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What They Really Mean Is…

Transmission – Reception

In my previous blog article I talked about some of the “packaging” that can interfere with delivery of a message.  So it is helpful to know how to deliver a message, but it is also important to know how to receive one of those troublesome packages in the event that your partner (or anyone!) doesn’t happen to deliver in the best way for whatever reason.  When things get heated and difficult in relationships what we mostly hear is the immediate surface emotion from the other person, which is often some variation of anger: irritation, frustration, disappointment, etc.  And lots of times this can come across as attacking or blaming.

Getting Past the Envelope

Those angry and sometimes sharp words and tones are what I referred to in the last blog article as the envelope, or container of the message.   The real message is hidden inside, and usually has a softer, more vulnerable core of sadness or fear connected to a wish or desire.  For example, “You never bring me flowers anymore!!,” is an accusatory statement made more damning and inflammatory by the use of the universal quantifier “never.”  But behind the statement are most likely feelings of sadness, possible fears of lack of caring, and wishes to be appreciated, valued, and treated as special.

A fuller, more explicit version of that accusatory statement might be something like: “When you used to bring me flowers it made me feel special and valued by you.  It let me know that you were thinking of me.  Now that you don’t get them for me as often, I start to worry that you take me for granted, or that you don’t really think about me as much, and I feel sad—I miss that.  I need to know that you care about me, and bringing me flowers is one way that I feel your love and caring.”  That’s an example of a better expression, but here I’m also illustrating some of the blanks, or subtext, which you may need to fill in for your partner when he or she is too upset to do so.  You could imagine it as subtitles telling you what your partner is really saying.

Listening: More Complex Than It Seems

Fully listening to another person means much more than hearing just the words—or for that matter, the negative tone.  The essence of good listening is setting aside for the moment your own reactions, wishes, fears, irritations, hopelessness.  These are all things that can get in the way of being open to what is important to the other person, to what they’re really wanting.  Many times, especially when the emotional heat goes up, or when things are fraught, we are so busy dwelling on our own pain and preparing our next retort that we mostly hear what we’re expecting to hear, rather than what the other person is actually trying to convey.  This is partly how couples get stuck in the same repetitive arguments.  Neither one is truly hearing the other because each is preoccupied with him or herself.

You Only Need Remember a Few Things

If every time your partner was upset it was something completely different (and it may actually feel that way!) it would be tough to fill in those blanks reliably.  However, in most relationships, as Stan Tatkin describes, there will be no more than two or three central themes that your partner usually gets triggered about.  The actual events may be different (the content), but the emotional patterning (the process) will be consistent.  It’s a matter of carefully finding out, and then remembering what those special patterns are for your partner.  Often for women (though sometimes for men) these have to do primarily with feeling connected, in synch, and like the two of your are together as a team.  For men (though sometimes for women) the crucial themes often have to do with wanting to feel accepted and appreciated.  I just expressed the themes in terms of the underlying wishes or needs, but for each wish there is a set of associated feelings when the wish isn’t being met.  These are the feelings you’re more likely to hear expressed, and maybe in the form of anger.  If your partner is wanting connection and not getting it he or she will tend to feel alone, and if s/he is wanting acceptance and not getting it s/he will tend to feel rejected.  However—especially with couples who are struggling—people rarely say “I’m feeling rejected,” or “I’m feeling really alone”  (though putting it this way would be an improvement!).  Usually people shoot back at their partners, as in, “You’re too demanding; I can never please you,” or “If you cared about me you wouldn’t stay at work so late!”

Mapping the Territory

So those are the kinds of coupled feelings and needs (or wishes) that you want to be listening for and learning from each other.  The particular elements will be different for your partner and it’s important to find out as specifically as possible what the core feelings and needs/wishes are for him or her.

Often the significance for each of you will be tied into emotionally loaded childhood experiences (including various kinds of neglect which may feel like there’s no emotion), particularly how you were treated by your primary caregivers and other close family members.  For instance, for a person who was dismissed–or not listened to–by their mother or father, being seen, heard, and acknowledged will be a crucial wish/need.  When that person doesn’t feel recognized and acknowledged in his or her primary relationship it will trigger very painful feelings which will often be expressed through either anger or withdrawal.  And that’s where the partner has to listen all the more carefully to hear that it’s really about being recognized and acknowledged rather than whatever the immediate content of the conflict is.  For example, “You wouldn’t let me put up the calendar!,” or “You never ask me what I want to do!” are different accusations potentially reflecting underlying hurt at not feeling heard or acknowledged.

In calmer moments you can have conversations where you figure these things out for each other.  It’s best to focus on one person at a time until there’s a pretty good understanding of what the key wishes and feelings are for that person.  It will be a process, where you continue learning and refining your maps for each other over time.

What We All Want

And ultimately what these themes come down to is feeling cared about, loved, valued and respected, which is what everyone wants.  These things become that much more important in our primary relationships because our primary partners are the ones who matter the most to us and on whom we are most emotionally interdependent.   While these general things are always true it’s important to understand how it’s manifested more specifically for your partner, similar to the examples I’ve described above.  Otherwise it can feel to your partner (using a Tatkin metaphor) like you’re not quite scratching the right spot, and that in itself can add insult to injury.  A big part of what I do in couples therapy is help couples learn about each other’s internal landscapes.  Once you master these essential emotional maps for each other it can make a huge difference in your relationship.

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