It’s 11 pm. Arian is lying awake in bed staring up at the ceiling. How did they get to this place? How can she feel so lonely while laying beside the person she thought she loved more than anything in the world? Well, maybe apart from her children. She listens to the soft snoring beside her. Of course, Mark somehow manages to roll over and fall asleep. He has always been able to check out in time to go to bed. Knowing the next day will bring more work stress, decisions to make, and clients to serve, Mark needs to be fresh for that and makes sure he is.
They fought over the usual stuff. Mark had forgotten James’ soccer meeting that evening. Arian had an appointment with a potential new client and needed Mark to pick up James. Their life was so full, it was ridiculous.
When everyone got home, James huffed and was angry with Mark. Mark pretended he hadn’t known. Arian felt her son’s disappointment and lashed out at Mark for being so absent all the time.
“Imagine what it would be like for you if you were waiting for your dad, and he just didn’t rock up?” She asked Mark.
He promptly replied that his dad would never have picked him up in the first place, and at 15 he knew bloody-well how to make his own way home. (At this point James had left the table.) Mark implied that James was spoiled and helpless.
Emotions Running High
It infuriated Arian to no end. It was Mark’s fault, not James’. Why could he not just own it? She ended up reminding him of the expectations he had of her to be there when he needed her in his business, and of the times she had let go of her own needs to support him. But Mark became more withdrawn with each accusation flying his way. Eventually, he just got up and walked away, leaving his seething, angry wife sitting there alone.
Things Can’t Continue This Way
At first, Arian felt anxious, but as the night wore on and she became exhausted, the usual feeling of depression swept over her. Life felt so meaningless at one in the morning that she just wanted to cry. Eventually, she fell asleep, with the resolution that something needed to change firmly lodged in her mind.
It comes as no surprise that Mark and Arian met with their counsellor wanting to improve their communication troubles.
Arian felt desperate and Mark, apprehensive.
Communication Should Be Simple, But We Know Better.
Communication is the single most common problem that brings couples into marriage counselling. It is such a complex issue that countless books, research papers, and blogs have been written about it. But communication is only the end product of the even more complex interactions between the existing ‘maps’ in our brain that determine how we perceive incoming information.
The result of this interplay causes a reaction that’s a mixture of body language, tone of voice, and content. The brain allocates varying amounts of importance to these three components. For example, if Mark tells Arian in a defensive tone that he did not know about needing to pick up James, she will react to the defensiveness and not enquire how he missed the information. If Arian asks Mark to imagine how lonely James must have felt in a fired-up way, he will lose the invitation to put himself into his son’s shoes and react to her aggressive body language with retreat.
But how can we learn to control our body language and our tone of voice when it is hard enough to choose the right words?
Learning the Basics of Communication
Mark and Arian learned the basics first:
- Stick to the issue at hand — Remember how Arian dragged in past experiences to make her point?
- Send the message in a way that minimises accusation — Instead of saying “How could you…” Arian needs to learn to say: “You forgot to pick James up, I feel very upset, and I would like to talk with you about this.”
- When more significant issues come up, make time away from hectic day-to-day life and create a safe space — “Can we please make a time to discuss this when the kids are at school, and we have some space?”
- Recognise your own emotional reaction as a sign that you have tapped into an old emotionally charged ‘map’ in your brain which has little to do with the issue at hand — Arian tapped into her own fear of abandonment on behalf of James, while Mark tapped into his survival mode from being bullied while he was at school. They will learn a lot more about that in the course of their journey to a better relationship.
- Make sure you are in an emotionally safe space before having a discussion or accepting it — “I feel way too upset about this right now, let’s talk about it tomorrow.” Or for Mark: “It is getting late, I understand that we need to talk, but now is a bad time. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
- Acknowledge the emotional hurt behind the message and validate it (This one is really tough!) — Mark: “I can hear that you’re upset. I accept that what I did makes you angry. I can see how what I did upset you.” You don’t need to agree with your partner, but you need to validate that their emotional experience is real.
- Accept the effort of your partner to do the right thing — Arian: “Okay, I can hear you still don’t want to take responsibility, but I appreciate that you acknowledge that what you did upset me.”
- If you feel your partner or yourself are criticising, defensive, contemptuous or stone-walling, read the blogs about these reactive communication styles and what to do about it.
If you struggle to communicate with your partner, your marriage is in jeopardy, and you need counselling, get in touch. You can book a free, 45-minute check-in-session with Mattie!