You have just had a close and fun weekend with your girlfriend Alice (substitute your own partner here). You drop her off at her home with plans to see each other again on the weekend. You sit down to have dinner together the following Saturday and she says, "I am not sure if I fit into your life." You sit back in shock. You remember all the things you did together last weekend. Examples of how you showed she's important to you spring to mind. You feel a wave of indignation.
Between the time you dropped her off and saw her a few days later, Alice had fallen down a rabbit hole filled with fictional stories. You spend the next hour defending against the mad hatter and cheshire cat. You start to feel a bit crazy. How you can you find your way back to a shared reality?
Most arguments are not about something that actually happened. Most arguments revolve around differing interpretations of the same event. Often the actual event never gets named. Both people get lost defending and attempting to convince each other of something based on a misperception of threat to one or more needs. Especially when a few days has lapsed between the trigger event and conversation about it, layers of meaning can get created and believed. When one is not able to see the meaning making process as reactivity, the stories seem real and conversations are started in the way Alice has done above.
When your partner says something that seems out of blue or doesn't quite make sense, you will usually have feeling of disorientation and the impulse to defend or explain. Make these your cues to turn immediately towards empathy, curiosity, and finding the initial trigger event.
Let's go back to you and "Alice". At some point in your previous interactions with Alice, something happened to trigger the cascade of stories that she has been weaving. It takes a lot of energy to defend all those stories and you would prefer connection and peace. So in a gentle voice you offer empathy. Maybe something like, "Okay, I hear you're not sure if you fit into my life. That sounds painful. I am guessing you would like some reassurance or clarity about what you mean to me, is that right?"
Unfortunately Alice has been weaving stories for days and has some momentum, so the empathy sort of bounces off and she launches into the next story saying, "Look, I have never tried to control you in any way. You are free to choose how to spend your time."
You feel the impulse to defend saying how you never thought she was trying to control you, but you know that arguing that the cheshire cat doesn't really exist will not bring connection or a shared reality. You take a breath and try again to connect saying, "Okay, yeah, it sounds like something happened, there was something I did or said that was painful for you. Do you know what it was?"
Alice blurts out with hurt, "When you dropped me off at home last Sunday, you just pushed me away!"
"Huh?" you say confused, "What did I do that seemed like pushing away to you?"
"It was your energy. You were all business, telling me about the friends you wanted to see during the week and the commitments you had."
Hearing this you sort of remember the moment, but in your mind you were just communicating clearly about your schedule so that you would both have some predictability. Again you feel the impulse to defend yourself. You really want Alice to see your good intention, but she can't hear you, she is still in the rabbit hole and you are peering down trying to find her. So you go back to empathy, "Yeah, so in that moment it seemed to you that I was disconnected and pushing you away, right?"
"Well, you were!" she retorts.
Knowing you are really close to finding a shared reality, you again resist the impulse to defend and just stay with empathy. You say, "It makes sense to me that hearing a list of my activities for the week wouldn't feel connecting and could seem like me pushing you away. We had just spent the weekend together feeling close, and then I told you about all the other people I would see in the week. Hmm, yeah, I can see how that could be jolting."
For the first time you see Alice look out over the rim of the rabbit hole and a bit of sunlight lands on her face, "You do?" she says in a quiet voice.
Seeing her there in the light you want to jump up and pull her the rest of the way out with your explanations, justifications, and promotions about what a good person you are. But, you know that going slow now, will save a lot of time and suffering later, so you continue to offer empathy, "Yeah, I do. And I can see that it's been painful for you. And I am guessing it has been difficult holding all this until now, am I getting it?"
Now you see your partner climb out of the hole and sit in the sunlight next to you, a bit tired and wrung out from the journey. From this shared reality, she can reflect on the last few days and see how she weaved stories, and believed them without question. She looks up ruefully and asks, "So I guess I do need to hear how you see me fitting into your life and what I mean to you, if you are willing to share?"
You breath a sigh of relief to have her back with you and are ready to tell the truth about how you feel and what was going on for you. First you offer the reassurance and see her take it in and then you ask if she would be willing to hear what you were experiencing in that moment when you were sharing your schedule last Sunday.
While you know this will likely happen again you want to set up something to make it a little less likely. You ask your partner, "I wonder what either of us could do or say to make it really easy to check in when something happens that triggers hurt?" Together you brainstorm a few options:
- You agree on a particular question like:
- Can I get a reality check about what just happened?
- You agree on a nonverbal gesture like putting your hand on your heart or closing your eyes.
- You agree to have regular evening check-ins and specifically ask about anything lingering from the day.
You and your partner can't help but make meaning out each other's behavior. You can, however, choose to question the meaning you make and get curious about the meaning your partner makes. As you practice listening for feelings and needs and get curious about what triggered the interpretations, you will learn not to hear things in such a literal way. You will start to notice that while taking things at face value works well for things like fixing the vacuum, it's rarely helpful when it comes to relationship and emotional issues. Unfortunately most of us operate with a very imprecise and limited relational vocabulary. This means bringing patience and compassion to the process of unfolding into the truth.
Take a moment and reflect on a particular relationship or context in which you are likely to make assumptions and interpretations without questioning them. Set your intention to notice the meaning you make in this situation in the coming week.