not worth sharing today is part of the substance of who we are… know me today and tomorrow I’ll feel known and loved by you. And I’ll do the same.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2018