Relationship Advice Tips from Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
At 8:00 pm one Wednesday night forty-three year old dance teacher Erica was paying bills online when her forty-five year old partner Damien, a podiatrist, rushed into the room with a stack of papers that he wanted her to see. He was going on about being sued for malpractice, cussing out the patient and the lawyers. She waited till he finished and then told him it was a legal issue and went back to her bill paying. The tsunami of vitriol that Damien threw at her for not listening or caring made her speechless with rage.
“I know it’s a legal issue! I don’t need you to tell me that!” he burst forth, flailing his arms at her.
“Then why don’t you wait till tomorrow and discuss it with your insurance company and their lawyer? There isn’t anything I can do about it! ” Erica threw it back on him.
“You just don’t give a damn about how I feel! I’m trying to tell you how bad I feel and share myself with you, but it’s either not a good time, or you tell me what to do to fix it without ever listening to what’s going on for me! But when you want to tell me what’s going on with you, then you expect me to drop everything and concentrate on you.”
“I can’t talk to you! Nothing is good enough.” Erica fired back.
“You just want me to feel sorry for you. You don’t want me to be there with you and understand what’s going on. I get sick of playing that role. When I come to you I want you to be interested and understand what I’m going through. I don’t want you to tell me what to do to fix it. I just want you to listen and get where I’m coming from. But you make it seem like I’m doing something bad to you!” Damien said as his anger subsided and he felt the sadness and emptiness of an emotionally unavailable partner.
Marital communication fails when both partners feel hurt and do not receive empathic listening
Over the next week Erica and Damien walked around like wounded warriors. Each of them felt that their hurt was the more painful and the more justified. They behaved like captives behind enemy lines, silently nursing their pain, hoping and praying that their suffering would be noticed and attended to.
As they entered the second week of this stressful relationship cycle Erica came down with an attack of shingles. Damien felt guilty about telling her how he really felt after their altercation the previous week. He went all out to compensate by tending to all her needs even before she asked. Erica responded and expressed thanks. The guilt abated and he benefited from the distraction from the malpractice suit against him. Having made amends with Erica he now had only one enemy to fight.
Listening and acknowledging in marital communication gets disrupted when one partner is afraid of feeling inadequate
Three weeks later Damien came home excited to tell Erica about the settlement with the patient that had threatened to sue him. He found her busy choreographing a lesson for her students.
“That’s good. Now we can start saving for my dance studio” Erica responded.
Once again Damien felt that Erica did not listen or care about his experience and feelings. He was furious with her especially after he had taken care of her so diligently during her bout of shingles. Why had he bothered if this was the reward? Why had he let his guilt drive him to atone for the sin of speaking his truth if he was back at the same place again?
He felt like shaking her to force her to listen and acknowledge not just his actual words but his intent, his feelings and his entire experience. But he knew that if he did, she would just get sick again to make him feel guilty and so the cycle would repeat.
What bugged him the most is that Erica was sought out by her students, nephews and nieces as a great listener. And she was! He saw and heard her tune into them and acknowledge their feelings. But with him it was cold judgment or dismissal. Envy and resentment rose up inside him to mask his anger and sadness.
He really wanted to know why Erica could listen and acknowledge them but not him. He was desperate to find out what the problem was, because if he didn’t the only alternative would be to end the relationship and find someone who did want to listen and share his experience.
Damien came for relationship counseling and asked me to help him figure out this problem.
I started by giving him a bird’s eye view of Erica’s state of mind when he approached her with something big that was going on with him. I explained that Erica was frightened that whatever he shared would be a bad reflection on her. She was afraid that he was expecting her to fix and manage his feelings and that if she didn’t she was a bad partner.
It’s not that Erica couldn’t or wouldn’t listen to him.
It’s that her fear of being found wanting in the relationship was clouding her perception. The emotionally charged nature of their relationship made her hear him as critical, whereas with her students, nephews and nieces there was no such emotional stake. She could hear them dispassionately and objectively since they didn’t have the same power to make her feel inadequate
Gradually as Damien felt heard and acknowledged in psychotherapy with me, he was less hungry for it from Erica. He toned down what he told her and found that she was better able to hear the processed version of his experience since he had taken care of raw data in individual psychotherapy. Now Damien and Erica can build on this foundation and create a safer zone for both of them to listen and acknowledge each other.
I also gave Damien a vital tip on communicating with Erica – prime her about the subject you are going to address so her firewall will not block her emphatic listening.
Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.
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Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educative purposes only. Dr. Raymond is not responsible for any reactions you may have when reading the content or using the suggestions therein. Interacting with this material does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.