“We’ve been competing with each other, Dr. Bonnie...., we behaved like mortal enemies.....”
In my head I’m singing the Hallelujah Chorus while flipping cartwheels and doing a little happy dance.
“Tell me more about that...” I say with only the slightest hint of enthusiasm. My couple has been stuck for months and months. They are on the edge of discovering a key insight that will help them to a massive shift. They are beginning to find their way out of a power struggle that keeps their relationship stuck. I won’t jinx it by wanting this breakthrough for them more than they do.
A fundamental error that couples make is viewing each other as the enemy. They compete for who does more work, who’s right, and who’s more maligned by the other. This is a classic objectivity battle. They get caught up trying to prove who’s right and what is objectively true. Maybe one person is more right factually. In truth, that doesn’t matter. (Exceptions are when there is abuse going on, not in most couples.)
What matters is that the way they speak to each other will never get them the connection they crave.
While the objectivity battle is completely understandable, it is painfully ineffective. Understandable because partners are hurting and disconnected. They desperately want to be heard and understood by the other. But the only way to get the empathy they want is to break this pattern of competing with each other.
Does this sound like you? You might assume this is the way couples communicate. Well, no. Start by looking at your communication pattern. Does your spouse feel like a sparring partner? Do you feel exhausted by the same old fight? There is a simple (not easy) strategy that couples can employ to step out of the objectivity battle.
TAKE TURNS. One person speaks, the other person listens. When Partner A speaks, Partner B agrees to put aside his own needs and focus on Partner A’s needs. All the emotional resources in the system go toward Partner A’s need to be heard and validated. Full stop.
Then it is Partner B’s turn.
This is the Speaker-Listener Technique. Good conversations have a speaker and a listener. If you need some assistance with this, get some help. Any type of couple’s counseling has some version of this simple, elegant strategy. Ask your therapist for it.
If your conversations are not energizing and connecting you to your partner, try this. Take the role of the Listener first. When your partner speaks, just listen. Try to understand. Paraphrase and check to see if you are getting it. Don’t defend, argue, rebut, or retaliate. Just stop, listen, and take it in. This is the person you love. You don’t need to fight.