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“Would the white elephant please stand up”


If I’ve learned one thing from this journey, it is that I am not  great communicator.  I like to talk, that is true, but I do not communicate well.  I am intensely sensitive, and I think I often recoil from saying what I really feel, or expressing what I need if I think it is going to upset another person, make them think less of me, or question their affiliation with me.  I guess I just have a lot of open wounds about having relationships be conditional upon me being perfect, doing and saying the right things.  Thanks mom for that crutch.

My husband and I are very sensitive people.  We listen, we care, we want to help.  We genuinely enjoy talking about our feelings.  We just don’t do it well with each other in a marital context.  We have great intentions, but we need tools.

What we have come to learn from marital therapy is that there is a way to communicate, and while it is so simple, it eluded us for the longest time, and is something that doesn’t come easily.  Even though I know the formula now, I still revert back to those old patterns that get me and us stuck.

My a-ha moment in therapy happened many months ago.  We were discussing how I hadn’t mentioned my feelings of sadness that week to my husband, and had chosen instead to keep them to myself.   They festered, they grew, and I found myself feeling excessively sad.  As the days went by, my sadness grew, turned into despair and on some days, turned into a desire to end my life.  When our therapist asked me why I chose not to talk about the pain of my week, I mentioned that I felt as though all I was ever talking about lately was how depressed I am, how sad I feel, how lonely I am, how fragile I feel….”what a downer I am”, I thought.

When you are wounded from your spouse having turned to another, your self esteem plummets.  Suddenly, you want to show him that you are the best thing in the world, and hope that he realizes his error in judgment.  Determined to show myself in the best light possible, I didn’t want to constantly be a mess of despair and tears.  I didn’t want him to associate me with pathos.  I felt pathetic, but I didn’t want him to think I was pathetic, so I chose to keep my pathetic feelings to myself.

Our therapist has taught us that seeking and offering clarification is key to communicating.  Getting your point across and knowing that you have been heard, and your message interpreted as intended are important.  To this end, he often has us turn our chairs toward each other and ask one another for clarification, or seek information to help us better understand the other.  If we find ourselves taking action or building a case based on assumptions, we are to ask the other person to clarify so that we don’t have a misunderstanding.

Being in therapy is like having a marital referee for an hour; someone who analyzes and evaluates what you say, how you say it, and the subtle undertones that underlie communication, in order to help you navigate a conversation at a deeper level.

So, back to the therapy a-ha moment…as the therapist asks me why I haven’t been sharing my feelings.  “I don’t want to be pathetic.  I feel like a loser and it is ALL I ever talk about anymore”.  Some more probing questions revealed that I had been withholding because I didn’t want him to see me in a pathetic light.  To see me as anything less than perfect makes me vulnerable to him leaving me (remember that relationships are conditional in my upbringing), so I didn’t want to always be projecting negative feelings and being a downer.  He had us turn our chairs together, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: “He is going to think I am pathetic”
Therapist: “You think he will see you as pathetic if you share your feelings of sadness?
Me: “Yes”
Therapist: “Have you asked him whether this is the case?
Me: “No”
(We turn our chairs to face each other)
Therapist: “Perhaps you can share with him why you haven’t been sharing”
Me: “I am afraid that if I continuously share sad thoughts, look sad, act sad, talk about the affair, ask questions, cry, etc., that you are going to think I am needy and pathetic and I worry that you won’t find me attractive”
Spouse: “I would never think you are needy for expressing your sadness.  It is understandable that you are sad.  I’ve done a horrible thing to you, and I expect you to be sad and to talk about it.  I don’t want you to hold things back from me”
Me: “But it is all I ever talk about, and I am afraid it comes across as needy and pathetic”
Spouse: “Of course you think about it all the time.  So do I. This is a hard time for both of us, but I would rather you share your feelings, good and bad, rather than keep them to yourself. I want to hear your feelings, and I want to help.  I don’t find you needy, nor would I.  I am prepared to listen to whatever you have to say for as long as you need to talk about it. I did this to us, and this is my cross to bear too.  I will do whatever it takes to make this better”
Me: “So  you don’t find it pathetic and unattractive?”
Spouse: “No, I don’t.  I find it understandable”

That conversation was an a-ha moment for me because I realized that a lot of what *I* do is make assumptions about what I think others will think or feel.  I then change my behaviour to suit my paradigm, and much to my surprise, I guess I am not often right.  Shocker!  At key moments when I feel myself pull away, recoil, distance myself emotionally, it is because I have a fear.  A fear of what the other will think, do, feel about me.  So the trick, as I have learned it, is to call out the white elephant in the room, and label it for all to see.

It would look something like this:

“I have some feelings that I would like to be able to talk to you about, but I am scared to share them with you because I fear that you will find me needy and unattractive for continuously harping on my sadness, so I am finding myself pulling away”

As you can see, the above follows the pattern:

a) what I need
b) what I am scared of / what is holding me back
c) what that fear is doing

Putting your fear right out in the open, allows the other person access to it, and an opportunity to address it and alleviate it.  Telling him that I was fearful of his evaluation of me and what it was causing me to do (withdraw), allowed him an opportunity to educate me on how HE feels and how my actions are TRULY interpreted by him.  Only when you call out that white elephant, and ask it to stand up, can you truly find out how someone else is interpreting you.

We make a lot of assumptions.  I know that I do.  My assumptions are probably wrong most of the time, and yet I allow them to navigate my decisions.  I am trying not to do this, but it is so hard.

This, of course, works in all relationships, and is something that I want to practice more with my friends also, to avoid those disagreements that come from silly misunderstandings.

Therapy has truly been a gift in so many ways.  I find myself excited for Fridays when my husband and I have a chance to reset our batteries, recharge our emotional connection and spend an hour focussing solely on us.  Oh, and leaving that office feeling extra connected, emotionally cared for and heard does something for my libido.  Good thing therapy is on Friday and I have the entire weekend to express my appreciation 🙂

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Comments

  1. As I was mid way through this post, my husband popped onto my IM screen. I’d been waiting to connect with him today. He asked how I was doing and it’s so easy to hide your feelings when IMing. Having just read how you would do the same so as not to feel pathetic (guilty of that reason myself), I was honest and told him I was struggling. We then discussed what was bothering me the most at the moment and I feel much better. It might be hard to bring stuff up but it is so worth it in the long run.

    The conversation you and your husband had is very similar to one we have shared. It was nice to hear your husband say the same things my husband has said. Makes me feel that perhaps I don’t seem pathetic and needy to my husband after all.

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