The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.– Ralph Nichols
Lindsey: He won’t call to tell me what time he is coming home from work. I can’t believe how inconsiderate he is.
Mark: I used to do my best to give her a time, but if I was even 15 minutes late, I would walk in the door and get yelled at, so I stopped giving her an exact time. I can’t stand how controlling she is.
Often couples enter counseling, present their respective cases, blame each other and defend their points of view. A tug of war about who’s right and who’s wrong ensues.
With this couple, both Lindsey and Mark are stuck in their own superficial narratives. They are not communicating about what is underlying their conflict and make conclusions about the other one’s motive. Her perception that Mark is inconsiderate and his perception that Lindsey is controlling, stop them from exploring or being curious about the other’s behavior.
In therapy, we move away from judgement and arguing about who is right or wrong. We help partners see that they are both “right” from their point of view. Instead of getting stuck by making their own case, a better way is to make your partner’s case and ask them to do the same for you.
When we dug deeper, Lindsey described growing up in a chaotic family with a mother who was alcoholic and a father who was verbally abusive. Mark had a mother who was very critical and demanding. His father abandoned their family when he was two years old.
Mark and Lindsey both desired a close, connected family. Lindsey craved a sense of security and routine. Eating dinner together was very important to her. She wanted to know when Mark would be home each night so she could plan their family meals together.
Mark appreciated Lindsey’s desire to have dinner together. The problem was, he was an ER nurse and was unable to predict exactly what time he would be home each night. He felt Lindsey’s expectations were unrealistic. At times when she was frustrated, he experienced her as critical and demanding like his mother.
When partners get stuck defending their positions, they fail to understand the other’s point of view.
A better and more productive way to dialogue is to become “curious” about and interested in understanding each other’s perceptions and interpretations. When you understand your partner’s point of view so well that you can “make the other’s case,” both partners feel heard, validated and understood.
Through counseling Mark was able to see that Lindsey’s intention was not to control him — she was trying to create a secure family routine for them. Lindsey was able to understand more about the nature of Mark’s work which required him to be flexible about his departure time.
They agreed that he would call her each day when he left the hospital, and that she would be understanding about the nature of his work.
Until partners can truly understand each other’s “case,” no one feels heard or understood. It’s vital to not get stuck in proving your own point of view.
When couples can dialogue about their perceptions with curiosity and interest, they learn more about each other. Only then can problem solve as a team.
We would love to hear your thoughts about “making each other’s case” on our Facebook page.
Bob and Lori are doing Individual, Couples and Marriage Counseling Online.
Call 410-363-2825 or email us now if your relationship is struggling.
Photo credit aldomurillo