Be Understood

Friday, August 7th, 2009 at 7:29 pm


“YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND!”

Your conflicts sometimes lead to painful or bitter fights.  When all is said and done after your difference du jour, you both feel frustrated, hurt, dejected and misunderstood.  You both know you will repeat your familiar but painful scenario in the near future; it’s a matter of when, not if.  You feel helpless and confused, and have no idea how to break the pattern you faithfully, but regrettably, repeat.   In the end, the refrain is the same: “You just don’t understand!  This article is about how to change that.

We all want to be heard and understood, and when we’re not, all too often we blame our partner for it.  However, the responsibility for being understood begins on your own side of the street, not your partner’s.  Unwittingly, you undercut being understood when under stress.

Ironically, you probably ‘know’ what constitutes effective and ineffective behavior when hashing out an issue. And yet, ineffective stuff easily surfaces.  For example, calling your partner a derogatory name seldom leads to your partner feeling safe, but you do it anyway, with predictable consequences.

This happens, in part, because emotional states tend to trump clear thinking. Keeping emotional reactivity low can be a challenge.  Humans run from pain much faster than doing the crucial work that leads them toward pleasure.  Why?  Our brains are wired to run from danger and pain.  It’s a survival reflex.

Ineffective behavior in the service of decreasing your pain reduces emotional safety.  In short, a relationship is only as emotionally safe as the partner who feels the least safe.

Winning, and setting the record (facts) straight in an argument also inhibits being understood.  When couples decide to join their lives together, they believe their union is a team.  Introduce conflict in to your day-to-day lives, and voila, it may feel like you’re on opposing teams!  Amazing, isn’t it?  How often have you said to yourself, your partner or a friend, “when we fight, I can never win,”?  Or, “I knew I married Mr./Ms. Right, I just didn’t know his/her first name was ‘always’!”

Being right during a conflict goes hand in hand with winning.  Ultimately, the result is the same.  The ‘right’ one feels good, and the ‘wrong’ one feels bad.  The net effect:  distance, and a failure to produce emotional safety and relationship closeness.

So, here’s what to do instead of pounding a nail in to your shoe.  What if you did some things completely different, such as the following:  1). gave up being right and winning; 2). spoke with honesty;  3). talked about yourself.  Those elements keep connection during conflict, lead to being understood and promote emotional safety.  OK, now, suspend disbelief, take a deep breath, give it a shot, try any or all,  and see what happens.

Here are an examples of each:

1).  GIVING UP BEING RIGHT/WINNING

Your partner says something like this (I know you wouldn’t, right?):  “You NEVER do what I ask, even the smallest, simplest thing!  You ALWAYS ignore me!”  (Here’s a hint for you that will take the “u” out of clueless–NEVER and ALWAYS are not meant to be taken literally.  NEVER and ALWAYS  point out the intensity of the emotions or feelings accompanying the complaint–NEVER  and ALWAYS are qualitative, not quantitative. DO NOT take “never” and “always” literally.  Got it?  Excellent!)

HERE’S YOUR OLD, TIME TESTED AND HONORED, DEEPLY GROOVED PATTERN RESPONSE, BASED ON YOUR DESIRE TO BE RIGHT, SO YOU CAN WIN, SO THAT  YOUR SEX LIFE REMAINS DORMANT, IF NOT DEAD:

“Yes I do.  In fact on January 4, 2001 when you asked me to take the garbage out, I did it, and I didn’t even sulk.  And right now, I am, in fact, listening to you, or I would not have been able to remember when I took the garbage out.  So, I don’t know what your problem is.  By the way, why do you always say “always” and “never” when you know they’re never true?  I don’t get it”

No, YOU don’t get it, but that’s OK, because you’re only human, too. try the following alternative response.  Take a risk, stretch, give it a shot, see what happens.

HERE’S YOUR NEW, NOT TIME TESTED, NOT PART OF A DEEPLY GROOVED PATTERN, BUT BASED ON YOUR DESIRE TO UNDERSTAND AND CONNECT WITH YOUR PARTNER, SO THAT HE/SHE WILL BE MORE COMPASSIONATE WHEN PICKING OUT YOUR NURSING HOME, NEW RESPONSE:

“Wow, it sounds like you’re telling me maybe I’m not as reliable as I like to think I am, and, when you try to tell me about it, I really don’t want to hear it, so I shut you down with an air-tight counter-argument.  And now, you sound really irritated and hurt.”

That is what giving up being right and winning looks like when morphed into understanding looks like.

2). HONESTY
Honesty is the best policy. Well, at least that’s what we’re told.  Notice I didn’t say that’s what we’re taught.  That’s because, by and large, in this culture, we are not taught how to be honest, we’re simply told to be honest.   In fact, we are told to be honest, but are taught/shown how to be dishonest, an implicit double message.

Bullwash, you say.  Well, maybe, but here’s a test:  What was NOT talked about in your family of origin?  Did your parents/step-parents/caregivers talk openly about sensitive issues like sex, eroticism and love, and the connection between them?  Were emotions talked about?  Was it acceptable and safe to express your thoughts & feelings?

Was it safe to honestly tell family members what you thought and felt–in other words, was the price of honesty low enough to reinforce honest, effective communication when you were a kid, especially when there were differences?

Did mom and dad display their ability to listen and understand each other respectfully?

If you were the bearer of ‘bad news,’ such as a less than stellar report card, or you lobbed a baseball through a window, or you got a ticket, was it safe to come clean, even if a bit reluctantly?  Could you question parental authority (appropriately) without repercussion simply because you questioned?

That is a short list.  There are countless family of origin situations that either promote or discourage honesty.  If your answers lean more toward “no” than “yes,”  lies of omission may pepper your current relationship more than you are aware.  If so, there’s a good chance  your partner will not understand you.  Why? Because information withheld or omitted prevents understanding.

Here’s an example of a dishonest exchange, i.e., replete with omissions, followed by its honest counter-part:

Scenario–You really want to confront your partner.  He/she was drunk at a party the night before.  This is a recurring event.  You were embarrassed and humiliated, and today you feel hurt and angry, and now you’re worried that he/she may, indeed, be an alcoholic.  Bringing up a thorny topic has always been difficult for you–a part of you is afraid of conflict.  There was alcoholism in your family of origin.  Conflict was seldom managed effectively.

A DISHONEST EXCHANGE–looks like this:

YOU: “Did you have fun at the party last night–you seemed to have a good time?”

PARTNER: “I had a great time!  Did you?”

YOU:  “It was OK, not great.  Sometimes being around all that drinking gets kind of old.”

PARTNER:  “Hey, what’s the big deal, it’s a party, right? That’s what parties are about.”

YOU:  “I know, but still, it would be nice if it were different, that’s all I’m saying.”

(Nice and safe, didn’t scratch the surface, no understanding achieved.).

HONEST EXCHANGE– looks like this:

YOU:  “Honey, I want to talk with you about the party last night.  It was not fun for me.  In fact,
there were several times I felt terribly embarrassed and humiliated.  When I think back
on it today, I am very hurt, angry and scared.  I am afraid that there is alcoholism in our
house, just like when I was a kid. I don’t want to ignore it in our marriage like my
parents ignored it in theirs.  Please, can we talk about this and do something about it?

(Safe, non-reactive, but direct, clear, honest expression of feeling and experience).

PARTNER:  “Wow, this is really hard stuff to hear.  Part of me feels really defensive right now.
But another part of me knows there’s some truth in what you’re saying.  I really
don’t want to see myself as a drunk, but I know I really lose it sometimes.  I’m
sorry I did those things last night–I can see how you’d feel.  Do you honestly
think our marriage is like your parents’?

YOU:  “I don’t know, that’s the problem.  All I know is, I won’t live like they did.  I told myself
it would never happen to me, but I’m so scared that it’s happening anyway!”

PARTNER:  “I feel really weird saying this to you, but the truth is, I’ve secretly been worried
about my drinking for a while now.  I didn’t want to tell you that because I thought
you might kick me out.  I’ve been worried about that, too!”

YOU:  “I am SO relieved to hear to hear you say that!  I don’t want to kick you out, although,
there have been times when I’ve thought about it –maybe we ca find a way to kick the
the alcohol out.

The differences between the two scenarios above are numerous and hopefully, obvious.  It isn’t necessarily easy or comfortable having open, honest exchanges similar to the one above. But they work!  Developing the ability to have them is crucial to a long and happy relationship.  Remember, all the external communication tools and skills are ineffective unless you have the internal ability to risk being honest.   Sometimes that requires professional counseling.

3).TALK ABOUT YOURSELF

Being understood also requires you talk about yourself.  I am not referring to an egocentric or unhealthy narcissism.  Talking about yourself means not talking about your partner.  Quite simply, if you want to be understood,  talking about someone else makes no sense.  It’s impossible to be understood if you’re talking about your partner.

If you and your sibling each broke a leg in a car crash, which leg would you talk about if you wanted your experience to be understood?  Yours, of course.  It is virtually the same with you and your partner.  When you want your partner to understand you, chances are the more you talk about your partner the less you will be understood.  Here’s the deal:  TALK ABOUT YOURSELF.

Easier said than done, you’re right, and here is why:  Chances are, the model of conflict management you grew up with included watching and/or listening to parents talk about the other, rather than themselves.  Accusations, blaming, name-calling, making the other ‘wrong,’ are but a few of the ways partners/parents talk about the other.

If either parent was conflict averse, and could not be honest (a la the example above) there’s a good chance neither felt understood.  You may have carried a similar pattern into adulthood.

What does talking about yourself look like?  Let’s use the example above (HONESTY) for reference:

NOT TALKING ABOUT YOURSELF EXCHANGE– looks like this:

YOU: “Did you have fun at the party last night–you seemed to have a good time?”
(Instead of telling your partner about yourself, you focus on your partner).

PARTNER: “I had a great time!  Did you?”
(Doesn’t really understand what you are actually trying to say because you
are not saying it).

YOU:  “It was OK, not great.  Sometimes being around all that drinking gets kind of old.”
(This is vague and indirect, and does not convey your true experience).

PARTNER:  “Hey, what’s the big deal, it’s a party, right? That’s what parties are about.”
(Doesn’t tell you anything about his inner thoughts about his/her drinking).

YOU:  “I know, but still, it would be nice if it were different, that’s all I’m saying.”
(Omits any feelings or thoughts that reflect inner experience that would
facilitate being understood).

TALKING ABOUT YOURSELF EXCHANGE–looks like this:

YOU:  “Honey, I want to talk with you about the party last night.  It was not fun for me.  In fact,
there were several times I felt terribly embarrassed and humiliated.  When I think back
on it today, I am very hurt, angry and scared.  I am afraid that there is alcoholism in our
house, just like when I was a kid. I don’t want to ignore it in our marriage like my
parents ignored it in theirs.  Please, can we talk about this and do something about it?

(There is no blaming, accusing, name-calling, or talking about the partner.  Everything
that was said is clear, direct, honest, and about the person speaking).

PARTNER:  “Wow, this is really hard stuff to hear.  Part of me feels really defensive right now.
But another part of me knows I should be concerned too.  I really don’t want to see
myself as a drunk, but I know I really lose it sometimes.  I’m sorry I did those
things last night–I get how you’d feel.  Do you honestly think our marriage
is like your parents’?

(No defensiveness; clear, direct, honest expression and ownership of his/her own
thoughts, feelings and behavior.  These responses clearly tell the other partner
it is safe to have a talk about about a difficult topic–definitely talking about
self).

YOU:  “I don’t know, that’s the problem.  All I know is, I won’t live like they did.  I told myself
it would never happen to me, but I’m so scared that it’s happening anyway!”

(Again, talking only about self).

PARTNER:  “I feel really weird saying this to you, but the truth is, I’ve secretly been worried
about my drinking for a while now.  I didn’t want to tell you that because I thought
you might kick me out.  I’ve been worried about that, too!”

(Again, talking only about self).

YOU:  “I am SO relieved to hear to hear you say that!  I don’t want to kick you out,
although, there have been times when I’ve thought about it–maybe we can
find a way to kick the drinking out.

(Again, talking only about self).

Give these a shot, ask each other for support in attempting different ways of being honest.
Let go of being right and winning for a day–try it on.
Take a risk, if even for one short conversation, to be deeply honest (not to be confused with hostile, brutal honesty).

Talk about yourself, your own feelings and experiences, absent blaming, accusing and name-calling.

Being understood is your responsibility, not your partner’s. The more patience, effort and repetition you put toward giving up being right/winning, honesty and talking about yourself, the greater likelihood for healthy connection. Chances are, your next conflict may not end with the words “you just don’t understand.”

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2 Comments »

  1. Hi Jim, thanks for sharing another great newsletter!

    Comment by SUSAN BOWIE — September 23, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

  2. This is excellent, Jim. Thank you!

    Comment by Lisa Frederiksen — September 25, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

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