Sometimes couples come to me telling me they have a communication problem. But what does that mean? It’s not that simple because if it were they could fix it themselves by taking a few simple steps, like listening more or talking calmly. Often they mean that their partner does not respond to them in the way they would like, or that really their unmet needs from childhood are still unmet!
We all know the story, boy meets girl, girl meets boy, they fall hopelessly and helplessly in love….only catch is these days they don’t seem to live so happily ever after. We long for the blissful in loveness to last, the magnificent out of this world symbiosis that we feel when we find our King or Queen, crown them with light and invest them with magic powers. How sad and filled with rage we can become when our illusions prove false. We spit the dummy, throw tantrums, we rebel, we act out, we fight and we flee, and still our childhood fantasies are unrealized.
Do you remember discovering that your parents were not perfect? Most of us never wanted our parents to come down from their magic omniscient pedestal. It felt safe and predictable to believe in their perfection. After all we were totally at their mercy. In fact as young children it was up to them to meet all of our needs. But it is not up to our knight in shining armour or our crowned princess to save us from ourselves. To be a mature partner means taking responsibility for our own responses, reactions and happiness.
Anger is a common stumbling block for many people. Another is the fear of feeling: of feeling any deep emotion. In childhood we may have been scared of our parents’ anger or fearful of being flooded by their emotions. If our parents did not safely contain their own feelings, then in all likelihood they were projected onto us, which may have left us feeling vulnerable and a terrible fear of feeling, of being out of control or anxious at the first whiff of anger.
Alternatively, our own emotional needs as children may have been met with disapproval, rejection or by being ignored. We may have learnt that feeling, feeling any strong emotion, is unsafe. In either case, feelings then get smothered in a relationship and they come out in less healthy ways. It may be that anger is expressed passively. This leads us to undermine each other in a relationship and to divert the real issues from being addressed.
One couple I worked with, Robert and Sally were surprised to discover the extent to which passive aggression was causing them to steer their marriage off course. They had never faced the underlying issues of discontent and felt ill-equipped to talk about them. In the early years Robert was likely to erupt into an explosion of yelling and screaming and this had been terrifying for Sally. Her father had been violent when she was growing up and so over the years Robert had mainly learnt to suppress any anger he felt. Instead he gave off hostile vibes or was sullen, sulky, moody or withdrawn.
Consequently, in turn, Sally was left feeling alone, isolated or terrified of being abandoned. She internalized what was to her an experience of rejection (reminiscent for Sally of her rejecting father). To compound the situation, the anger had to go somewhere, and as it became internalized, she developed stomach and digestion problems as she quite literally could not “digest” the anxiety being provoked in this stalemate in their relationship. Nor was it safe for her to express her own anger (her automatic response to the perceived rejection) and so they were both thwarted.
What to do?
Well as stated above it was not quite as simple as “learning to communicate better” but with hard work from both, it became possible to develop much healthier ways of relating.
Each came to understand that they had a part to play in this dance of anger. Both the explosiveness and the withdrawal from the relationship in passive aggression were unhealthy. So too was the heightened sensitivity to anger which had created an unspoken rule between them, “don’t express your displeasure at any cost”. They both learnt that what Robert did was a problem but not the problem. The problem was also Sally’s restricted response-ability under stress. It was not that they had a communication problem. It was that they had needed to learn to take ownership of their individual feelings and to learn to be more open with each other. The turning point came for Robert and Sally when they recognized that anger itself was not the problem. In fact the very anger they feared was their impulse to create a more life-giving partnership for each of them.
When they discovered that each person was to a large extent responsible for themselves, for their own responses, and for getting many of their own needs met, they could let go of the desire to control each other and come back to each other with renewed energy and life. Over time they came together in intimacy from a place of deep care and respect, both for themselves individually and for their individual growth, and too for the partnership they desired to create. They learnt healthy ways of expressing a range of emotions including anger, sadness, fear and vulnerability.
Our partners are not our equals if we give them the responsibility of meeting all of our needs. In today’s age when most people are shaking off the shackles of patriarchy it is a partnership of equals that people are searching for. True collaboration requires a sharing of responsibility and an honest mature look at individual and partnership needs. The surest way to make a relationship dull is to become passive and await rescue, (some people do this for years on end), or another common pattern is to withdraw in hostile resentment, which often leads one or both partners to seek the meeting of their needs for intimacy, outside of the relationship. Whether it is your style to blame, criticize, withdraw, or become aggressive, becoming an effective partner yourself is the best way to change a relationship.
It is possible that life did not necessarily give us what we thought we deserved both in childhood and in our couple relationship. It is also possible that we choose the partners we need in order to grow but not necessarily the ones that make our life easy. Most significant growth comes from a dissatisfaction with the current status quo, disagreements produce the opportunity if managed with openness and curiosity, to provide a synergy which is neither you nor me, but greater together than either of us individually. It is hard work, but so too is anything worthwhile in life!
© Margie Ulbrick
If you would like some support with your relationships or creating greater happiness in your life, please contact me on 0403 814 477 for a free 10-minute consultation to discuss your needs.