Bruce and Samantha were in my office, and it was obvious that Samantha was a different woman from the one I first met. She had become gentle, open, and affectionate toward Bruce, quite a change from the angry, critical, and bitter woman I had once known. Bruce too had become considerably more loving, but despite the change in both of them, Bruce said, “I just feel like we’re not getting any closer.”
“Really?” I said. “In what way?”
Bruce then described how he enjoyed having deep emotional, philosophical, and spiritual conversations with certain people, but he never seemed to be able to have those with Samantha.
“You certainly can’t expect her to have the same philosophical and spiritual interests that you do,” I said. “But how about emotions? You’re saying you don’t feel closer to her?”
“Well, it’s certainly a lot better than it used to be,” he admitted.
“That’s an understatement. She’s grown a lot, so what are you still missing?”
“I feel like I’m not getting to know who she really is better.”
“Okay, give me an example of an occasion where you felt like getting closer to her was not happening.”
“Like when I ask her how she’s doing. She always just says, ‘Fine.’ So I don’t learn anything more about her.”
“Bruce, you have developed an ability to talk freely about how you feel. You’re more articulate about a lot of things than Samantha—like spiritual and philosophical things, for example. But Samantha isn’t like you. She doesn’t have the same ability. When you ask her how she is, she really doesn’t know how to answer. She doesn’t have the words for her feelings.”
“So what can we do?”
“You have to be a big boy and take more responsibility here. She doesn’t know how to express feelings, but you do. That means you can help—you have to help. When she says she’s just fine, give her some OPTIONS. She doesn’t do well with fill-in-the-blank tests, but she does much better with multiple choice tests. You can say things like this:
‘Are you feeling peaceful?’
‘Are you feeling closer to me than you used to?’
‘Are you feeling safer with me than you did before?’
‘Are you satisfied with how our relationship is going?’”
“Okay,” he said, “I think I can do that. But what if it’s obvious that she’s NOT doing okay, but she still says she’s okay? That happens a fair bit.”
“Again, you help her. Give her choices:
‘You don’t look like you’re fine, so would you be willing to talk with me until you figure it out?’
‘You look anxious. So something is bothering you. Do you know what it is?’
‘When you look anxious, it’s often because of something I’ve done that was thoughtless or irritated. Would you be willing to tell me about it?’
‘Something about the kids?’”
Certainly, there are many circumstances when “Fine” is a perfectly acceptable answer to “How are you?” But if I genuinely care about someone, on many occasions I want to make it as easy as possible for them to express their deeper feelings more completely. As they do, they create opportunities for me to understand them and love them.
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