They were seated on opposite ends of the leather couch in my office.Her brown pants and sweater were matching the gold color of the couch. His dark short styled hair gave him a younger, almost naive appearance. They weren’t speaking it but you could sense the tension between them. Martha alluded to it briefly. She started to talk about that time James was getting angry with her but then she backed off and went on to something else. James fleetingly mentioned that when she came back from shopping and just because he had one beer, she gave him “that look.” He stopped there.
I have seen this situation happen many times with couples. One partner is trying to share their feelings. The other, takes it in a different way and gets defensive. This results with both partners feeling frustrated, sometimes angry, and hurt.
Therapists are human. Some days we’re on. All the cylinders are firing. That’s when it is natural to be patient, responsive, and compassionate to all our clients. It doesn’t matter what issue comes before us.
That’s When We Know We are an “Us”
We are at our best in our relationships and in our lives when we feel “attuned” with our partner. It’s having that sense inside of us that our partner cares, that we matter to them, and that we are “special.” Feeling a sense of harmony in our relationship, we are able to provide that experience of “special-ness” for our partner in return.
As I watched the video of the couple in the session I could see how the therapist was being cautious. The therapist was validating the female partner and the emotion shown was reflected back. But there was a “caution,” in the air. We’re not going any deeper. I realized in my gut that the therapist’s feeling of not wanting to impose was taking over. This life-long tendency was coming out again and this time in the session. It was clear the therapist didn’t want to push for fear they would impose on the client. I am the therapist in the video, and how humbling and vulnerable it was to watch.
Noel gets agitated when Katie comes home. He doesn’t know if she will greet him or not pay him any attention. When she doesn’t acknowledge him he gets angry and avoids her by going on the computer or just staying away. Katie doesn’t understand why he has that attitude towards her. She was tired when she got home. She needed to unwind before saying hi to him. Based on Noel’s reaction she feels like she did something wrong. Now she walks on eggshells, not wanting to make it worse.
Sandy and John had been through a lot of challenges throughout the years. They argued a lot and felt like the other didn’t want to be in the relationship. Tonight they described how they had been able to not verbally attack each other since our last session a couple of weeks ago. The two smiled as they reported how they were able to be conscious of their negative pattern. Sandy said she was able to feel in her body when the anger was triggered, and was able to let that go. John said he understands that Sandy is on “his side,” and doesn’t feel the rejection like he used to. We were celebrating this process in my office. This was surprisingly nice for me to experience because Jon and Sandy had been very stuck in attack/attack mode for some time and it was not uncommon for them to “get into it,” right in my office. Tonight they were happy and relaxed.
Don’t You Appreciate Me?
We long to be connected with our partner and know they appreciate us. When we feel like our partner isn’t there for us, we go into distress. This shows up as anger, blame or withdrawal. Perhaps you can relate with the following situation.
Joanne and Al sit in my office with some distance between them on the couch. Joanne is frustrated as she talks about how Al doesn’t support her at home. He doesn’t pick up in the kitchen and when he tells her he’ll vacuum, he never gets to it. Another day goes by and the trash isn’t taken out. As soon as she sees something not done, “the sparks fly.” Al hears about it, sees he’s being picked apart, and he tries to get as far away as possible.
Recently my significant other asked me, “What are your plans for your work day?” I was immediately annoyed. In a huffy manner I told her specifically what I was going to do and listed multiple phone calls that I was going to make, the errands I was going to run, and the other goals I had for the day. I told my partner in my, “annoyed – Why are you asking me this?” voice.
“The Man,” by Aloe Blacc, is a heartfelt rendition of an expression of what it means to be a man. The artist tells his story through the passion of his voice that originates in his soul. Aloe Blacc becomes more energized, soulful, and daring as the song progresses. He convinces us that “he is the man,” repeating that line several times in a smooth sultry style. He tells us that “for every lie he told he paid for every heart he stole.” This is his way of telling us how he had avoided connection and intimacy in relationships and that he paid for this. When you hurt your partner you get hurt too. That is not what a man is all about. The next stanza he tells us “he played his cards and didn’t fold, it ain’t that hard when you got soul.” I interpret this as he learned to be honest, expressive, and not fold or retreat. He explains it is not hard to do when “you got soul.” I believe that he feels his soul by believing in himself.