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Understanding Each Other

 Countless women have expressed their discouragement when trying to explain to their husbands what their lives are like at home, caring for dependent infants, needy toddlers, demanding children, and the challenge of running a household.

 Marcy sadly reflected one cold winter day, “If only Brian (her husband) could really see me and understand what it feels like to be me…”  Marcy felt discouraged, dejected, and lonely.

 “I feel like my life is one long repetitious treadmill of meeting the kid’s needs, trying to keep the mountain of laundry under control, and cooking endless meals - half of which end up on the floor.  Then the dog gets sick… I have to take him to the vet.  While I’m out I stop by the post office, the store to buy (yet more) food, pick up the dry-cleaning, and drop off forms at the school. I return home to do more cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.  When I get one room done, the rest of the house falls back into chaos.  I just wish my husband could understand what my existence really feels like!”  

 She appreciated the fact that her husband got up every day and went to work, made the rough commute, and provided well financially for the family.  Yet she felt that they had grown apart, that he did not comprehend what her life consisted of, what it was like day in and day out to care for the children, their home, and him.  Marcy longed to have a deep emotional connection with Brian.

 This scenario can easily lead to emotional distance.  “How did we get to this point?” couples ask. “How does this emotional distance occur?”

 We lose our objectivity.  Our focus as a spouse becomes myopic or nearsighted.  We only see and understand their words.  We need to gain empathy, to try and understand how it feels for them.  People end up becoming absorbed in their own world - its details, difficulties, and demands.  

 The question then becomes, “How do we find each other again?” If you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes perhaps you can begin to understand.  However, because we cannot do that, we need to find the answer elsewhere.

 I believe the answer lies in communication.  However, not the normal everyday superficiality that often substitutes for authentic communication.  Genuine communication requires at least a couple of choices and several pitfalls to avoid. 

1.  Intentionality, the decision to desire to understand my spouse’s world, the willingness to make it a priority, is the first step.

 2.  Truly listening is the next step.  You may say, “Of course I know how to listen! “  In actuality, listening is a very difficult, complex skill.  It requires caring, attention, focus, energy, and emotional involvement.  Listening requires moving beyond ourselves, our agendas, and our preconceived beliefs about that person or situation.

 You begin by listening to what the person is saying.  Pay attention to the emotions behind the words.  What do you hear?  Sadness?  Loneliness?  Frustration?  Restate what you just heard the other person say in your own words.

 For example, Marcy might have said to Brian, “I feel like I am in my own little world where nothing exists except work and kids.”

 Brian might then have responded, “So you feel lonely and that your life is limited to caring for our kids and the house.”

 This then gives Marcy the chance to say, “No, I meant that I don’t feel appreciated by you and I miss YOU!”   This is the opportunity for her to clarify what she said if she does not feel understood by him.

 It’s a very powerful feeling to be truly understood by another person.  It’s even more meaningful when that person is your spouse.   

One of the choices is to not try to fix the problem.  Often the other person will rush in to give his input.  The primary goal of communication is to understand the other person, not to fix or repair the problem.  Those other steps come later in the process.  In the above example, Brian might have interrupted Marcy and said, “I know how you feel.  You just need to get out of the house more.  Get a sitter and go out with your friends once in awhile.”  Had he responded in this manner, he would have completely missed what Marcy was trying to communicate to him.  Her point was that she needed more time with him.  Also, she wanted him to understand the endlessness of her days and appreciate her contribution to their life together.

 Avoid thinking about your next response.  Often, the other person may be thinking about his response before his spouse has even completed her thoughts.  As you can imagine, anyone would most likely miss what the other was trying to communicate.  How can you attend to what someone is saying if you are preoccupied with formulating the “right” or most “appropriate” response?  How can you hear if you are focusing on what you need?  You’d miss your spouse’s body language, tone of voice, inflections, and gestures.

 How can anything be repaired unless you know exactly what you are dealing with?   Is it any wonder that couples become so frustrated in their discussion when they can’t really understand what the other is saying??  Authentic listening represents a miracle in that the person being heard feels loved.

 We frequently hear each other through the emotional filters of our past experiences, modeling the communication styles we observed (from our parents) while growing up.  We then attribute these same patterns to our spouse mistakenly believing that our spouse understands our unique form of communication.  We automatically feel we are “heard” the same way we were heard growing up.  It is our choice to get in touch with and avoid these emotional filters and communication styles that have been modeled while we were growing up.

 Another intricate emotional “filter” is our self-concept.  If we believe we aren’t worth listening to, we will believe either no one hears us or that it’s ineffective to try to communicate to begin with.  If we are too “arrogant” and just assume everyone automatically understands us, we will not notice when others are tuning out.

 Yet another filter is a belief that what we have to say is more important than what our spouse has to say.  It’s as if we believe that we have all the answers that our spouse just needs to listen to us and do what we decide she should do.  It’s important to ask ourselves, “What type of change has this produced in the past?  Has it been effective?”

 Another choice to avoid:  an additional block occurs when we react defensively trying to justify our behavior.  The conversation suddenly becomes about needing to protect ourselves from being blamed for something that we did or said.  Instead of rushing to our defense we must learn to STOP and listen to what is being said.  Try to comprehend what’s really going on.  Make a concerted effort not to be defensive.  Might there be any truth in what your spouse is saying?  Are you able to recognize what in the situation you need to be accountable for?  Don’t worry about what your spouse has said or done.  What do YOU need to be responsible for?

 Once your spouse feels understood and heard then you can begin to work out the solution or answer.  If your spouse feels understood, perhaps that will address the underlying problem.

 It requires the desire, work, and love to listen to your spouse and to truly hear and understand your spouse.  However, if you are able to accomplish this, your relationship can become closer, richer, and far more satisfying than ever before.

 I hope these thoughts on communication will give you something to contemplate and apply in your daily conversations,

 Mary