*This post is the fictional conversation that is a fairly typical conversation about being heard**
Jane and Robert had met in college. They started out hot and heavy. Married a year later, they moved for his job. While they didn’t like his job or the location of where they lived, they loved each other deeply. Robert had a commitment to his employer for another three years. They had paid for part of his schooling and he owed them the time for that reason. Jane figured that anyone should be able to endure almost anything for that amount of time. Besides the money that Robert made wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great but it certainly put them higher than many people she knew. While there was a lot of stress, Jane figured that things would settle down when Robert was doing something that he loved and not stuck in a job he hated.
The day finally came for Robert to leave his current job. He found a job working with at-risk kids where Jane could help him and they could do it together. Things started out well at the new job. Robert was having fun and helping kids. Jane was a part of it and their family was growing. Problems soon came though. Robert’s boss seemed almost psychotic. He would task Robert with a job and then when Robert would complete the task he would either outright attack it or point out a thousand ways that Robert could do it better. Robert started to have to travel all the time and although Robert’s employer spoke often of family values, it seemed to Jane that recruitment was a bigger value. Whenever, Jane would broach the subject with her friends, she was admonished to be thankful that Robert had a job. Of course, she was thankful but she also wanted to feel connected to her husband. She didn’t believe that was too much to ask for but she didn’t know how to get it either.
Eventually, Robert had enough and came to her one day with a bad look on his face. He had lost his job. His employer had let him go and given them thirty days of pay. The search for a new job commenced immediately. None were found. Instead Robert, Jane and their three boys moved into her families house. Taking over the basement, they continued to look for work but found none. If you have ever lived with family, you know that privacy is hard. Every little fight that a couple might have that is forgotten three hours later may be remembered by one of the family members. There is no place to escape to in those moments of high stress for processing. Everything from, how you interact with your spouse, to your parenting skills is open to examination. In short, living with family is one of the hardest things that a family can endure.
Robert finally found a job just a few hours away from her family. Far enough away that they would have some freedom they had been lacking for the last year, but close enough that their boys would be able to see her parents regularly. This was a win-win situation. Robert would be working in a more formal setting with children and youth. He would be able to do a job he loved and he should have more than enough time to spend with the family. Jane was certain she was about to get what she had been missing out on for all these years. She was about to get her husband back. She practically crackled with anticipation. Hope ran anew in her veins.
Then they moved.
Soon Robert was working all the time again. He was surrounded by idiots and a broken system again. Secretly, Jane began to wonder if maybe Robert was looking at the wrong person. Maybe he was the problem. Whatever was going on, she still didn’t feel connected to Robert and in her mind, that was the most important thing to accomplish. She just didn’t know how. It seemed to her that the only thing Robert needed from her was sex but she needed more. Whenever her husband was feeling particularly amorous, she would find one reason or another to not be “in the mood.” A new baby puts demand on her sleeping schedule and her emotional resources. Jane was scared to death that her marriage would end in divorce like her own parents, or maybe she would just have to live in an emotionally dead relationship.
“I don’t want to sound like a crazy person but I need more from Robert than just sex. It’s so hard when it feel like that is all he wants from me.”
“Jane, Why do you feel like that would make you sound like a crazy person. Having needs met is one of the biggest benefits of marriage. In fact, I’d be willing to say that it’s one of the main benefits of marriage. We are hared wired to seek those benefits.”
She looked at me with eyes almost afraid to hope. One single tear escaped her left eye and scurried down her cheek to disappear into the black abyss of space she felt around her. She felt alone. Instinctively, she crossed her arms, hugging herself as she cast her gaze to the ground. More signs of embarrassment and guilt. Jane had been hurt by her parents divorce. She had been hurt by her husband’s unwillingness to holistically connect with her. She certainly wasn’t going to allow me to get too close. She was not going to allow me to build up her hope like a balloon filled with air only to have it popped by the very pins of life.
“Jane, I’m curious do you feel like Robert values you?” She looked at me blankly, wiping a bit of snot and tears off of her face. “Do you feel that Robert feels like you value him?” She nearly withdrew into herself, afraid that the judgmental me was about to come out and crush her.
“Do you feel that Robert hears you? Do you feel that anyone had ever heard you?”
The conversation began to really pick up now. Spurred on by the faint flickering hope that someone might actually understand where she was coming from now she began to speak faster and faster. She opened up about her father, she talked about her mom and brothers. She talked about Robert and how he never listened to her. I let her talk for nearly thirty minutes without saying anything. Finally, as though she was a ship that had survived a class five hurricane she took a deep breath and just stopped talking. She tried to look at me and not be obvious about looking at me.
I knew this would be the trickiest part of our conversation.
“Jane, Do you think that Robert feels heard by you? How do you think losing his job and having to move in with your family made him feel?”
“I don’t know, but it doesn’t mean he should be pulling away from me!” Her anger spoke more to her fear than her being angry. Anger is what therapists call a secondary emotion. It almost always masks another fear. Her eyes took an almost animalistic look as she dared me to judge her like her mom and her friend. It was my belief that she was afraid that I wasn’t going to help her but that I was actually going to judge her and give her one more way she had messed up and made another mistake. The tricky part would come from the fact that I did believe there were probably things she could do differently but not that she had made a mistake or done something wrong. The truth is that I believed she living in her relationship exactly as she had been taught to live by the people around her. We give more education to people about to learn to flip burgers than we typically do for people who are about to get married.
“I agree, it does not but the fact is that he isn’t here so I can’t talk to him. You are here so I can only really talk to him. What I’m trying to say is that I wonder if it is normal to expect that you and Robert are after the same thing in your relationship. I wonder if it isn’t also safe to assume that actually Robert needs far more than sex from you, he just doesn’t know how to go about getting it. It would seem reasonable to me that Robert got married to you because he loved you and he was looking forward to spending his life with his soul mate. I wonder if he isn’t withdrawn from you because he is afraid that you will judge him if he were to actually share with you.”
“Well, I’ve never judged him. Not once.” This was actually good. She was buying into the theory even if she was trying to prove that it was completely wrong in her situation.
“That may be true, and it may not be true. But what if he feels that you will. Maybe his parents judged him when he tried to be heard. Certainly his former boss judged him. I guarantee you that he feels judged by society. I would be willing to bet you good money Jane, that he feels judged by almost every area of his life. Without ever meeting him, I’d be willing to suggest that losing his job and having to move into your families house brought with it feelings of self-judgment and failure. Maybe he’s just waiting for you to be like everyone else and judge him. Maybe he’s afraid of the very things that scare you and the only way that he actually feels connected to you as his wife is through sex. After all, he’s been conditioned his whole life to believe that a woman will only give herself to a man that she feels connected to. I wonder if he isn’t afraid that you view him as a failure and sex is his way of not feeling that way. I know I’ve just thrown a lot of ‘I wonders’ at you. What do you think?”
Her lip quivered as she responded, “So you’re saying that he probably feels as disconnected as I do?”
“The truth is that I don’t know but it would seem to me to be a logical conclusion. Have you ever told him how you are feeling and asked how he is feeling?”
“Simple, he’s busy. He doesn’t need a crazy wife dragging him down.”
This was the greatest lie that most of us buy into when we hit trouble spots with our relationships. We answer for the other person in our head. We assume that we know what they would say if we were to actually talk to them. Of course, we do not know. We think we know and we react according to our perception of how they will react. This puts the other person into a bind that he or she cannot get out of. Conversations that only occur in our head not only create barriers in real life, they create potentially destructive defense mechanisms because we are reacting to something that did not actually happen. Of course we create this phantom conversations because of how past real life conversations have gone.
Do you see the insidiousness of this though? What happens is that by having a phantom conversation that didn’t actually occur we box the other person in. We refuse to create room for them to grow and change. Maybe they will act the same way again. Of course, the opposite is also true. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they will begin the change process. Maybe this will be the time that they actually start to make progress. Of course, this brings us to the next risk we must take. We have to realize and accept the fact that change is a process that rarely if ever happens over night. It is not a one, two, three linear step process. Often, when a person is learning a new communication process he will move nicely towards his goal and then without any particular rhyme or reason, he will digress. Of course, this is true of all of us. It is when she digresses that she hurts us again. If we are to experience everything that our heart is actually longing for we must be willing to risk that hurt. We must be willing to love in spite of it.
It was this risk that I was encouraging Jane to enter. More than that, however, I was inviting Jane to examine her own life and how she might be able to answer Robert’s core questions before she sought to have her own answered. This probably seems backwards to many. But the truth is that Robert was not in the room and even if he was in the room, Jane has no way of changing him. She can only change herself. She can only work on the areas that are part of her life. Part of working on those areas will be eventually telling Robert what she needs but for now I will settle for her asking him how he is feeling and expressing how she is feeling. We have to give everyone the opportunity to change. We have to find healthy ways to express our own feelings and desires. Often we express our feelings but we do it in a way that doe not create a listening environment for the person we are talking to.
Too often my words put my wife on the defensive. Then, I get mad because she was defensive. What does the quality of the content of our words matter if the person we are talking to is not hearing the words because he or she feels as though we are on the attack. Part of the problem is that too often we avoid talking about our feelings because we are afraid of conflict or we have been conditioned by society to ignore our feelings. Eventually, our emotions build up inside of us like like a balloon taped to a spigot turned on full. The balloon stretches and stretches, finally the smallest pinhole develops and the entire thing explodes spewing water and mess everywhere. The water of our analogy is relatively easy to clean up but the mess of relationships that have had explosions occur is far from easy. Often that mess will create a loop that traps and enslaves us to more negative interactions.