Learning Your Partner More Deeply

October 17, 2012 | By

I know a guy who grew up in a close, loving family with four brothers and an Air Force general for a father. His family didn’t feel they had made emotional contact with each other unless they were yelling and gesticulating excitedly and he was used to arguing in a very loud, emotional fashion. He married a girl who came from a family with an older brother who had a mental illness and when he started yelling, people got hurt…literally. The early arguments with this couple were a disaster: he felt she didn’t listen or deal with him, but just closed him out with silence or withdrawal. She just felt thoroughly intimidated and wanted to run and hide, as she had done as a child during her brother’s rages. He had to learn to soften his voice and reassure her he was just trying to solve a problem with her, to strengthen their marriage, while she had to learn to stay in the discussion, present her viewpoint and trust him to care about it and her. She even reminded herself that he was not her brother, she was no longer a little girl and their relationship was very different from her old relationship with her sibling. He had to hear her desire to work things out and be close to him despite her lower volume and intensity. They made it by learning each other more deeply and applying that knowledge in their arguments.

We all have a legacy from growing up in an imperfect family with imperfect parents, who did some things wrong, wounded us emotionally, taught us things that aren’t right, and were unable to teach us things they didn’t know. And, we all have reactivity from that childhood we bring into our marriages and that gets intertwined in the dynamics, issues, and interaction patterns of these relationships. Part of being a fully individuated adult involves learning about our own reactivity and how it gets triggered in our day to day lives with our partners. Part of forming a mature, healthy marriage is learning about our partner’s reactivity and how we may be triggering it so we can steer around it, provide support for them to deal with it, spot it when it is activated, choose better responses, or talk with our mate with their unique legacy in mind. This ought to happen in good couples therapy, too, such as “emotionally focused marital therapy.” You can also work on this on your own with a lovely book by Sue Johnson, the founder of this school of therapy: Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

A couple in therapy gave me a nice demonstration of this recently. John was trying to take on more house chores and his nurse wife, Marsha, commented that to be really sanitary he should use different sponges for the toilet and sink. He had grown up with a demanding, critical, perfectionist father for whom he never felt “good enough.” He reacted to her as to him and said, “I’m probably doing it all wrong”: the sort of self-deprecation that got Dad to end the lecture for the moment. However, she heard it as a sarcastic put down of her and her germ or cleanliness concerns. She had been raised in a family where children were not seen as equal human beings and their feelings, ideas, and concerns were dismissed, disregarded, ridiculed, or criticized. I helped her see John’s sighing, rolling his eyes, and verbal response were in reaction to his own agenda, not to her, while he understood Marsha, too, felt “not good enough” out of her legacy. It ended up with her crying for the “little boy” in his past and present who felt he wouldn’t be loved if he made any mistakes. We all need to develop some empathy for the little child left in ourselves and our spouses and “learn each other deeply ‘fore we speak.”

Another aspect to this learning each other as unique individuals is to learn that we are not married to “generic female” or “generic male” (or generic Hispanic, Southerner, Republican, lumberjack, etc., etc.) as if every person in that gender (or any other category) is exactly the same in thought, word, emotion, or deed. And, they shouldn’t be treated the same either. There may be some broad generalizations we can make based on someone’s gender or maybe some hypotheses likely to be valid. On the average, women may be a little more into and adept at the world of relationship and emotions, more aware how mind is affected by body (e.g. hormones), and more concerned with being valued for the beauty of their body, mind, heart, spirit, or ability to nurture. Men, on the average, may be somewhat more geared toward making, producing, fixing and building; more oriented toward abstract concepts and left brain logical thinking; and more into being respected for their competency and ability to succeed, speak, and operate in the world. But, individual men and women vary tremendously on all these factors; the overlap between the genders is probably bigger than the differences; and we all need to learn each other’s languages anyway. Knowing their gender is probably less useful for relationship purposes than knowing how their parents did marriage, how they were raised, their beliefs, values, past experiences, family history, and these sorts of things. Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth I were both females. Beethoven and Attila the Hun were both males. Peas in a pod.

Dr. Wendorf is an excellent string musician, and plays in the Birmingham-based group “Shades Mountain Air,” which has recorded several CDs. He also writes song lyrics, many of these dealing with couple issues, based on his vast experience as a couple and marital therapist. Please enjoy the following lyrics, based on ideas from the above article.

“Learn Each Other Deeply”
by Don Wendorf, Psy.D.; LMFT

If she grew up in a house where her father was a louse,
Who hollered at the family night and day,
Don’t get angry at your spouse when she whispers like a mouse,
Don’t yell at her when you must have your say.

It would be a better choice if you used a lower voice.
Speak anger but with caring and respect.
Don’t scare her like her Dad or you both will end up sad.
Talk softly and she just might hug your neck.

Chorus:
Treat your mate with knowing they’re unique.
Remember all their childhood legacy:
Their unmet needs and fears, their scars and hurts and tears.
Learn each other deeply ‘fore you speak.

If he grew up in a home where his mother left to roam,
Abandoning her husband and her son,
He may hear your objection as the first step to rejection
And fear if you get mad you, too, will run.

Be “significant” an “other:” don’t remind him of his mother.
Tell him that you always will be there.
More secure than life insurance is your loving reassurance:
You’re committed and for him you’ll always care.

Repeat Chorus

If her family was critical and condemnation typical,
It may be hard to hear your mild complaint.
You should be analytical and make your voice more lyrical.
Air your gripe with caring and restraint.

If all she heard was criticism, she may feel some cynicism,
Doubting she’ll be “good enough” for you.
Let her know your beef is small; she’s fantastic overall
And give her all the credit she is due.

Repeat Chorus

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