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It was a typical encounter in counseling, the kind I’ve seen and experienced personally thousands of times.
“I don’t like the way he talks to me,” Kristine said, nodding toward her husband.
“And I don’t like the way you talk to me,” Ted countered.
“I’m not usually the one to start things,” Kristine said.
“I sure wouldn’t say that,” Ted responded.
“But when I tell you something that is bothering me, I do it with respect and calmness,” she continued. “You always have a bite in your voice. I’m not sure you even notice how you talk to me or the kids for that matter.”
As I listened to Kristine and Ted talk about their marriage of fifteen years, and specifically how they experienced each other, I became more aware that neither of them shared any feelings. Neither did they stop long enough to attempt acknowledging how their mate was feeling.
Imagine the scene again, but this time with each person saving room for feelings—their own and those of their mate. Imagine each person creating a space within themselves for their feelings and a space for their mate’s feelings. They remind themselves they don’t have to react to anything. They can remain calm, pulling themselves away from the conversation if they cannot remain balanced within.
Kristine begins, aware that she has been feeling hurt by her husband’s shortness with her. However, she has waited until she feels calm inside, careful not to come across in an accusatory manner.
“I don’t like the way you talk to me at times, Ted,” she begins. “When you come in at night after work you often speak harshly to me. That hurts my feelings.”
This time, after slowing down the process, he considers what she is saying. While feeling initially defensive, he tells himself that she can feel whatever way she feels and that is not necessarily a statement about him. Remaining calm, he can more fully attend to her.
“I hear you saying that I often hurt your feelings. I do think I talk harshly to you at times, and don’t stop long to imagine the impact of my words on you. Hearing that hurts my feelings as well and makes me feel sad. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“But you do, Ted,” she continues. “You seem angry when you come home, and very impatient. I walk on eggshells around you and don’t want to do that. I want to come close to you, not pull away from you.”
“I don’t really like hearing you tell me this Kristine,” Ted says, struggling within himself not to react. “But, I want to make room in our conversation for your feelings. Can I share mine with you?”
“Certainly,” she says, reminding herself to stay calm and listen. She didn’t have to accept everything Ted said, but she could listen—and listening feels good to everyone!
“I often feel taken for granted and unimportant,” he said. “I’d like to be greeted when I walk in the door and that doesn’t often happen. I feel ignored and then I start to feel anger.”
“That can’t feel very good,” Kristine said sympathetically, reminding herself what Ted feels isn’t always about her, but sometimes about him. She paused, letting Ted’s words sink in. She imagined the scene where he would come in at night, often very tired from his work. She imagined not greeting him and how their home was often in disarray because of their three children.
“I would like you to feel better when you come home at night,” she said sympathetically. “What can I do to help you?”
“I appreciate you asking,” he says. “Mostly you can greet me and let me know you’re happy to see me.”
“I can do that,” Kristine said, smiling. “That’s not asking too much.”
Let’s review what is happening with Kristine and Ted, and how we can learn much from their two very different interactions.
First, attempt to create a space for your and your mate’s feelings. Imagine creating a buffer zone between you and your mate where feelings can safely land. Remind yourself to breathe, relax and not take anything your mate says personally—even if they don’t say things perfectly and have a bit of a sting to them. You can acknowledge a hitch inside without reacting.
Second, remind yourself that everything your mate says is not necessarily about you, or if said about you, isn’t necessarily true. If they tell you that you hurt their feelings, for example, it may well be true that their feelings are hurt because of a combination of factors, including their own perceptions and history.
Third, acknowledge hearing them, including their feelings. Lean in, actively listening and taking responsibility where and when appropriate. Simply listening to your mate will go a long ways at calming down their agitated feelings. Validating their pain and your part in it will help to calm them.
Fourth, tune in to your own feelings, acknowledging when you need to step back because of defensive feelings. It’s okay to say, “I have to step back for a few minutes. I’m feeling defensive and can’t listen to you the way I want. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” You then take a little time to calm yourself down, reminding yourself not to take comments personally.
Finally, make an agreement with your mate that you will both practice remaining calm, listening attentively to each other’s feelings. With this agreement you can be assured that you are going to be heard at some point. Perhaps you won’t be heard initially, and must attend to your mate. But, if you do this effectively, they will want, and be able to, attend to you.
Rather than having “ping pong” conversations where you react to your mate and they react to you, cling to the Scriptural direction of being “slow to speak and slow to anger,” (James 1:19) which allows you to truly listen, paying attention to your feelings and those of your mate.
I would like to hear from you. What do you about making a space for your feelings in your conversations with your mate? What have you found helpful in connecting to your mate?
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