There’s a quote widely attributed to the great Maya Angelou that resonates with many of the people that I meet: “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.” Often, it’s used to point out when we give others the benefit of the doubt even when they do something that seems hurtful. For me, it’s a good reminder to listen to my instincts; instincts are trustworthy and wise even though we often don’t give them credit. As a therapist, it is critical for me to constantly work on developing that part of me that is in touch with my inner voice. More often than not, I find that there is something there worth listening to. It’s not perfect. Still, in session, it serves as a starting point for a conversation that often allows me to dig deeper into the root of the problems that my clients are really talking about.
In life, as in session, when we ignore our instincts, unfortunate things can happen.
When I work with couples, it’s seldom because things are going really well. Instead, it tends to be the case that couples therapy begins at the lowest point of a relationship. It’s not uncommon for these couples to be perplexed about how their relationship has deteriorated to such a point. Still, the same couples often will say that things have been bad for years and that they’ve never engaged with a therapist to help them work through their issues. All along, there was a clear inner voice that spoke of the condition of their relationship but there was also always a reason to disregard it. The intuitive self is often clear but rarely is it convenient. One of the many distractions – work, family, kids – often take priority and we take for granted that there will always be a tomorrow to work with our spouse to make things better. We even employ doubt or denial that things are as bad as they appear as a defense. It is in this situation, needing a significant amount of healing that couples most often show up at the therapist’s office.
When I work with these couples, I almost never tell them what I’m about to tell you now. At least not right away. It’s not that they don’t need to hear it; it’s simply that now is not the time. For them, there are many more pressing things that need to be said and heard. For you, though, if you’re in a relationship, these are words that are critical for the long-term health of your relationship. It’s a corollary to Angelou’s famous quote that we started this conversation with and it goes something like this.
If your spouse tells you that your relationship is in trouble, believe them.
By no means is this meant to be an I told you so sort of statement. Serious relationship issues, though, seldom come out of nowhere. There are almost always signs or symptoms, usually present for months or years before they reach a point that we would call serious.
To our credit, these messages are not always clear. Unless you’ve had the best mentors and examples of what it means to communicate in a healthy way, it’s rare to be able to communicate what you need in a healthy, productive way or to receive something from your spouse without feeling defensive and disengaging from them. Maybe you’ve heard phrases like “I miss you!” or “I just want to be alone!” Has your spouse ever said, “It feels like we’re roommates!” or accused you of only thinking of yourself? There is no situation in which these phrases are easy to hear, right? It’s not like these statements are made to make us feel better about ourselves.
Yes, these phrases are hurtful and just because your partner may not be able to communicate them in a way that is easier for us to digest, it doesn’t remove our ability to hear them. To compensate by the pain that these phrases elicit, we often deny them (e.g. “That’s just not true!”) or nullify them (e.g. “You’re just being emotional!”). Otherwise, we have to believe them. And, in believing them, we have to face the pain or anxiety or uncertainty that accompanies them.
You see, in hearing your partner say that they just want to be alone recalls every memory of being alone or abandoned in your past. It brings up the questions about self-worth if the person you love the most would rather be alone than be with you. The things that are said to us are not painful in isolation. They are painful because similar things have hurt us in the past. They’re painful because they might represent a threat to our closest relationship. We become defensive, outwardly, towards our partner because of a feeling that emerges from complex circumstances inside us.
Simply, I believe we listen exclusively to the pain inside of ourselves and miss the importance of what our partner is trying to tell us about our relationship. It’s difficult because if for no other reason, we’re most familiar with the messages that emerge from inside of us. We are wired in such a way as to listen to our own inner world first before taking in perspectives from outside – even when those outside perspectives come from the person who we love the most. When we look inside first, we are all prone to locating problems inside of us. There is something flawed about us and that thing is to blame. When that’s the loudest message, we feel the need to vindicate ourselves and to make the case that we’re not that bad. It can be an overwhelming urge because it’s so deeply primal.
My challenge to couples is to work on understanding these urges to protect themselves and how these urges can impede our ability to actually hear what our partner is saying. Your partner might be telling you that they’re scared or that they’re confused or that they’re lonely. They may not tell you that directly; it might be packaged in a way that feels emotional or intense, but the message is there nonetheless. However they tell you, though, our conversations will be more effective when we learn to moderate that inclination to step back and defend. It’s a foundational part of who you are so we’re not trying to get rid of it. We’re simply saying that it’s possible to be aware of that desire to defend and to also realize that there is more going on for us to hear.
Listening with that sort of awareness is hard, no doubt. For many couples, it’s the kind of thing that a few sessions with a therapist may help with. Couples therapists can help you really start to master the communication skills that are fundamental to helping relationships thrive. We can help you truly hear what your partner is saying even when they may not be communicating in the clearest way. You can learn how to reflect on your own communication and become more aware of how you can learn to be more clear about your needs and desires, too.
It can help you really hear what your partner is trying to say?