Following on from last week’s post, we look at how Mark & Arian resolved the current parenting conflict they were facing by using their new communication skills. This is just the beginning though. Mark & Arian need to continue their honesty and have conversations that lead to discovery and change.
The party is on.
Arian and Mark ended up letting James go to the party. The discussion was difficult but fruitful. Mark kept calm and continued to listen to Arian with curiosity—rather than getting drawn into the drama of her angst. Because of this, he gained a deeper insight into her struggles. To his surprise, he was able to meet her fear with empathy rather than the usual withdrawal. Arian expressed her gratitude. They even laughed together at how it appears to be their children that end up teaching them lessons about each other.
James rose to the occasion, grateful for another chance to renegotiate his dadʼs ‘no’. James understood that his parents were worried. While he found the discussion tedious and over the top, he knew them well enough to avoid further fights with his dad and comply with the requests.
Exploring emotions requires more than just good will.
James went to his room to let his friends know that he was allowed to come. Mark looked at Arian and frowned: “He really is a great guy, but he annoys me no end sometimes.” Dutifully, Arian checks in before flaring up: “Do you want to talk about that now?” Since they have time and feel a little more connected after a fruitful conversation with James, Mark agrees.
However, after 5 minutes the conversation dies. Mark feels the anger about Jamesʼ behaviour in his bones and Arian works hard on not getting defensive. She doesnʼt know what questions to ask that can help her husband gain some clarity. Instead, more examples of Jamesʼ annoying behaviour pop up, and the mood deteriorates. “Letʼs stop here,” Arian suggests reasonably. They agree to bring this issue to their next counselling session.
Mark tried to be honest and was open to exploring his feelings. That is a huge step forward in willingness and trust. However, meaning well so often ends in pain just because couples struggle with what to say to help their partner explore difficulties. And, more often than not, they end up getting pulled into the problem and begin to push their own agendas.
The truth about emotions.
The inevitable truth about all things upsetting in a relationship is that they have little to do with the present and a lot with the past. Our brain, safety biased as it is, registers and remembers potentially dangerous situations quickly. It stores these memories in a place that is immediately accessible should a situation arise that is even remotely similar to the initial threatening one. That is the survival brain in action, and I have written about it at length in different posts over the past years.
Delving into the ‘psychology’ of Markʼs emotions.
We also have more complex and more layered experiences than just being activated into survival or not. In Markʼs case, jealousy and resentment mixed in with helplessness and worthlessness. All of this gets covered up by anger, which is the most common ‘cover upʼ emotion we feel. Jamesʼ desire to go to the party reminds Mark that he did not have the opportunity to have fun when he was a teenager. His resentment is partially directed towards himself as he had failed to be strong enough to build friends and have a good time. It is also directed partially at his parents because they didn’t help him with the bullying he experienced and would they never have encouraged him to go to a party.
Helplessness and worthlessness are two of the primary experiences that underlay these more nuanced emotions. We call them primary because once you arrive at feeling helpless, there is nothing else under that to be discovered. You canʼt go anywhere from there. It is a fundamental, total experience just like worthlessness, sadness and fear. These emotions are part of our ‘human condition’, and we try to avoid them at all cost. Anger often generates enough energy to do something that shifts us away from the looming experience of these fundamental and scary emotions – just like with Mark.
Stick with curiosity and bring language to the experience.
When partners begin to explore each otherʼs emotional experiences—which hold the answers to why a person acted the way they did—these feelings will start to surface if enough safety, connection and empathy are available. That is why counselling often works so well. Counselling therapists are trained to provide this ‘spaceʼ for searching and processing these emotional experiences. Arian can bring curiosity to Markʼs experience and continue to paraphrase what he says, adding her ‘hunch’ about how he feels to the response. Mark will be able to tell her if she is right or wrong and eventually arrive at where the real issue originates as his brain begins to throw up pictures of situations that evoked the same feelings. This happens all the time in counselling as well.
It does take some practice, but it is beyond rewarding when couples begin this process with each other. They start to learn more about the person they live with than ever before. It is a complete game-changer. Simply because if we listen to the true suffering of our partner, we always respond with empathy. As the mirror-neurons begin to fire, we can feel the otherʼs struggle and pain more clearly and can become supportive and caring.
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