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Before you try to communicate

Do you ever feel like someone else doesn’t seem to have a grasp on reality? And in particular a partner you are trying to have a relationship with?

I do a lot of work with couples and I like to tell a story before we get started on any communication skills. I believe improvements in relationship involve behavioral changes but also some profound shifts in attitude. This story illustrates Step 1.

Many years ago I had a short, powerful experience that stuck with me.
My good friend and I were sitting on the front porch of his house in the early evening. After a while, I said, “I’m getting cold.”

He said, “How could you be cold? I’m hot.”

I replied, “Well I’m cold. I think I need my sweater from inside the house.”

He continued, “But it’s hot out here. How could you need a sweater?”

I kept on, “Because it’s cold out here. Why aren’t you cold?”

What is the truth here? Was the evening hot or cold? Would it have helped if we got out a thermometer? Could we have settled it by looking literally at the temperature?

Of course when I tell this story and ask these questions, people say, “No, it wouldn’t help.” Why? “Because it’s subjective.”

So I suggest we need to be careful about “truth” and “reality.” Couples are sometimes uncomfortable when I suggest we throw out these words, so let me explain more. We’re talking in the context of relationships here, first of all. If we were trying to get our math done correctly to put someone on the moon, it would be a different arena.

In a relationship, you have two people each living inside their own heads and in their own bodies. You are never having the same experience. Never. No matter how close you are, you have multiple filters affecting your perspective on what’s happening. In fact, you as an individual are never looking at “reality” without all these filters having an influence. They include stable factors such as your gender, ethnicity, body type, past experience (eg, family background, cultural influences, education, travel), personality, beliefs and attitudes, and so forth. Shifting states also exert an effect – things like being tired, hungry, excited, worried, or having a headache. So what you are looking at when you look around is not the real world – it’s your personal version, as if you are watching a TV screen in your own head.

Not realizing this, people argue about things using objective language, ie, the voice of God. With the hot-cold situation, we went from “I’m cold” and “I’m hot” to “It’s cold” and “It’s hot.” Other possibilities: This house is too messy. We need a bigger house. You are too strict/lax with the children. Our sex life is lousy. We should live in Arizona. These comments lack ownership of needs or feelings or recognition of the other’s perspective as being equally valid. A huge language lesson is in order, but not yet. First we need to see that all these issues are like the hot-cold example. Different filters are in play.

Actually, there are so many possibilities for differences it’s a wonder we can relate to each other at all. My belief is that relationships need to start with a basic attitude of humility. Before I help a couple work on bridging the gap between them by learning communication skills, I help them get clear that there IS a real gap and accept it. Like other things, it’s much easier to do the problem solving after the situation is understood.

On a surface level, everybody knows we have different perspectives, so you might wonder why I am making a big deal about this. However, I believe most of us are in denial about it because it puts us in direct confrontation with one of our most uncomfortable existential dilemmas – that of being alone. We have a deep longing for connection. Loving relationships are an opportunity to be understood and accepted and it is natural to want this to be deep and thorough and not difficult. When it’s not easy, it can feel very frightening. What if we don’t understand each other after all? What if love isn’t really possible? What if I am all alone in the universe?

I think this is why many couples are so frightened when they come for help. Our first step is to understand the notion of separate realities, take a deep breath, and find some acceptance of that. We can then move on to the skills involved in building the loving ties across the gap. We don’t have to see things the same way or feel the same way about everything. We can stop the endless arguing about the truth and let go of the stress of being right because that’s not the point.

There are ways to consciously create a loving relationship despite the impossibility of perfect understanding (but that is the subject of other articles). The myth of romantic love is generally not helpful, because the feelings of love and security and connection are the results of things you do; it’s not something you fall in. And it’s actually exciting and empowering to find out what is possible, beginning with fully respecting differences.

As I say to clients, this is not just cup-half-full optimism. I believe that as we live in a stressful age and culture that is less than supportive to human beings, we need to do everything we can to treasure and nurture our love relationships. Never take for granted the value of having someone in your life who really cares that you exist. Even if one of you is hot and the other feels cold. Why not just smile and go get a sweater? Then come back and cuddle instead of arguing.