“Did I get that right?” He is earnest. She is annoyed. We’ve only had a few sessions and they are trying hard to learn some of the techniques.
I say, “Try again” – optimistically. I can tell he is trying to hear her, even if she can’t see it.
She parrots, “Try again” – like a sarcastic older sister.
I can’t help but laugh a little and then I clarify, “No, YOU try again” – gesturing towards her. I say, “This isn’t a test. We’re trying to help him get it right.” They both laugh.
I imagine being partnered with a couples therapist is not easy. There are many times when I see my partner using skills and techniques that could only loosely be called skills and techniques. There are times when I see him choose to respond in a way that clearly isn’t helpful – and in my office it would provoke a lengthy conversation with statistics and research and the phrase “cut that out” coming compassionately from me.
There are times when I want to offer my assistance and expertise and experience into our own conflicts but most of those times I know it is not welcome. It’s a hard place to be, with so much knowledge. (I’m saying that in jest a little.) It’s like if your partner were to try to refinish some cabinets and they decide to paint it first when you know that it really needs to be sanded first. It’s hard not to step in and say, “Hey baby, I think it’s usually more effective if we sand it first.”
It is easy to be condescending with our partner when WE know that we KNOW more than THEY know.
But we don’t know all of it. Not even us therapists. This is why I cherish so many of the moments when couples in my office bring to me a topic that relates so closely to a moment of my own life.
I think self-disclosure always requires a good sense of intuition because the session is not about me, it’s about my client. And my reason for sharing about me would never be to make it about me, it would be to help them realize that not all of us get it right the first time – myself included.
We’re all humans and I think being humble is an important part of that so I’ll be the first to admit that I certainly don’t get it right the first time even half the time. My ratio is a little better in my office than at home but even then sometimes I’m experimenting. Even then sometimes I’m throwing out an observation (or a question or an idea) and I’m asking my client, “Does this fit? How does this feel to you? If you hold this in your hand and look at it from all the angles of your own life, what are your thoughts?”
I am not the expert in my clients. I am the expert in our room, in our process, and in some skills and techniques. My clients are always the experts of themselves. Together we make a great team, my clients and I.
I trust that they are the expert in themselves and they trust that I am the expert in our work.
At home, it doesn’t work quite the same. My partner has a hard time with me being an expert, frequently telling me that not everyone talks like this – which of course I believe is the problem.
As an observer by trade, training, and personal character, I notice all kinds of things. At the start of our most recent argument, I noticed that his ears moved a little and his face tightened when I said that one thing about long-term pursuits versus short-term. I noticed that he didn’t look at me when I asked the question and his answer was short. I noticed his voice was not as enthralled to be talking about our values and our future as mine was.
I did NOT notice that this was probably not the right time to talk about it. I did not notice that his body language was communicating to me that he wasn’t in a space to be able to hear me. I did not notice that my voice and body language became more frantic as he continued to not hear me.
And then suddenly we are in an argument and we don’t know who started it first. I’m sure he did, but he’s sure I did. I tell him I need him to just listen and reflect back what I’m saying. Just let me know that you’re hearing me right because you’re arguing something that I’m not even saying. I feel panic.
We are on a breakfast date away from the babies and we have only two hours before heading back into a busy weekend as part of a busy life. In this moment, the last thing I want is a fight. So I pull out what I think is my empathic partner self and a handful of my trusty therapy tools and I offer him to look at this, try this, just let me try again.
But it doesn’t always work that way. He is not interested in me trying again. He is interested in going back through our conversation to figure out exactly where I went wrong and exactly what I said that he “misconstrued” because he doesn’t think that he misconstrued it, he thinks I said it wrong.
To be honest, I could see it was both. I knew I didn’t say it right the first time and that he also misunderstood what I did say.
But I was so sure that there was a way for us to talk about this more effectively! I was so sure that if only we could slow things down we would be able to understand.
I was focused on the skills and techniques that I know and love. The skills that couples learn and try and fail and learn and try again, over and over in my office. The skills that make them better listeners and more loving partners. All that good lovey dovey stuff. I want this for us because it’s hard to watch it every day in your office and then go home and leave that part of you at work.
I’m a therapist by trade but a lot of those skills and techniques I use in my office are part of my personal character.
So I’m not trying to counsel you, my dear partner, when I’m trying to help us, but I am offering pieces of myself that are good at this. That are genuinely good at this.
But here’s the problem: it does not matter what I am good at. It only matters that we can get through this moment of tension and get back to our togetherness. It matters that we can go back to enjoying our date and short two hours away from parenting.
It’s not important that we use this moment for him to learn a better, more effective way to communicate.
It does not matter in this moment exactly what my words were a few minutes ago but he so adamantly says it said.
It does not matter what he said she said.
It does not matter when it was said, how it was said.
Sometimes my couples struggle because the togetherness we create in the office is much harder to obtain at home. The techniques don’t feel as accessible.
They get really frustrated when skills in my office don’t translate immediately into arguments at home. They somehow think that one session of practice will mean that in all future arguments, they will both know how to do it better. They get angry when one or both of them fails at the unrealistic expectation they’ve set for themselves.
They feel angry and sad when one person wants to work on technique and the other person just wants to be heard. Because that’s what we’re talking about: it’s about being hurt and unheard. In my attempt with my own partner to help integrate some skills and tools that would make this conversation so much easier, I made the mistake of focusing on my own experience and I wasn’t listening.
I thought I was hearing him. I mean, I do this listening for a living. But I wasn’t listening, I was falling into the same trap that every other couple falls into. I was creating my own come back as he was talking. I was fighting for my own side, which I also believed to be the side of our relationship, and I believed (somehow) that he was against it. It felt like he was against me and he was against our relationship and he was against us having a nice quiet together breakfast with a board game and some coffee.
And then I chose to do the hardest thing I ask clients to do: self-soothe.
Talking was hard so we decided to play a game instead and as I went to the car to get it, I paid attention to the chilly air, my hair falling in the breeze, the keys tight in my hand, the sun shining. I slowed my walk to really feel my footsteps and I looked up at the sky before entering the building again. I took a few deep breaths between the front door and our table. And when I sat down at our table, I smiled. It was forced but the intention was real.
And then I heard him. I heard that he had been hurt by my comments. I was too distracted trying to clarify what I said and reassure him that it certainly wasn’t what he thought I said that I wasn’t respecting his experience.
It was real no matter what I had said.
He heard that I wasn’t supporting his dreams, his mission, his choices. He heard that I was adding more to our to-do list – more activities when we already feel like we don’t have enough time. He heard that I like to talk about things instead of having fun.
And of course that was not what I was saying. Of course I trust him and support him and believe in him. Of course I want to have fun and I don’t always want to talk about hard things, and I also don’t always want to talk about how we talk.
It was only after my own self-soothing – some breathing and a brief walk to the car – that I was able to shut my own mouth and listen to his.
I was able to see that he was hurting and I was hurting him and it didn’t matter that I didn’t try to or didn’t say the thing that he thought I said.
Recovery after fights is not easy and smooth. It doesn’t mean we return to coffee and games and smiles and laughs and everything is great. In reality, recovery is awkward.
Similarly to how unsure (or maybe adamant) we both were about who started our fight, we were both unsure about who ended it. Probably it was both. In seeing my calmness after walking back from the car and my quietness with a forced smile, he saw my effort. In my effort he saw my love. He saw that I was not against him and this is not a test – this is a relationship.
We did have our coffee and we played our game. We had time for a short walk at a local park with a beach. And as we sat at the chilly park together, we intentionally smiled and we found togetherness in our chilliness.
The rest of the morning after we got home and stepped back into a busy life of busy toddlers was stressful. It had tension and a little bit of an edge left over from our conflict. But just as I reassure the couples in my office, I remind myself that the goal is not to avoid arguments.
The goal is that when we fight, we do so with respect, empathy, and we know how to recover. We know how to come back together.
We know how to allow our partner to be the expert in their own experience. And we know how to ask the experts because they are the ones with the answers.
So babe, did I get that right?