Our past experience affects how we communicate with our partners in a marriage. It also sets up an expectation which if our partners do no meet causes pain and conflict.
“So tell me a little bit about your relationship with your dad,” I said to Ramona. She looked angrily in my direction.
“Well, my dad was the most loving, caring person. I will do anything for him. I have a really fond memory of him – I was 16 years old at the time. I got a fake ID, so my two friends and I went to the liquor store on 61st Street. We bought a bottle of rum. I’m not sure why, but we did. We had a sleepover and we drank the rum in my backyard. That was how we got caught – my dad found the empty bottle and I had to confess about the fake ID. He was disappointed. I was a little afraid. We hadn’t talked for days. I avoided him and stayed out of his way, but my dad – he could not hold it back any longer. He decided to talk to me and told me how disappointed he was. It was something he never wanted to see me do again. Then he gave me $200 for shopping. I would never forget that. That was pretty much how my relationship was with my dad. He was so forgiving, so caring, and really understood my needs.”
“Okay, so will you tell me a little bit about your relationship with your husband Dave?” I asked Ramona.
“When Dave and I fight, it turns out to be long, drawn out affairs. We argue. I admit I stand my ground in most situations. Dave’s not much of a talker, so sometimes we don’t talk for days after a fight. We didn’t speak to each other for over two weeks after out last fight. We were just silent and went about our day.”
“Who initiates the conversation? How do you get back talking again?”
“Oh, I don’t really remember. Dave may say something, but I also think sometimes it could be me. You see, I feel Dave doesn’t get what I mean. I don’t get why we fight for so long. We’ve been married for three years. It seems we can’t get this part quite right. We’re stuck in a rut.”
While Ramona relayed the story, it all clicked into place for me. Ramona’s way of dealing with conflict, in this particular case, was driven by a relationship with her father. It is her survival strategy. It’s what she does to handle conflict. She withdraws and expects her partner to initiate contact and make up for it. Her husband is not her dad. He has his own survival strategy.
Ramona can’t understand why her husband can’t see things her way, meet her needs, and initiate a conversation with her. All through her life, this has been her expectation. It’s not hard to see how experiences of our past shape how we talk and interact with others in the present. It’s easy to spot this in Ramona’s case.
But seeing your own survival strategy may be a little bit hard, as Ramona came to understand through our session. The idea is for this couple to create a new way to handle conflict. It’s easier said than done. After 32 years of handling conflict in a specific way, the idea was to get the couple on a new path.
The following steps might help you like they helped Ramona and Dave, so if you feel like Ramona did, then this might be the best way to rebuild how you communicate with your partner:
- Lay down your weapons. The weapons in Ramona and Dave’s case were withdrawal and waiting for the partner to initiate contact. There are many emotional feelings associated with this: hurt, feeling misunderstood, feeling like you’re being taken for granted, etc. The first step is to understand you will feel this way, but you need to realize that this is not the right way for you to handle the challenge. Lay down these weapons and any others in your arsenal.
- Find a common way to initiate a conversation. In Ramona’s case, they may both agree to a timeout. It might be thirty minutes, an hour, or maybe later in the day. A timeout needs to be short, no more than a day. After that timeout, they decide where to talk and which of them will speak first. If they find it difficult to talk, I will ask the couple to hold hands and look in each other’s eyes without using words.
Each situation is different and may need a different set of tools. Take a moment to reflect on your situation. Think about what blocks you from having a conversation when you feel good and when you get into an argument with your partner. From there, take calm steps and try to consider the other person. You’ll find your way towards a better relationship and better habits.