For the past 31 years, I’ve been hanging out in session with husbands and wives, mates, significant others, life partners — couples. And, over time, I see themes. Patterns. Here’s a pattern: "I wish my mate would talk to me," or its close cousin, "I wish my mate would share his/her deepest heart with me."
Spouses beg. Plead. Fret. Eventually they haul the recalcitrant spouse into my office. "My mate won’t open her heart to me." Or, "My mate won’t talk to me." Or, my personal favorite, "My mate doesn’t know how to communicate."
See, in all my years as a therapist, I’ve never met one man or one woman who doesn’t know how to communicate. I have, however, met a plethora of men and women who have decided to stop communicating.
Usually, within one session, I find out why.
I turn to the mate who "doesn’t know how to communicate." With a few direct questions, we’re communicating just fine. So, together we dig into that heart the partner says is never shared.
It usually doesn’t take long. I nudge. I mirror. I question. I notice aloud the body language, the breathing. And, usually, sooner or later, here comes the whole heart of the person in question: "I’m lonely … I’m angry with you … I’m afraid … I’m disappointed in our marriage … I don’t feel cherished … I feel discarded … I need more from you … etc."
And what happens next would be the stuff of sitcoms if it weren’t so tragically ironic: The other spouse erupts. Variations on the eruption include:
Incredulity: Bug your eyes out. Lift your brow. Put both hands to either side of your face. And with a voice rising in pitch with every word say, "What are you saying!" Or, "I can’t believe you’re saying this!"
The "Yeah But": Oh yeah. The best defense is a good offense. Say some version of "Yeah, but you (here insert the reason that you were forced to act the way you did because of something your mate did.)" Translation: Whatever pain your mate’s "whole heart" is feeling is not only not your fault, but your mate probably deserves it, and either way you’re offended that you’re being asked to look at something in the relationship.
I Don’t Want To Talk About This Anymore: That’s the ticket. Elect yourself the Grand Poobah of what we do or do not talk about in this marriage. How cool are you!
Defensiveness: Protect yourself! Defend yourself! Make your voice shrill, hurt, indignant. You tell that outrageous mate of yours that he/she is wrong about you! That you are doing the best you can, and that fact alone is quid pro quo evidence that you have no obligation to look at yourself.
Tell your mate that, if you don’t make him/her happy, then they can just go look for someone who will! Lift your hands and eyes to heaven and say, "I can’t do anything right!" Do anything but be empathic and comforting. Anything but be grateful that your mate is bringing this grief to you, as opposed to the erstwhile "office friend" or some stranger at a bar!
Mates beg and plead and cajole their partners to talk, to share the wholeness of the heart. But, too often, when someone takes that risk, a deeper, truer message erupts: "Dear mate, let me put you on notice — it will never pay for you to share the transparent nakedness of your heart with me. For, if you do, you will be summarily punished."
Again, there is no such thing as a man or a woman who doesn’t know how to communicate. Only folks who have decided — often with good reason — to stop communicating. They were just punished too many times. Like a Pavlovian puppy, shocked once too often to ever want to wander over to that side of the cage again.
Want a thriving marriage? Then be careful. If you’re going to invite someone’s whole heart out into the open, you have an obligation to receive that heart with a near sacred tenderness. Whatever comes out of your mate’s mouth, however hard it might be to hear, give thanks that you are the one hearing it.
Or, you are welcome to continue the Lucy-Charlie Brown-Football love affair: "Trust me. WHAM! … Trust me. WHAM! … Trust me …"
And then you can act all surprised and hurt and betrayed when your mate pretty much never comes home from work. Or gains a hundred pounds. Or drinks all weekend. Or prefers surfing porn sites over talking to you. Or runs off with a firefighter. Or a redhead.
Or simply says, "I can’t do this anymore," and walks away.
Originally published in View News, Aug. 31, 2010.