Sometimes couples will come in for counseling and the first thing they tell me is how much they love each other. I believe them. They say it with such great emotion. I know they mean it. I also get to see their angst, because they are in such a quandary and feeling frustrated because they can’t figure out how to make the relationship work. They wonder aloud and say, “We love each other. Why can’t we get along?”
How does this happen? When you meet the right person, why doesn’t it just magically work out? It feels so great. It feels as if everything is just going to be perfect. Why doesn’t it work out that way?
Here’s what I see; two people who want to make the relationship work. I also see two people who don’t know how to listen to each other without feeling attacked, blamed, dismissed, disrespected or cutoff. Each partner gets frustrated with the other because neither feels as if they are really being heard by the other person. The more they try to explain, the more the other person gets upset. It feels like a never-ending cycle and neither knows how to change it.
As a counselor the first thing I like to do is pull the couple apart; not physically, but emotionally. I want to hear from each, without the aid of the other. I want to treat each person as if I am alone with just them in the room, while the other one listens. This is helpful for a couple of reasons. When I begin with a couple I am a newcomer to their issues. When I hear the problems, I do not have a reserve of judgment built up, and I am not going to react the same way as the mate. This listening moment does two things; it models another way for the mate to listen, a non-responsive way. It also allows the person who is sharing to really feel as if they are heard. As I listen I am able to hear what the person is longing for, and most of the time it’s to feel understood by their mate.
I take what I’ve heard, summarize the substance and explain it to the partner. Most of the time it’s not the content of what is being said, it’s the way people say things, surrounded with heavy emotions, that prevents partners from really listening to each other. If a person is always sad when they speak to their mate, the mate might feel responsible for the sadness and feel bad. This gets in the way of communication. I help couples say what needs to be said. I help them understand what emotions they are carrying and then help each person figure out what they need and maybe show them how to ask their partner for it.
This is not hard work, especially when two people love each other and want to make things better. And it doesn’t take that long. Most couples feel better after one or two sessions. It does take courage though, courage to look inside you, and acknowledge what you long for and need. Then all you have to do is learn how to talk with your partner, learn how to listen to your mate, understand what you need and ask for it. These are all the communication skills you need. It’s a retooling of how you used to do things. That’s all it is. And it’s a fix that can last a lifetime.
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