How about something to really make an impact this Valentine’s Day

13 February 2019

Valentine’s Day Painted Paper HeartAre you looking for a special gift to give to that special person on Valentine’s Day? How about a commitment to improving your relationship?

As a Divorce Mediator, every day I work with couples that are at the beginning of their divorce. Obviously, a little too late for them to work on improving their love life. In fact, they’re journeying through one of the most challenging events in their lives. But after helping hundreds of couples navigate separation, even though I am not a marriage counsellor, I’ve started to see the patterns that lead to this unfortunate conclusion.

Communication is Key

So how do you protect your relationship from becoming just another divorce statistic? Start by working on your communication with each other. It’s the number one reason people tell me they are separating. Are you surprised? It’s not money, the kids, the stress of the job, or the in-laws or even the affair. It’s that we can’t talk about the real issues and that creates tension and conflict in our relationship.

The word communication is used a lot, but do we really know what it actually means? Many people tell me they talk a lot and yet they don’t feel their partner heard them. Communication is defined as: “the exchange of ideas, thoughts, information and feelings,” that first part we all seem to get. It’s the second part of communication that is often missing in relationships: to generate a mutual understanding.

So what does that mean?

Simply put, it’s not enough to share information. You have to be able to acknowledge the other person’s perspective so that together you can come to a place of mutual understanding (notice how I don’t say agree). I don’t think healthy communication is about always agreeing or solving a situation or problem.

We can disagree but still understand and accept one another’s point of view.

So how do we do this?

To understand the dynamic at play here you need to know there are several competing factors: you, the dynamic between you and your partner and the social context of the situation. That’s a lot to think about when trying to understand why we argued after the company party.

The ‘You’ part of the equation means your background, your personality, your ‘baggage’ so to speak. Depending on how communication was modelled in your home, your childhood experiences and your personality, each of these variables play a role in how you are wired and how you deal with difficult situations. This is also where your values come into play. We learn from a very young age to hide our fears, our insecurities (did you find your adolescent years a safe place to Valentine's Day express feelings like: “hey I felt a lot of pressure from you or I felt singled out when you laughed at my outfit”). Chances are you didn’t, or you would have been faced with ridicule from your peer group. So we hide and bury this truth deep inside.

Then there’s the dynamic between two people, or the roles or sometimes rules you’ve set up (and usually without much discussion around them. With most relationships comes expectations, social norms of who does what and the interaction between partners. “You should do this”, or” I have this responsibility.” 

And finally, we can’t overlook the external factors. These social, most times uncontrollable factors might be extended family dynamics, our roles at work, or the social situation we find ourselves in.

So let’s look at John and Martha. John is a sales executive with a pharmaceutical company. Martha works part-time. They have three children. Every year they attend a sales conference, and there is a big gala night to end the conference. The drive home is very, very quiet until John asks Martha what’s wrong. It might sound something like this:

John: Are you going to ignore me all the way home? Martha: Nothing. It’s fine. John: That’s just great, we are now going to have a week of the silent treatment. I don’t know what you want from me? Martha: What I want from you? You wouldn’t even begin to know based on how you treat me sometimes. Last night, I might as well have stayed home for all the time you spent with me. You were too busy talking to all the reps to even notice I was there. John: You know I have to go to this event. It’s part of my job to connect with sales reps. You think I like having to work the room like that! You never support my career! Martha: Well, you never make US a priority. I feel like the job is your mistress! John: Well, someone has to pay for our lifestyle. How else are we supposed to pay for the house and trips!

Layer, upon layer, upon layer gets built up along with the hurt and the anger. And after years and years of this same argument, John and Martha are really struggling. Eventually, they may separate.

So how do the three variables play out in this situation? In the heat of the argument, what are John and Martha really afraid of? I call this looking behind the curtain. 

Martha never really learned to communicate well. Her family was very quiet and her parents didn’t talk much about the issues. Martha’s first husband had an affair. So Martha’s big fear is that she is not important to John, that he too will have an affair and leave her. The evening was a familiar trigger for her and brought up all the fears around this.

John’s story is very different. His father died when he was very young. He watched his mother struggle financially. They never had enough money. He is very driven and wants to provide for his family. He is afraid this might happen to him. 

Because John and Martha are not aware of these underlying dynamics at play, they argue. Ever notice how when you are really upset, you spend a lot of energy trying to convince others that you are right (and that they are wrong)? When people argue, they create sophisticated points and reasons to justify their position. Have you ever rehearsed your speech in private, what you would say or argue?

The truth is, there are 2 truths, his and hers. And the moment they can acknowledge that, that’s when the magic happens.

So how do you do that?

First, ask why (of yourself) – why I am feeling this way? And keep asking until nothing’s left.

If Martha peels away the layers, she might discover: Why I am mad at you? “Is it because you didn’t pay attention to me.” Why does that bother me? “Because you are supposed to be by my side.” Why? “Because I am shy and don’t like these events and I feel insecure because my first husband cheated on me and now I’m afraid you will too.” Bingo there is a nugget! If John had peeled away at the issue, it might be about: Why do I feel the need to be pushed so hard at the gala? “I don’t want my numbers to drop, I need to be a high achiever.” What I am afraid of? “That management won’t keep me.” Why does that scare me? Because I won’t be able to provide for my family. I don’t want my family to struggle the way my mom did. Nugget! 

Then learn to express your why– Instead of projecting and trying to defend your story, own your stuff. In other words, if Martha had said: “Hey John, I know I am being quiet right now. Just struggling with my insecurities around what happened tonight. I felt alone at the party like somehow I didn’t matter to you. So I am working through that right now.” And if John had communicated why: “I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure lately with all the changes at work. That might feel like I don’t have time for you. I guess with all the downsizing going on, I am concerned I might be next.”

So you see, by acknowledging the fear of their truth, they can both be right. That’s where the magic happens. Martha knows her history is the lens through which she sees the world and so does John. It’s not about denying it but using it as a key to understanding where each person is coming from. And if BOTH parties can do this - seek to understand yourself, communicate that to your partner and then seek to understand the other person = communication and openness that is so often missing in relationships. Let’s reframe that initial conversation in the car.

Martha: “I appreciate how hard you work for our family and how exhausting that conference must be. I know you have so many competing responsibilities. At that gala, I really felt quite alone and like a tag along. I know my baggage from before was playing out here and my insecurity around my importance in your life. I let my negative talk get the best of me, so that’s why I was quiet in the car. And, I am not at my best when I have to manage these events without you right there.” John: “I know it’s so hard to have to come to this event. I can’t imagine trying to start conversations with people you hardly know. I know that’s not your style and that I left you on your own for a long time. And, I appreciate you being there for me. I’m feeling a lot of pressure these days, maybe I am overcompensating given the layoffs.”

Now maybe John and Martha can talk about next year or next time this issue comes up (you don’t spend enough time with me, I need to work a lot to give us security). That’s the nugget here. Perhaps then they can discuss ways in which both can have their needs met.

Being aware of all the dynamics at play, asking the difficult question of ‘why I feel this way’ and then seeking to understand your partner are all key components of a healthy communication style. It means getting real and raw. Flowers and candy might be easier, but ask anyone who is in a fulfilling relationship, and they will tell you it’s worth the work. Make this Valentine’s Day extra special.