Several years ago, I was late for a conference forty miles away in the next county north, and amped up my aggressive driving skills to attempt to arrive faster (admittedly a bad idea—do NOT do this at home). As I was approaching the boundary to the next county, weaving in and out of traffic, my cell phone rang (before cell phone use in cars was illegal in my state). I gave an exasperated “Hello,” just as one of my neighbors greeted, “Where do you think you’re going, driving like a maniac? You’re not getting there any faster than the rest of us.” “I’m late,” I acknowledged, laughing, because I was surprised I was literally being ‘called out,’ “And by the way, you’re increasing my anxiety and throwing me off, so thanks for making me later.” His reply was one I had heard a hundred times, “Physician, heal thyself.” “Well, good thing I’m not a physician then, isn’t it?” I sassed back, which elicited an argument based on the word’s etymology in which my neighbor insisted that I was, indeed, in the broad “physician,” category.
I know of no group of people associated with higher societal expectations for mood and behavior than mental health professionals. I’ve never heard someone say, “He has cancer—he must be a terrible doctor!” or “Don’t go to that doctor—I heard him coughing the other day,” but I have heard many people evaluate therapists based on the presence of any mental health or relationship challenges. Oh, that the world was that simple! Quite frankly, I would have no trust in a therapist who had not somehow faced emotional or relationship challenges, because we call those people…robots? Stepford therapists? Inhuman?
Being a therapist has certainly given me a variety of options for dealing with various facets of being human, and has probably increased my adaptability, decreased my reactivity, and alleviated various struggles, but it has in no way turned me into a perfect person (whatever that means). I have emotions just like everyone else, an individual history with various potential triggers, and varying propensities, some of which aren’t always potentiating ideal mental and emotional states (shocking, I know —sorry to burst anyone’s bubble). As a result, I will continue to have plenty of opportunities to try out my suggested interventions on myself.
This is a tale of one of those moments, and how even though my reactivity got the best of me, I was able to take a step back and reverse the situation. I’m in no way attempting to glorify myself, nor suggesting I get it right all, or even most of the time—I’m choosing to share this because it’s such a typical example of how quickly couples get stuck and stay stuck if something doesn’t change. I’m hoping other couples can see themselves in the situation.
Last year, my husband and I took a trip to Europe with another couple. I thought things were going better than expected. We all got along well and seemed to be having a great time. After a long day touring, my husband and I were alone in our room and he seemed to be irritated at me, answering in terse monosyllables, which is somewhat unusual for him. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. With little prodding, he proceeded to explain that I didn’t seem to want to be with him at all, and that I was more interested in hanging out with my friend than with him, and I kept leaving him behind to talk to my friend and her husband. I think he said something like, “Maybe you should have just gone on a trip with them and left me home.”
I was completely thrown off. I never in a million years could have guessed that he would have perceived that, because it was so untrue. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so confused in a marital interaction. My husband has never been the jealous type. His unexpected accusation felt unfair and the anger behind his words really stung.
So, what do you think I did? Did I apologize and try to understand his feelings better?
I immediately got defensive. I matched his tone and raised it a notch. “What are you even talking about?” I demanded. “You’re insane! I didn’t leave you behind at all! We were together all day! What more do you want from me?” and blah blah blah. Basically, I was trying to defend my position and explain to him why he was incorrect in his interpretation of the day.
And then, he admitted that he saw it all wrong and I was correct after all, right?
He continued citing examples to support his viewpoint until I basically muttered something mature like, “Whatever, think what you want,” and rolled over to go to bed, stewing inside, certain that I needed to find the words to help him see that he was wrong. Note that this was me disconnecting and basically sending the message to “deal with it by yourself,” which is the polar opposite of what you would want to do for a healthier interaction.
I was feeling very upset. I wanted to remind him of all the efforts I have made in our marriage to show him that my marriage is important to me. I felt slighted. Didn’t he realize how good he had it? I wanted credit for everything I had done to be a good wife, and it felt like he was wiping it out in a day. How dare he misunderstand me so completely! It felt devastating. I silently fumed. I was the victim here–he was ruining my perfect vacation!
Eventually, I tried to slow my emotions down and actually do what I would want my clients to do. Even though I thought he was completely off-base, and his anger was not a vulnerable display that increased my empathy, I was able to see that under the anger, he was extremely hurt about something. I recalled the day in my memory, trying to identify moments in which he may have felt left behind or unimportant. I realized that because I don’t like to make people wait for me, it was true that I stayed up with my friend and her husband and walked away from him. However, it was because I didn’t want to be a naggy wife, telling him to “come on,” if he wanted to linger. As I thought about it, I became more upset that he was assuming this was evidence that I didn’t want to be with him. I felt powerless to influence his opinion. How was I going to make him understand that he was wrong? We were back to that.
By the next morning, I was still feeling hurt, but I was determined to try to reconnect before we started the day again. He was still giving me the cold shoulder. I had not validated his feelings, so that was no surprise. Finally, I reached out to touch his arm and made eye contact. I explained that it was hard for me to hear his interpretation of the day because I saw it so differently. I said, “I don’t know that it will make a difference to you, but here’s what I think was happening,” and proceeded to recall that I didn’t want to be a nag but wanted to keep up with the group, etc.
I knew that wasn’t the real issue though—I still needed to understand how he could feel insecure about something that seemed so small to me, so I continued. I remember saying, “The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if I saw it differently, because ultimately, I don’t want my husband to wonder if I love him or not. I’m sad that you would even think I prefer my friends to you. I’m always trying to reinforce the message that I love you, so if you can experience doubt so quickly, it worries me that I’m not building the kind of security I want you to have.” Then, I asked him to help me understand if my behaviors throughout the day seemed rejecting. I was more aware of my actions and the impact I was having on him for the rest of the trip, which generated increased emotional attunement and reciprocity on his part.
Some people might think my response was “rewarding bad behavior,” but it was a response to relational distress, and attuned responsiveness is actually more likely to reduce future triggers than to exacerbate them. Ignoring, diminishing or invalidating them will certainly increase their frequency, however. People get this wrong all the time–but hey–it keeps me in business, so keep invalidating your spouses, y’all!
Basically, I shifted from trying to convince him why he was wrong to expressing confusion about seeing it so differently and trying to understand more about his experiences, because the bottom line is that I want my husband to know I care about his feelings.
Most couples automatically do what I did first—try to convince their partners why they saw it incorrectly, why they are just too sensitive, why they need to change their perceptions, etc. That can keep a couple spiraling in one form or other for years.
Instead of arguing about who’s right, try this:
- Acknowledge that your partner may have a completely different experience with the same event than you had. It’s really okay.
- Orient yourself to what you really care about—do you care more about getting your point across or about bridging understanding to be able to move forward differently?
- If a partner seems accusatory because he/she was hurt, try to see it as an opportunity to bond differently instead of nursing your own pain.
This isn’t gender specific. In this case, my husband happened to be the one expressing pain. Notice that he expressed anger rather than hurt, which was really at the core of the event. That’s true for most people. That’s hard, because anger is a distancing emotion. It doesn’t elicit empathy. It naturally elicits defensiveness or withdrawal. Many individuals struggle expressing hurt, so it’s usually helpful to know that if anger is expressed, something painful in general is happening. Asking more about what is painful can be helpful.
As we really are all, in one way or another, physicians, it boils down to “show me where it hurts,” and trying to help soothe emotional pain instead of arguing about it.
Again, I’m not using this as an example of my awesomeness in marriage—I got it completely wrong at first, but I was able to come back in differently by focusing on the fact that I didn’t want my spouse to hurt, but to feel supported. Things can shift quickly when partners can accept a partner’s different experience and try to understand it better. Try it.
In the meantime, I’ll be making many more mistakes to create new opportunities for change.
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