Normal Couples Argue about Listening & Goodness
Working with couples, I often hear the question, "Are we crazy? Is this normal?" One of the most difficult things couples face is isolation. Even a couple who participates in community and enjoys friendships, may rarely encounter an opportunity to have a heart to heart with other couples and share about the struggles they face.
In couples workshops and classes, I hear participants celebrate the relief and acceptance they experience as they hear that other couples struggle with the very same issues*. In this case, saying "oh, we are a normal couple" means they have decided they are not broken or crazy, just facing difficulty.
Arguments about listening and being seen as good is one of the most common issues I see showing up for couples. One partner longs to be heard fully and wants empathy for unmet needs, the other partner hears requests for empathy as criticism and just wants to be seen as a good person and good partner. Of course, everyone has both of these needs, but for various reasons partners polarize around a particular need.
If you are the partner making the request to be heard, you might have heard yourself saying things like this to your partner: "You never listen!", "You are so defensive.", "My experience is never valid with you.", "There is no space for my needs in this relationship.", "I'm just looking for a little kindness.", "Why can't you just be present with me?!", "Can't you just be supportive for once?!"
If you are the partner with the need to be seen as a good partner, you might hear yourself saying things like this: "Just be happy. We have a good life.", "I can't do everything, the meeting at work went late and then the traffic…", "Things are never good enough for you.", "I work hard for our family.", "I am trying to be a good parent.", "Why can't you just let things go. I do.", "Can't you just smile and appreciate the good things we have.", "I just want to laugh with you and be happy like we use to be."
If you are on either side of this exchange, it's painful. These exchanges hide the needs underneath and you miss the opportunity to love each other in a deep and tender way. If you are the partner that wants to be heard and receives responses like the ones in the previous paragraph, you feel ever more desperate to be heard. Such desperation might lead to explosions of anger, sharp criticisms, impatient demands, and a cold turning away.
If you are the partner that wants to be valued and seen as good partner, such behavior leaves you feeling hurt, empty, and overwhelmed. Overwhelm along with a tenuous sense of your own goodness gives rise to defensiveness, justification, minimizing difficulty, and the tendency to hear criticism in everything. This in turn decreases your partner's sense of being heard even more, and round and round it goes.
If you and your partner have been doing this dance for a while, intentional connection, emotional generosity, and repair will need to become a priority in your relationship. Intentional connection means learning how to meet your partner's need in a regular and intentional way. To meet the need to be heard, I often encourage couples to start small. For example, set aside ten minutes three nights a week in which each person gets to talk for five minutes with nothing back from the other except eye contact and verbal reflection what he or she heard. During this time there is no decision making or problem solving, just listening and reflection until each person's need to be heard is met or until timer signals the end of a turn.
Emotional generosity means looking for little moments when you can stretch yourself to meet your partner's need even though you have an impulse to do something else. For example, you might have had a difficult day and be tempted to come home that night grunting and complaining. Instead you remember how much a smile means. You remember that a simple smile helps your partner to know that you see and appreciate his or her goodness. You pause outside the door and find a genuine smile with which to greet your partner.
Repair is easier to achieve when intentional connection and emotional generosity have become a regular part of your lives together and the desperate reactive cycle is a memory instead of a norm (this may take a few months to a year). You now have the emotional resources and secure bond that supports looking at painful events without defensiveness. You can express your experience without blame or attack and you can hear your partner's experience with empathy. You can express your regret and commit to a new way of behaving with each other.
PracticeTake a moment now to notice if your partner holds one of these two needs as more unmet than the other. If one stands out, ask yourself where and when you might find the emotional generosity to reach toward your partner to meet that need.
Competence & Building a Self