“I miss you,” S. used to say. It’s funny what those three little words can do! In retrospect, he probably meant, “I love spending time with you and I wish you were here right now.” Unfortunately, what I heard was, “You shouldn’t have gone away this weekend and I’m upset you’re not with me.” We had countless miscommunications like this, each of us triggering the other’s defensive reflexes with arguments sprouting up without warning, leaving us both bewildered and unsure what to do.
We decided to go to marriage counseling after an especially terrible argument regarding laundry detergent (I’m not kidding. We didn’t speak to one another for hours. Because of laundry detergent!) We decided we needed a change to our dynamic, and what we learned has benefited us both immensely in the years that have followed.
Our therapist began with a simple concept:
Know who you are, what you want and what you need.
The idea is simple but elegant: Only you have the key to what is happening in your own mind and heart. You can’t express it unless you first come to understand it, and you have to know yourself in order for your partner to know you.
The next step was to express ourselves. No, our therapist explained, we cannot expect to do this telepathically. And mind-reading, he explained, did not count as a form of communication.
To communicate my feelings in the case of “I miss you” meant I had to turn inward. Instead of yelling out, “You’re guilt tripping me every time you act like it’s fine that I leave and then you say that you miss me!” I needed to focus on how I felt. “When you…X, I feel…Y.” In other words, “When you say you miss me, I feel tremendously guilty.”
Our therapist taught us to listen to each other, and to trust each other, too. I believe it was Maya Angelou who once said, “When somebody tells you who they are, believe them.” Have you ever gotten into an argument where you went in circles debating the hidden meaning behind what you or your partner was saying, second guessing each other and arguing for hours over a turn of phrase? I sure have. Yet why are we so quick to assume the worst? In healthy relationships, we want what’s best for our partners. Sure, they may have hurt our feelings, but they probably don’t actually want us to feel like shit. So perhaps we can trust them a bit when they tell us, “No, that’s not what I meant when I said that.”
S. and I learned to speak with an “I” voice. To come back to our feelings. (“I feel like you’re an asshole” doesn’t actually count as an emotion, by the way. I know, because I asked!) When my ex had the chance to respond in the “I Miss You” case, he was able to respond, “I feel sad and misunderstood.” And I listened. Suddenly the assumptions fell away and we could see that that phrase, so loaded from the start, was full of our own misguided attempts at passive-aggressive communication.
Generally, it was telling each other what we thought the other person wanted to hear, i.e. protecting them from ourselves, that got us into the most trouble. Speaking from the heart and listening without judgement were incredible tools for us. We found that this idea of protecting our partner from ourselves was actually more hurtful than simply telling each other difficult truths. We each wanted to know how the other person felt because we cared about each other.
Finally, we came to the last stage in the process: Acknowledgement. If there was just one lesson that I took from the counseling process it would be this: The value of acknowledgement cannot be overestimated, and it is what most people crave. Also (and this is extremely important) we don’t have to agree with somebody to acknowledge them.
So we learned how to speak, and how to listen. Dr. C had us take turns being speaker and listener.
Step 1: Speaker speaks, using the “I” voice. This is about them and their feelings. No accusations from the speaker, no assumptions from the listener.
Step 2: Listener acknowledges: “I hear you saying…”
Step 3: Speaker clarifies and adds as necessary.
Step 4: Listener continues to acknowledge.
Step 5: When the speaker is done, the listener says how they feel.
At this point, the roles switch. Speaker becomes listener and listener becomes speaker.
The crazy part is how simple this all is. Say what you mean! Believe what they say! Suspend judgement, and avoid accusations and assumptions. It’s not you versus me, it’s us versus the problem.
This is, of course, easier said than done, especially when you have months or years of baggage and assumptions built up behind you. And knowing yourself is much harder than building up a defensive shield and deflecting onto your partner with, “Well, you did/said X, Y, Z.” But pointing out what they’ve done isn’t really helpful. It’s our feelings that matter. And as our therapist always liked to say, “Feelings come and go uninvited.” No-one is at fault for their feelings. It’s what you do about them that counts.
We stayed in therapy for almost a year, and what we learned had far-reaching consequences, influencing how we communicated not just with each other, but with everyone around us.
Now, ultimately we ended our relationship. I realize that it may therefore seem a bit odd to write about marriage counseling as a divorcée, but I assure you that what we learned remains relevant every day of our lives, no matter who we are with.
“The key to connection is mutual understanding,” Dr. C said again and again. And that is what we want, in our relationships, in our friendships, and in life. We want connection.
Speak from the heart. Trust each other. Create a space for dialogue.
The key to connection is mutual understanding.
The tools that I obtained in marriage counseling will stay with me for the rest of my life. And now, I hope, they may help you as well. Why not give it a try? You have nothing to lose, and a whole lot to gain.