The relationship between Melissa and Chuck had steadily deteriorated for years, to the point where it could no longer continue. I asked them if they’d like to stop the conflicts that had plagued their marriage.
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“Describe an argument you’ve had in the past twenty-four hours.”
“Just a few minutes ago,” Chuck said, “I was swinging on the tall swing in your backyard. And when I was done, I told Melissa that I’d enjoyed it. She said something about how it’s been a long time since she’s seen me that happy.”
“And?” I asked.
“And I didn’t like it, because she was saying that normally I don’t seem to be having fun. Makes me sound like a real downer.”
“So you felt criticized.”
“Yes, and hurt.”
“I didn’t mean to criticize,” Melissa said.
“And what I said was—” Melissa continued.
“Whoa,” I interrupted. “Stop for a second. You can talk about the details of the conversation, OR you could learn what went wrong. Which would you prefer?”
Melissa sighed. “I don’t like how these conversations go. Help me see what went wrong.”
“When you spoke to Chuck outside, did you feel him drawing closer to you, or becoming more distant?”
“He was pulling away.”
“And how did YOU feel? Closer to him, or more separated?”
“Did you notice that the same thing happened in here, when you said you didn’t mean to criticize? Did you notice that Chuck frowned?”
“And all this happened in seconds, didn’t it?”
“And you’ve experienced this feeling of separation with him many, many times, haven’t you? It’s an old and well-traveled pattern, yes?”
“And you don’t quite know what’s happening, or how to stop it, do you?”
“No, we don’t,” they both said.
“It’s a matter of identifying the real problem. You guys get caught up in all the details—who said what, who is right, who is wrong—and then you’re lost. It’s not the details that matter. There are actually two conversations here that went badly. First let’s talk about the one outside. Chuck said that he’d had fun. At that point what was the subject of the conversation?”
“Swinging on the swing,” Melissa said.
“No, and that’s what you’re missing when he speaks to you. The subject was HIM—how he enjoyed doing something—and you responded by changing the subject to YOU. You talked about your analysis of him—comparing his having fun now to how he’s been in the past. Put simply, you changed the subject and didn’t listen to him. You didn’t mean to do that, but you still did."
“I never would have seen that,” she said.
“So that was the conversation you had OUTSIDE. Now let’s talk about the conversation we had here inside moments ago. What was the subject?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Again, the real subject was HIM. He was talking about himself—how he felt criticized and hurt. But you changed the subject when you said you didn’t MEAN to criticize him.”
“But I didn’t.”
“You’re missing the point again. The subject was HIM—his fears, how he felt criticized and hurt. And then you defended yourself and said YOU didn’t mean to criticize him. You changed the subject from HIM to YOU—again. The most important—and most immediate—thing you could do to indicate to Chuck that you care about him is to genuinely listen to him. But you didn’t. You talked about YOU.”
Once they both understood the real cause of the conflict, they had the capacity to be more aware of it in the future and choose differently. Simple understanding can be quite powerful.
Nearly all of us do a terrible job of listening. Because we’re empty and afraid most of the time, we naturally focus on protecting ourselves and getting what we need for ourselves. In other words, we make everything about US. We need to find the love that will fill us up, and then we can begin to care about other people and listen to them—especially with the help of a wise man.
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