Expression, Validation, Curiosity
by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California
We met at Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist monastery deep in the mountains of Northern California. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the way he so mindfully lit every kerosene lamp along the central path. Our first date was by the pool, eating blueberries, drinking coconut water and watching the Perseid meteor shower. When we talked, it felt like coming home after too much time away. The only thing I wrote in my journal that night was, “My mind is blown.”
Eight years and one child later, sometimes we fight each other just to get out the door. He didn’t prepare our family day pack right. She is taking way too long getting ready, again. If we don’t bring attention to how we move together it can feel as if we are falling apart. So just like the setting in which we met, where intentional practice was the foundation of our lives, we have to continually find ways to realign and lift each other up after we collide. And nothing is stronger than a relationship that knows how to survive collisions.
I’m a psychotherapist by trade and still I fail at how I express myself all the time. Ruptures are inevitable. It is how we recover from them that matters. Many couples swallow their resentment. Whether through fear of conflict or some idea of relationship stoicism, people opt to not speak to each other about what’s really going on.
Often, actually, it’s not knowing how. Some couples have never successfully talked through conflict before they come to therapy, their relationship already on the rocks. Avoiding conflict for the sake of the relationship is a recipe for losing ourselves. And it doesn’t really work.
When John and Leah (fictionalized for demonstration) came in for couples therapy the tension between them was palpable. I could feel my body tighten as they walked in the room. They had a 6 month old baby and a toddler at home and Leah was suffering from terrible postpartum depression.
Leah folded her arms and sat at the other end of the couch away from John. She immediately expressed in a commanding voice, “I’m so tired of holding the full weight of the whole family. John gets to go to work and then out for happy hour and he gets to continue life as if nothing has changed, while I’m stuck at home.” John looked at the floor as she spoke. When it was his turn to speak he looked reticent. Still avoiding eye contact he said, “Leah is just a negative Nancy and I spend most of my time walking on eggshells because everything I say or do seems to piss her off. It doesn’t even make sense that she is so mad at me because it was our agreement that I would continue to work and financially support the family. And happy hour is for networking. She knows that! It’s how I got my current job.”
Once both partners aired their frustration, I invited them to name how the other’s actions have impacted them. Leah jumped in, “With John away so much of the time I feel so goddamn alone. I miss having a social life and John coming home smelling of beer just reminds me of all the fun I, we, used to have. Now I’m just stuck here with the kids totally going nuts and every time I talk to John he just ignores me.”
I then asked John what’s going on when he’s ignoring Leah. John said, “I can’t handle how angry she is at home and I just don’t know how to make my way into this family. It seems like Leah has it all together and there is no space for me. I feel like shit, like I’m a disappointment as a husband and father. I would rather be off at work where at least I know I belong and I’m liked, appreciated.”
The truth is we should be grateful our partner is willing to say they are unhappy with us. It actually takes courage to do it. We only cultivate resentment when we deny expressing what we really think and feel.
I then instructed each of them to reflect to the other what they heard them say. I made it clear this reflection did not mean they were agreeing with their partner. Leah started, her voice now a bit more somber. “So what I hear you saying is that you avoid me because I somehow make you feel disappointed in yourself… so you choose work instead because it feels better. And something about you can’t seem to find your way into this family.” Leah looked pensive.
I turned to John signaling it was his turn to reflect, “And you are angry at me because you feel so alone, like you are carrying too much responsibility and when I hang out with my work buddies it just reminds you of the fun we used to have together and what you don’t have now. I see more clearly now you are sad and feel alone and you can’t even get through to me because I’m always avoiding you.”
Leah and John expressing and then validating each other’s statements suddenly made more space between them for both experiences. When they reflected what they heard the other say, even if they didn’t agree with it, they could show the other that they understood. And understanding is a powerful experience after so much time of missing one another.
We can let our partners know we value them, even if we vehemently disagree, by simply listening and validating their perspectives. When we do this we relax each other’s nervous systems so we can actually think, expand our own perspectives and find real solutions.
It can be painful simply to be out of connection. When I see signs of unhappiness in my husband, on some level, I know he just needs some space to get his needs met — maybe a jog, meditation, or some time alone or with friends. Yet sometimes when we are distant, it can be near impossible to not immediately jump to conclusions like he’s not happy with our life together or me.
When we are in a bonded relationship there is so much vulnerability, so many needs on both ends and such a desire to belong and feel valued, loved. Any sign that threatens the safety of our bond is alarming, and that’s a good thing. It ensures our bond is noticed, tended to.
The gift of the despair we experience after a rupture is that it can be a catalyst for curiosity. NOTHING else is working. When Leah digs her feet deeper into why she is right about John being an irresponsible father it just causes her more anger and pain. But shifting to curiosity about why he’s ignoring her opens the door for the possibility of connection and healing.
Moving to a more curious stance Leah says, “I had no idea my actions were somehow preventing you from feeling like part of the family. I want to know more about what that’s been like for you and what I can do to bring you in.”
John holding the belief that Leah’s unreachable and an unhappy person he must avoid, isn’t acknowledging his own feelings of disappointment in himself as a father and his yearning to be closer to the family. Curiosity also allows him to see her loneliness and how much she needs him. He says, “When you share with me how lonely you are I can hear you. I want to know what it’s like for you. I want to help out. And I want to have fun again with you too.” From this place of awareness he can comfort her by sharing more family responsibility and giving her opportunities to be social and have her deeper needs met. In turn, the more he is there for her and the family, the more he’ll gain a sense of belonging and find his footing as a father. Together, they can now begin the process of exploring how to actually support one another.
After a rupture, it really helps when you find curiosity in the middle of all that wounded feeling. When you inquire about your partner’s internal state, be prepared for fireworks, especially if they’ve been repressing emotion. When you finally pop that bubble, air is going to come out fast! Don’t be afraid of their emotion. Know that if you stay grounded in curiosity you can ride through that blast and get to a vulnerable place. Expression, validation and curiosity all tie in in that moment. And when you meet a vulnerable place with such presence and compassion, that’s where the really sexy romance can blossom. This person just met your emotional release and is still standing, looking you in the eye and saying they’re committed to your well-being.
What’s more attractive than that?
Written by myself and my husband, sometimes in conflict.