When couples come to my office, it is really common for them to arrive with the complaint that they have trouble communicating. When this happens, my hypothesis is it’s not the choice words, perhaps not even the body language or tone, but more so the message and meaning behind what couples are communicating that brings partners to the point where they are seeking help. That has to do with sharing a perspective. Couples do want to feel like they are able to share ideas, exchange information and engage with each other’s emotions. In all this, though, what they really want is to know that they share a perspective, and that the perspective is safe.
It is true we all in a sense wear rose colored glasses. Our understanding of the world is shaped by our individual experiences, beliefs, and desires. We’re often communicating that rosy (or perhaps not so rosy) worldview to each other. This is kind of easy to see for the big issues – we all know that our spiritual beliefs and religious affiliations are going to color what we value and how we evaluate the world around us. But, it counts for the little stuff too. These differences provoke a lot of couples to really question if it is possible to entertain the idea of why someone would interpret something differently than another. For example, say my wife and I go to a movie. She doesn’t like it. I really do. Depending on how well we share our perspective, there’s a lot of potential for things to become confusing for us. It’s not uncommon for couples to interpret differing perspectives as occasions to recognize larger differences. I might think “Well, if she doesn’t like this, then do we really share values?” Or, I might think, “Is she just saying this because she doesn’t want me to have a good time?” “Why doesn’t she want me to have a good time?” These little differences in preference can really spiral into bigger issues – and yes, those issues do have something to do with communicating. But, the real question couples seem to ask is “Is it safe to enter into my partner’s experience? Can they enter into mine?”
Sometimes, it’s good to swap hats.
There are a lot of ways that even small differences in experience will filter our perceptions and challenge the larger connections and the perspective that couples share. Popular blogger Matt Fray sites an example of how his divorce was precipitated by leaving dishes in the sink. To his wife, what he had interpreted as an insignificant detail symbolized a larger lack of regard. What happens in these situations is not all that different than what happens in the larger social world – people tend to just write off others whose preferences differ (look at our current political climate). It’s often just easier, at least at first, to dismiss someone who challenges us. Who wants a fight? Who has time for an emotional overhaul? What’s the point? Why can’t we just get on with things? When you think about this in the context of relationships between couples, though, it’s easy to see how ignoring and dismissing these differences can cause a lot of difficulty in the long journey of partners trying to create a life together.
Deep down everyone wants to know that their partner understands them even if they do not always agree. When we are struggling with communicating our relationship to each other, we’re really asking about the ability for two people to share a perspective when their preferences differ. We’re asking, “Can my partner put on my hat and understand why something is important to me?” “Do they love me enough to be considerate of something important to me regardless of their view?” “Is there a compromise or accommodation in the relationship to meet the needs of each partner on a given topic?” “Is it safe to share my insecurities and concerns?”
These are underlying concerns and questions that come out in counseling and require repair to recreate trust. In this process I can help clients put on their partner’s hat or see their partners rosy glasses. When couples learn to enter again into each other’s perspectives, they increase their intimacy. Because what they are really doing is developing the shared perspective that bonds them together.
Communicating well requires an intimate, shared perspective.
Part of the work I do from an Emotionally Focused Perspective is help couples repair their attachment. This means helping couples bond to their shared perspective so these differences in detail don’t end up creating a difference in world view. When couples start therapy to improve communication, my goal is to increase security, and make it safe to communicate on a deeper level and try to understand each other better. Understanding, sharing a meaning and communicating that in relational messages is the baseline where couples either feel safe to know and differ from each other, or they feel unsafe. The thing to remember about relationships is, the little things accumulate.
To sort through these little differences – to make each person’s hat available to the other – I help each client identify their own interior dispositions. Then once someone can improve their own ability, it can be easier to entertain another’s experience. Only when a couple feels safe in their shared space is it really helpful to build skills and techniques to improve listening and vulnerability. Practicing this ability to understand perspectives, in the particular nuances of a couple’s experience really is the first step to improve the space where a couple shares meaning. The rest will develop.
It is true that some people are just more proficient communicators and are able to communicate their deeply held emotions, fears, and desires. It is also true, though, that every couple can cultivate an attention to the details of a relationship. Every couple can learn to participate more effectively in each other’s experience. Every couple can learn a little better how to swap hats, put the rose colored goggles down and keep meaning and messages fresh and full of love.
Ted received his Master of Arts in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling from Western Michigan University and is a Limited Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Limited Licensed Professional Counselor. Get scheduled with Ted today by calling 616.456.1178 or visiting his therapist page.