John & Julie Gottman start their book “Eight Dates’ with:
‘Every great love story is a never-ending conversation. From the first tentative questions we ask as we get to know one another, to the nail-biting discussions of trust and commitment, to the most profound heart-to-heart explorations of our love, pain, and our dreams, it is the quality of our questions and our answers that allow us to continue learning and growing with one another through the years.
And when conflict comes, as it inevitably does when we weave two lives together, it is our commitment to being curious (rather than correct) that allows us to turn towards, instead of away, from one another…’
He goes on: ‘Whether you and your partner are talkative or quiet, the words that pass between you, as well as the expressions and gestures that accompany those words, will define and determine your relationship.’
There are so many life events, problems, and difficulties, that can bring a couple into relationship counselling. Some are struggling to find a resolution to what feels like an irreconcilable difference of opinion. Others are struggling to find a way to repair a rupture and deep hurt. Others feel distressed and confused that their previous closeness has been replaced by distance and disconnection.
They can feel stuck facing what seems an intractable obstacle in the way of future happiness.
So often the work is not about finding an individual solution to a particular issue, but more about the couple re-establishing a trust in themselves and one another. They find they can safely shed the brittle ‘You v Me’ stance they’ve adopted and pivot – ‘turning towards’ one another with love and confidence – and once more become ‘We’ with the interests of ‘the team’ as important as individual self-fulfilment.
There is a shift from an individual fragile lonely isolated position back into a flexible couple mode. There has been a reframe which can allow for a reassuring re-alignment and re-connection. As it becomes ‘Us v. the problem’ the couple regains their resilience and their capacity to deal with life together.
However well we feel we know one another, there are often personal traits and tendencies that remain a mystery, thought processes that seem impenetrable, reactions that take us aback. We need to step carefully to feel our way into the mind of another and, if we can find the words, language can give us access into the inner life of our partner. And, although relationship counselling is understood to be a talking therapy, I would put a heavy emphasis on the often underrated power of it being a listening therapy too.
In her new book ‘Listen’ Kathryn Mannix describes the skills involved in a conversation are like the movements of a dance: stepping, turning, pausing, changing direction, keeping in time… Sometimes leading, sometimes leaning in or following. It takes practice to keep balance, step gracefully, and not tread on each others toes.
So often partners each seem to have chosen the dance with no negotiation with the other. One is doing the Charleston while the other thought it was the waltz. They are out of tune and out of step and furious with the other for it all going wrong.
There needs to be a pause, both need to take a breath, and both need to step into the space and start again on the same footing.
I think there is a universal human longing to be seen, to be heard, to be listened to, to be paid attention, to be cared for, to matter – and couple counselling requires a couple to make a commitment to the idea of ‘active listening’ and ‘listening to understand’. It involves developing the art of ‘listening deeply’ and practicing the skills of ‘reflective listening’.
Elaine Fox, in her book ‘Switchcraft’, says that, in relationships, ‘Most of our tried and tested tactics, learned over our lifetimes, work well but there are times when we are faced with a challenge, something new, and we have to react’.
Although it can be uncomfortable, we need to let go of the assumption we know what is needed, and take a pause to find out. We need to listen.
Using the golfing metaphor from ‘Switchcraft’, we need to pause, take advice, peruse the terrain, before we choose the right golf club to make the right shot.
With a different life history, a different set of life experiences, and a different family of origin from us, our partners will always carry certain differences in outlook and perspective. And despite occasionally feeling we would prefer it if things could just stay the same and we could maintain a sense of calm security, the boat gets rocked. People, along with relationships, are fluid and dynamic, and are constantly morphing and transforming – causing turbulence. We have to make efforts to avoid complacency and be alert and sensitive to change. If we neglect to pay attention, a couple can quickly feel disconnected and out of sync.
It was psychologist Carl Rogers who said, ‘People are a continually changing constellation of potentialities, not a fixed quantity of traits’.
Despite sharing many reassuring similar interests, outlooks and values, partners can surprise us with previously unrevealed hidden depths, or an unexpected change of mind, and we can, at times, feel we do not know them at all. And, equally disturbingly, we can feel they have not kept up and do not know us well either. We need to catch that moment to check out what is happening and not assume that we know or that our way is the right way.
Whenever there is a conflict or disruption in a relationship we need the image of an iceberg to immediately leap to mind. There is a beautiful blue glistening chunk of ice gliding by, but do we know the complexity and shape of the 90% under the water?
And can we make the effort to find out? To dig deeper, be curious, enquire, and listen. Can we encourage each other to go below the surface? Can we make it manifest that we want to know even if it might be triggering a difficult defensive reaction in us. While it may require a hefty dose of persistence, can we manage to stick with it, manage our reactions, not interrupt, but listen to understand. It does not require us to agree – but we do need to empathise and understand.
Do we have the generosity, the care, the flexibility of mind, to step outside of our mindset and sit with the thoughts and feelings of the other? We may struggle but we can be explicit about our intent and make it manifest that we want to know and that we are listening.