In my previous newsletter, I talked about creating intimate moments for couples, what Susan Johnson calls “softening.” Gemma Utting, commenting on my newsletter, reported difficulty creating such softening when people have resentments they need to express but their partners can’t stand listening to them.
Gemma gives the example of Barry, who had been depressed for four years and had been angry, distant, and at times frighteningly rude toward his wife Karen, who had done her best to take care of him. Karen is fed up and needs him to hear how she is still smarting. But Barry, who is on great meds and feels much better, sees talking about the past as painful and unnecessary.
In therapy, Gemma made efforts to help Karen talk to Barry in a compassionate way, but Karen would answer, “[That won’t work.] I tried everything. Barry is just not interested in hearing how I feel.” Gemma also tried to express for Barry what she thought Karen needed to hear, to which Karen replied, “But that’s you saying it. Barry doesn’t care.” “And indeed,” Gemma wrote, “Barry is stuck in defensive mode because (of course) Karen had a whole heap of things she is feeling in so much pain about.”
Gemma asked, “How do I get one partner to take the lead [in creating an intimate exchange]?”
Here are things I’d try—some of which are variations on techniques Gemma already used. I would try to expose the buried vulnerable feelings. My goal would be to reveal the conversation hidden in the fight or to construct the conversation the partners might have had were it not hijacked by the fight.
I’d start by making an admission for Barry that I hope would give him relief and shift him out of his defensive mode and into a vulnerable one while giving Karen something better to respond to. I’d make a guess based on what Barry said previously in the therapy and what I think anyone might feel in his situation. Speaking as if I were Barry talking to Karen—doubling for him—I’d say one or more of the following:
- “Karen, I know it doesn’t help when I try to convince you to focus on the future, but I wish you could. I feel so ashamed about what I put you through that I can’t stand thinking about it, much less talking about it.”
- “When we talk about what I put you through, I feel too much like a bad husband and a rotten person.”
- “I don’t want to think about those awful years because I’m scared about slipping back into them.”
- “I put you through a lot so I should be accepting of your anger, but I’m having trouble dealing with its intensity.”
- “I worry that I’ve lost you. My only hope is to get you somehow to stop thinking about those years.’”
I’d be trying to make understandable Barry’s wish to avoid talking about the past. I’d end my statement with, “Barry, where am I right and where am I wrong in my speculation about what you feel?”
I’d hope that Barry would put his own stamp on my comment by modifying it, elaborating on it, or offering an alternative. I’d be saying, in essence, “Here’s a soft-underbelly feeling that you might have. If my guess is wrong, is there another feeling of the same general sort that you are having?” I’m using an example to suggest a genre of responses—the genre of soft underbelly feelings.
In my statement for Barry, I’m having him admit that his reluctance to talk about the past arises out of feelings of shame or fear and is not, as he had originally claimed, simply the sensible thing to do because you can’t change the past. Karen might respond positively to such an admission—although it is easy to imagine her repeating what she had told Gemma earlier: “But that’s just you [the therapist] saying it. Barry doesn’t care.” Barry is likely then to say, “Oh, but that is what I feel.” And Karen is likely to respond by looking at him with disbelief.
At that point, I might make:
- The how-much, how-much intervention. I’d ask “Okay Karen, how much are you saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, tell the truth, Barry, that’s not what you really feel’ and how much are you saying? ‘What worries me the most is that you don’t really care about me.’” This question allows me to tease apart Karen’s angry reaction and her underlying vulnerable feelings. I’m inviting her to elaborate on these feelings while leaving her room, if she prefers, to reassert her angry reaction.
- The too-good-to-believe intervention. I’d ask, “Okay Karen, are you telling Barry—‘Barry, it’s too good to believe that what the therapist just said for you is what you really feel.’”
- The fraction-of-a-second intervention. Speaking for Karen, I’d say, “Barry, for a fraction of a second I thought maybe what the therapist just said about your feelings is true. But then I said to myself, ‘Nah! I don’t want to get my hopes up just to be disappointed.’ Though it would be wonderful if I were wrong.”
I’d end my statement with, “Karen, where am I right and where am I wrong in my speculation about what you might be feeling?”
In my effort to turn Karen and Barry’s exchange into more of an intimate conversation, I’d go back and forth in this manner, guessing at the thoughts and feelings that they, like all partners in a fight, generally keep to themselves and may not even realize they have.
In addition to making Barry’s reluctance to talk about the past more understandable, I’d try to make more understandable Karen’s wish to do so. Speaking for Karen, I’d say one or more of the following:
- “Barry, you were struggling with your demons so I can’t entirely blame you for all you did over those difficult years, but I’m having a lot of trouble getting over it. I guess that’s not news to you.”
- “I wish there were a way you could feel at least a little of what I experienced so you could understand what I went through—although maybe I need also to appreciate more all you went through.” (I’d be showing Karen acknowledging Barry’s point of view while presenting her own).
- “Over those four years something feels like it broke in me. I keep hoping that if you could appreciate what I had to deal with, that would fix it. But I worry sometimes that even that might not do it.”
One way to introduce vulnerable feelings without being Pollyannaish is to put them on a list that includes angry feelings. “Karen, what is the main thing that you’d want to say to Barry? Here, I’ll make it a multiple-choice question. Is it, A, ‘Barry, you don’t have a clue what I went through and you don’t seem to care,’ or, B, ‘I wish I didn’t feel as angry as I do” or, C, ‘I know I seem angry, but mostly I just feel hurt,’ or, D, none of these and something else entirely.
At some point I’d describe the negative cycle Karen and Barry are in. Speaking for Karen, I might say, “Barry, we’re caught in this horrible vicious circle and I’m not sure how we’re going to get out of it. I get angry when you get defensive and you get defensive when I get angry.” In so saying, I’d be creating a platform—a compassionate perspective above the fray—from which Karen and Barry could commiserate about their predicament.
I might provide more details to this compassionate perspective by dramatizing each partner’s experience. “There you were, Karen, struggling with this depressed man, doing all this one-sided giving, feeling alone, running on empty, feeling at times like a punching bag. It was an intolerable situation that kept going on and on and on—a four-year continuing trauma. Still, it might have been tolerable if, when Barry came out of it, he seemed truly remorseful about what he put you through and the angry things he said to you. Instead, he seems to want to go on almost as if nothing had happened—leaving you lonely, sad, and angry.”
“And Barry, you wish Karen would understand the blackness of the depression—how it threw you into survival mode in which it was impossible to focus on anything but yourself. You hope Karen can forgive you for that, as well as for the things you said and did out of your misery. But now you’ve got a new lease on life. And you’re trying to avoid looking back—because it was so horrible, because you fear sinking back into it, because you feel such shame about its effects on Karen, because it makes you feel like a bad person, or because talking about it seems to upset Karen even more. But your efforts to avoid looking back totally alienate Karen—this one person in the world most important to you. You can worry whether she’ll ever forgive you.”
I’d hope this description of their situations would create some compassion.
If I can’t spark an intimate conversation between Karen and Barry, I might hold such a conversation for them. “Okay Barry, in this ideal conversation I’m making up, I’d start by having you say, “Karen, I wish you’d see that talking about the past has just made matters worse.” And then, Karen, you’d say, “Well okay, you’re right. That’s what’s happened so far. But we need to find a way to talk about it because otherwise I’m just left feeling you don’t really care about what I went through and, to me, that translates into you don’t care about me.” And then, Barry, you’d say, “When you say that, I want to find a way for us to talk about it. For God’s sake, you were there for me when I desperately needed help. It’s just so painful to go back. I’m horrified remembering some of the things I did and said to you. And then, Karen, you’d say, with an encouraging smile to Barry, “I think you’re beginning to get it.”
I’d end by saying to both of them, “I’m getting a little carried away with my speculations, so I’d better stop here. But what did it feel like hearing me playact this?
I’d be showing Karen and Barry what they might say were they having a conversation rather than a fight. It’s hard for partners to have a conversation when discussing hot topics. But we can do it for them.
In summary, in an attempt to create an intimate moment for a couple caught in gridlock, I try to make understandable each partner’s point of view and bring out the hidden vulnerable feelings. I do so, among other ways, by:
- Translating their attacking and defensive comments into confiding ones
- Crystallizing what they are trying to say
- Directing their attention to the genre of soft-underbelly feelings
- Making admissions for them
- Demonstrating how they might acknowledge their partner’s points of view
- Using the how-much, how-much, too-good-to-believe, fraction-of-a-second, and multiple-choice interventions
- Describing the vicious cycle they are caught in
- Painting a compassionate picture of each partner’s position
- Modeling the ideal conversation they could have.
These are things I would want to try and I’d hope that something in them would make an impression on the couple.
I sent the above to Gemma and she wrote back, “As I imagine the wonderful variety of suggestions you offered, I think each one would have been very helpful. The prize, however, goes to modeling the idealized conversation. I am under the impression that many couples have not had healthy give and take conversations modeled,” she wrote. “TV couples aren’t helpful and most of my couples—even if they come from intact families of origin—do not remember how their parents communicated as being worthy of imitation.”
“To me, Dan, the art and grace of your work most specifically dwells in your ability to model each client’s ‘better self’—the one we all wish we could summon in the face of our hot buttons and pain.”