The number one complaint couples refer to when they call with a therapy request is “We don’t communicate.” Sound familiar? And oddly, unless partners are each bound and gagged (that’s another post, I think), or living separately in parts of the world without telephones, video or email, they communicate – maybe not clearly, or respectively, or productively, but they COMMUNICATE.
Communication can be an eye roll, a grimace, a smile, a turning away, a raised eyebrow, a frown, a touch, silence, a scream, a laugh, etc. They are all ways of sending a message. Our 15 month old granddaughter speaks only about 20 actual words at this point, but communicates quite clearly and purposefully with pointing, head shaking, smiling, hand waving, hugs, cries, shrieks, squeals or laughs. Because the family doesn’t expect many actual words we all pay attention to what she’s “saying” and try to respond in a tuned in way.
Our 9 year old Lab has never said one word but also communicates very clearly and consistently with groans, sighs, tail wags, kisses, stares, or nudges. And he runs the household! He usually gets what he wants without ever saying one word.
So maybe, the issue is really “We don’t send or receive clear signals, We don’t listen. We don’t pay attention. We don’t tune in.”
This is one of the big issues most couples have struggled with at some point in their relationship: who pulled the trigger on a toxic event – who was really responsible for the mess?
It usually goes something like this:
“If you hadn’t said ______________________ I wouldn’t have been so ____________________!”
“Well, if you hadn’t been so ________________ I wouldn’t have said ______________________!”
And round and round it goes. A circle of blame and justification for bad behaviors. Both partners not feeling understood around their respective grievances, because the context felt so critical to the sequence.
If you’ve ever been in one of these go-arounds, (and chances are, you have been, more often than you’d like to admit), then you know too keenly that this kind of exchange only contributes to raising blood pressure and your dog, who’s been witnessing it, getting more weirded out by the minute. (That’s another post: “Want the truth? Then watch the dog!”)
I’ve worked with couples who escalated so intensely around this kind of exchange that they fought for hours about this Who Started It All nonsense, then punished each other for days or weeks afterward!
So, what’s a more productive line of questioning to pursue around a fight? – one which might actually move the two of you toward some healthy ownership, some forgiveness, repair, resolution and some learning?
It’s a few simple questions to ask yourself:
“Where was I in that fight?”
“What were my contributions to that problem?”
“What do I regret about my own behavior in that situation?”
“What could I have done differently, even though I felt provoked?”
(My often blamed) but wise husband says: “In other words, take a look at yourself, because that’s the only thing you can actually change!”
I recently met with a couple I’ve been working with for quite some time. We hadn’t met in over a month due to a number of unforeseen events, including the fact that they’d each contracted Covid within the same week. It was a shock to them considering that they’d both been vaccinated and had practiced diligent Covid safety behaviors for the past year, like mask wearing in all public places, no indoor dining, avoidance of large gatherings, etc.
As with so many of us, Covid had become the dreaded Boogeyman, especially for the husband who was immunocompromised. It had become the terrorizer, the ticket to an untimely death, if not only a protracted, lonely suffering in an over-crowded hospital. Covid was the provider of all losses:
- no more eating out
- no concerts
- no sporting events
- no presumed working in an office with all its social perks
- no safe travel requiring plane trips
- no movie theaters
- no stress-free grocery shopping
- no shield from other people’s sense of social responsibility or lack of it
- no break from one’s partner or spouse, who now had to fulfill most needs for connection.
- no more easy, safe, spontaneous visits with kids and grandkids
So what was their Covid Silver Lining?
- They thought it fortunate to have both tested positive within a few days, so no need to quarantine from each other!
- They coughed a lot, but weren’t seriously sick, and felt relieved and thankful for being mostly tired.
- They were quite tired, so they felt legitimacy about their frequent need to sleep and nap!
- They had previously stocked up on lots of supplies, so felt proud about preparedness, and relief not needing to shop!
- The end of Summer weather was lovely, so they convalesced outside, not requiring hospitalization!
- They caught up on reading, email and TV without guilt!
- They found a new patience and tenderness with each other, taking turns with nursing roles!
- They had time to talk about small, private things without the pressure of work or interacting with the outside world!
- They enjoyed “paid leave,” and discovered a new appreciation for their jobs.
- They spent a lot of lazy time in their yard, realizing how blessed they were to live in such a beautiful place.
- They spent 18 to 20 days together, getting a taste of “retirement,” and could now envision it!
- But, most of all, they no longer feared the Booogeyman Covid. They had survived. They had thrived. Together.
So, with or without testing positive, what’s your Covid Silver Lining?
There’s a word in Yiddish which has no literal translation in English: “kvetch.”
It means “to complain, to moan, to bitch, to bellyache, to crab, grumble, fuss, nag, squawk, whine, gripe, etc. We all do it at times, but it can be a real problem when the kvetching hijacks your brain. It’s then likely to intrude upon any experience you may be having, either alone or with a partner.
Have you ever been with someone whose constant kvetching ruined the day? It’s not fun for either of you. My antidote? “Kvetch dates.”
In the same spirit of “worry dates,” (where you minimize the intrusive nature of worry by legitimizing and scheduling it), so goes the “kvetch date.” If you’re alone and feeling overwhelmed or irritated or sorry for yourself, the last thing you’ll want is for those feelings to take over your day. On the other hand, there may be sufficient reasons for you to feel this way, so you also don’t want to negate your own internal experience. The compromise here may be to “prescribe the symptom,” as we say, and make a date with yourself to give those feelings some limited airtime. Establish a time when you allow yourself to fully vent those feelings, either in writing or talking aloud, or sharing them with someone you trust. Set a timer, and limit yourself to an allotted time, maybe ten minutes. Then stop, and change the frequency in your brain by directing your attention to something else, something neutral or positive. If your mind returns to “kvetch mode,” remind yourself that you’ll have another “kvetch date” tomorrow, and get back to the more positive activity. By practicing this, you’ll be developing significant thought-stopping skills which will serve you well when needed.
If you’re coupled up, you can make “kvetch dates” with each other, especially at the end of a long, stressful week, or in the midst of an emotionally challenging situation. Make a pact to avoid advice giving, solutions or judgments, and to simply listen to each other. Agree on a maximum time allowed, then change the frequency by engaging in something pleasurable or neutral. You’ll be protecting positive experiences by together getting the “kvetch” out of room.