Dori plopped down across from me in our office and said, “There’s good news and bad news.” “Okay,” I replied, “So what’s the good news?” “Well,” Dori said, with dramatic emphasis, “Al came back from his last session with Andrew and said that he realizes he has father issues. I’ve been telling him that all along, but he always argued with me that I had the father issues!”
Dori and Al have been sparring with each other before and throughout their two-year marriage. Both are retired professionals–lively, bright, and fun to be around when they aren’t trying to pin one another to the mat during one of their frequent verbal wrestling matches in which each is determined to prove the other more wrong.
The bad news, as Dori continued, was that Al had returned home from some errands having forgotten to stop at Wegmans, so he didn’t have the sugar she needed to bake her special brownies for their dinner guests. She greeted him at the door with “Where’s the sugar?” To which he replied, “I forgot to stop at Wegmans.”
Instead of swallowing her disappointment and then figuring out who would run to the store to get the sugar, she replied, “How could you forget? The list was right there!” He parried by saying, “But you said you were going shopping.” To which she said, with Valley Girl attitude, “I was, but not grocery shopping!” And that was only the beginning.
Dori was feeling quite righteous about her position. After all, couldn’t he figure out from what she’d told him that she wasn’t going to be near the grocery store? And furthermore, why couldn’t he remember the one thing that was most important to her among all the errands he was doing?
Both Al and Dori grew up with fathers who were highly disapproving and quick to criticize. “Al’s father still never approves of anything Al does,” Dori said. “So can you imagine how he might have felt because of how you met him at the door?” I asked. Dori’s eyes widened, and she said, “I acted like his father, didn’t I?”
“So what did you feel when he didn’t have the sugar?” I asked. She looked at me as if I’d just given her a brain teaser. “I wonder if you weren’t just disappointed and frustrated that you didn’t have what you needed,” I continued.
“I guess that is what I was feeling,” she mused. “And what might have happened if you had greeted Al with that emotional truth, instead of with accusation–in other words, instead of becoming his father?” I pressed on. “I never thought of that!” She exclaimed.
Dori and Al are both very reactive to anything that smacks of even the slightest criticism or disapproval from the other. They are being challenged to pull back on their initial defensive reactions, so strongly conditioned by their early life experience with their fathers, if they want to experience a more peaceful and supportive relationship with one another.
“The question you need to ask yourself before you open your mouth is what is more important–connecting with Al or pushing him away by expressing your frustration with criticism. By telling the emotional truth you open up and invite Al to hear you without accusing him of being bad, wrong, or failing you in some way.”
It’s inevitable that our partners will let us down at times, or not do everything exactly the way we want. So how do we deal with that without creating conflict or distancing from one another? It’s been said that all emotions and impulses reduce to fear or love. Our instinctive reaction to fear is fight or flight. Clearly, Al and Dori were in the habit of choosing fight as their preferred mode of handling any anxiety, the bottom line feeling that underlay Dori’s frustration and disappointment about the forgotten sugar.
Our choice, in any emotionally arousing situation like the one above, is to decide on whether to fight, flee (clam up and shut down), or forgive. In this case, as with any relationship in which we want to reach reconciliation, the forgiveness process begins with expressing truthfully the impact of the other’s behavior, whether it’s a forgotten bag of sugar or an extra-marital affair. And this kind of emotional truthfulness can only happen with self- awareness.
Communication that aims to create connection, therefore, begins with awareness. Andrew’s book, The Courage to Feel, provides all the guidance you need in an easy-to-read, easy-to-follow format in order to hone this skill