In this blog, Mark & Arian learn communication skills to help them go from reactive victims to curious listeners. While it’s not easy, they take the first steps in learning to better communicate with each other. If you missed last weeks blog, be sure to catch up on the breaking point that led Mark & Arian to seek help for their relationship.
Off to A Good Start
So far, so good. Mark is feeling a strange sense of relief. He has to admit that he was nervous about seeing the counsellor. “Probably afraid I will be pulled up for something I did wrong,” Mark thinks to himself. He feared the experience would resemble being called to the principal’s office or being flagged down by a police car behind him. Turns out, it was nothing like it. After having met their counsellor, he felt respected, understood and validated.
Mark stops in his musings, struck: isn’t that exactly what they discussed about communication skills? “The skill of listening in an empathic and validating way makes all the difference to your connection” the counsellor had told them. And here he was, recognising that it had done just that and trying to remember what exactly she had done to make him and Arian feel that way!
Arian left full of hope, feeling appeased, acknowledged and almost fired up. She was going to nail this communication thing! It can’t be that hard! Arian knows she loves Mark. Although she admitted to herself when emotions ran high lately, she sometimes had come to the edge of questioning that love—and that had terrified her.
Back to Teenage Times
The following evening Mark and Arian set aside time for some practising: the instruction from their counsellor was to ‘start with a neutral topic’. One person shares, the other reflects back what their partner has said, and tries to express how they think their partner feels. Then validates the experience. Okay, sounds easy enough.
Mark and Arian both feel a little silly, and were surprised how much the evening resembled a date from their teenage years. Strange, how you can be married for so long and get so nervous about meeting your partner.
Mark starts by telling Arian a story about a customer at work. He sticks to the facts, and it takes him one minute to complete the story. Arian stares at him: “How can I reflect that back without just repeating exactly what he said?” she wonders. So she tries and asks if there was more. Mark thinks for a moment and adds another piece of information about the customer that had struck him in the afternoon.
Are you serious?
Arian looks helpless. Mark’s story was kind of meaningless.
“You are not giving me anything personal.”
Mark instantly feels a little defensive.
“We are supposed to start neutral,” he says reasonably.
“Okay” Arian continues to repeat what he said about the customer and asks if there is more.
“No, that’s it.”
“Okay,” she says, “Let me guess, you felt happy about making the sales, and I totally get that.” Validation and emotional experience, Arian thinks.
“Actually, no,” Mark replies. “I didn’t care about the sales so much because the guy is really struggling with the drought at the moment and I had a sense that he just wanted to come in to talk to someone in a way that kind of, hmm, gives him a sense of normality?”
Arian stares at Mark. Where did that insight come from? Mark never elaborates on what he thinks about other people’s emotional experiences.
Arian notices a mix of feelings bubbling up: Why doesn’t Mark make these observations about her? Why doesn’t he share these interesting experiences with her? How come she has to ask so many times to get anything out of him? Anger flares up, indignation, fear. Mark looks curiously at her: “You are supposed to reflect that back, aren’t you?” He asks, oblivious to Arian’s internal experiences.
Communication: Untangling Emotions, Past and Present
Did you find this tedious to read? Did you recognise some of your conversations with your partner? Or have you ever been through these early steps of learning to communicate yourself?
Mark and Arian’s experience is one of the many layers involved in human interaction. The complexity, the nuances, the thousands of ways this conversation could move forward. Should Arian react to her feelings? Can she choose not to? Can she hide them, or will her tone of voice and body language reveal them? Would Mark pick them up and not know what just happened? Or pretend nothing happened, because that is safer? How much time would it take to untangle the past hurt that (once again) hijacked Arian’s emotions on the back of Mark’s lovely insight from the present experience?
What you want is legitimate, you are just going about it in all the wrong ways
If you want a relationship that moves beyond survival, you need to become honest. You need to learn the skills to do it. You also need to bring patience, courage, time, will-power and the willingness to fail. Mark and Arian have a long path ahead, tediously untangling past emotions and present experiences. However, that process will help them to get to know each other better. Once Arian creates the right kind of space for Mark, he can actually take the time to share the observations Arian craves. But Mark is cautious and slow to go to these places. He needs safety, time, and space to go there. Arian doesn’t know it yet, but she contributes to their problem by destroying the space in where she’ll find the gems she is looking. She can learn…
And Mark? He has learned for the most part to ignore his wive’s emotional reactions simply because no matter what he does, they never seem to end. Arian is not that wrong when she feels that Mark is not listening to her. He isn’t. Mark needs to learn to stick around long enough and open up enough to find a way that makes Arian feel heard, validated and connected. He will never be able to satisfy her constant need for reassurance that she is safe with him, but he can learn not to inflame it any more and help her become more self-sufficient in this need.
Relationships are a bumpy road, for sure. But they are also worth the learning because what you get out of a fulfilling and rich relationship is more then you can get from anything else!
Learn Communication Skills with Your Partner
Do you want to build a rich and fulfilling relationship? Are you willing to put in the work and learn the communication skills you need? Book a free 45-minute check-in session.