Listen For The Hurt Underneath Your Spouse's Anger
Written By: Mark Smith
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I was fortunate to get away to the beach for a few days of writing and reflection recently. I wanted to recount a few special moments before launching into this week's rather serious and painful topic. My only internet access was in the lobby so one night I was touched when witnessing some grandparents visiting with their grandchildren via a webcam there. Their eyes had such joy when they actually interacted with their grandchildren face to face. It was a joy to watch. It felt like a miracle that they could have that special time while still getting to be snowbirds. One lonely night while working on a project at 1am I made friends with a cute little sand crab who had invaded the lobby. He seemed intrigued and not the least bit afraid of me. It almost felt like God was playing with me and keeping me company. The retired folks all around seemed like a fun bunch of kids playing well together. They crashed my sauna time, including me in their revelry. The last night I was a little bored so I ended up at the movies. For the first time in my life (and I'm embarrassed to admit this) I went to a chick flick - "Music and Lyrics" alone. To be honest I felt unmanly slinking in to such a show without my wife, but the story line warmed and deeply stirred my heart. The beach truly is a magical place to renew one's spirit.
Let's transition from renewal to conflict - yuk. My wife and I are attending a marriage class at a local church. Friday night was "conflict night". As Mr. Big Shot therapist I was pretty bored with what I thought was a shallow little presentation. Then I inexplicably blurted something stupid out during the discussion time with my wife and it was on. Her walls went up, my apologizes were not getting through and the ride home was frostier inside the car then it even was outside. Now, how did they say to handle this in the presentation - I wish I had been listening. Unfortunately we therapist types don't sweep such messes under the carpet my watching a movie or going to bed early, although I was tempted. We hammered away at each other for the better part of two hours before something sort of broke in me. The hurt underneath came up and all of a sudden she was disarmed. Instead on being on the attack she really began to listen. Her tone changed from harsh and judgmental to sweet and soothing. After she allowed me to finish sharing my pain it was her turn. I listened intently while holding her and letting her cry. It really was a wonderful experience. I just wish that we could have gotten there sooner, without the 2 hours of battle. The vulnerable hurt was so much easier to hear. Neither of us felt attacked. We could take turns being the gracious loving parents to each other's sad little kids.
In my work as a marital therapist I spend so much time cutting through battles to hopefully get to the sacred ground of safe intimate vulnerable communication. The battle parts feel like a lot of work. If that is all that happened in my office, trust me, I would soon be looking for another line of work soon. The couples that make it are the ones who can transition from the battle ground to the scared ground. Some couples just can't do that, even with a talented coach/ref/therapist in the room. With the fortunate couples who can make that transition with my help the goal is to work myself out of a job. By helping them reframe their spouse's hurtful behavior in more positive, accurate and deep terms a safe, non-judgmental environment is established. As couples advance in their skill levels I tend to get involved less and less during the sessions. Someone once asked my theoretical mentor why he got paid the big bucks for the marital sessions and he said that they were paying simply for the safe environment that he provided for them, even if he rarely got a word in edgewise.
Always try to ask yourself what hurt feelings are underneath your spouse's anger. Try to defuse them. Get them talking about their pain. Don't get defensive, don't interrupt; reflect back to them what they have said to you to make sure that you have it right. Once they feel respected and fully heard, then, and only then should you ask permission to share your pain so that they can understand you. You will save yourself a whole lot of hurtful battle if you to do it this way. This type of healthy communication works like a charm with you kids or your co-workers as well. It is about becoming a safe, open, non-defensive person who is able to take in feedback. That is all for this week. See you next time.
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