Lisa and Chaz have been in couples therapy with me for several sessions, and Chaz is starting to finally hear what Lisa has been trying to tell him for years. Chaz almost always dismisses Lisa’s feelings without realizing it. It’s only natural for him. He is, in Lisa’s words, “an avoider.” He usually protects himself from conflict by pretending everything’s ok, minimizing problems and feelings, and “getting some space.” But now, for the first time in their 9 years of marriage, he’s making an intentional effort to “speak Lisa’s language.” The only problem…Lisa feels really weird about it and is having a hard time enjoying the change.
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Chaz and Lisa’s story is one that is told in my therapy office time after time. Even a good change, one that you’ve specifically asked for, can feel awkward when you’re used to things going a certain way. One of the many reasons it’s difficult for Lisa to take in the good that Chaz is offering, is that there is not a foundation of trust and security to stand on when they have meaningful conversations.
History comes rushing back the minute Chaz says any of a number of “trigger phrases” that have become all too common over the years. Lisa has wanted to have children, but is afraid to have them with Chaz, because she’s not sure she wants them to experience the same dismissed and unwanted feelings she so often feels with Chaz.
Lisa easily gets emotionally flooded and reacts disproportionally to several triggers in their marriage. In response, Chaz then becomes flooded and runs for the hills (the mancave, the back yard, really anywhere without a flooded wife to deal with). He doesn’t know how to access and manage his own feelings, let alone those of an angry wife (who is really more hurt than anything). One of the most difficult things early in therapy for couples like Lisa and Chaz, is hearing that I don’t have any magic therapist ninja tricks that will make it all better.
What’s “The Secret Solution?”
I can tell you from experience with plenty of couples over the years that there is no secret sauce, no magic phrase, no “3 quick steps to marital happiness” that ANY therapist can offer Chaz and Lisa that will make things right. Sure, there are some processes–sometimes quick, more often slow– that can bring a great deal of healing to the relationship, but they tend to be more about rebuilding trust and security than about having just the right words to say in a given situation.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve offered a “perfect phrase” to a spouse, only to have them be utterly clueless about how and when to deliver it. Even when I’m sitting there gently telling them, “Now is the time. Say the line!” there’s a blank stare, or they deliver another dismissive, defensive comment, explanation, or accusation.
“We need to communicate better”
Bottom line, it’s not really about communication skills. Yes, communication matters a great deal in any relationship. But you can still have a wonderful marriage with a terrible communicator whom you know will always be there for you, who has your back, who assumes the good in you, and, maybe above all else, wants you more than s/he needs you. It’s good to be wanted, and knowing your partner’s heart helps ease the pain of their relational failures.
Say “Thank you!”
So the next time you have a moment where your spouse has FINALLY tried to do the thing you’ve been asking them to do (the dishes, planning a date, saying I love you, initiating physical intimacy, making the bed, or whatever!) try to say “Thank you!” before you question their motivation.
“He’s just doing it now because you told him to.”
While there’s always a chance it may a manipulation tactic, there’s also a decent chance that somewhere deep down your spouse loves you and is motivated by wanting to please you. So what if they’re terrible at it? So what if they fumble the words or sound like C-3PO from Star Wars when they try to say something romantic? So what if they just want to have sex because you asked for it? So what if they only did the dishes because you complained about it last week? If they’re checking a box on your list after so long of ignoring the list altogether, praise the progress! Don’t dismiss a good faith effort.
“This is painfully awkward!”
It may not have been a great effort, and it may not have looked at all natural. It’s probably not. Remember, they need practice! Reward their effort by saying thank you and letting them know that it matters to you that they made an effort.
Accents Can Be Sexy! (Or At Least So Awkward They’re Cute)
They’re trying to speak your language for the first time in a long time. If you’ve been speaking different love languages (or maybe not speaking much at all!), there’s a good chance your spouse is going to “have an accent” for a while as they learn to speak your language.
Try to give your spouse some time, maybe a little forgiveness or grace (give undeserved good things, withhold deserved bad consequences), and consider offering a 2nd, 14th, or 957th chance. Then try to find the good intention in the awkward delivery. Even though they’re speaking with an accent, it’s still your language. Remember, it’s not about communication skills, but whether they are trying to create a safe space for you to be you, and they shouldn’t have to be perfect to let you know that you matter a great deal to them.
Chaz and Lisa are not real clients, but everything about their story is real and true, and comes straight out of my counseling office. Every word is something I’ve heard countless times from frustrated, angry, sad, and hopeless couples. And I’ve also seen every one of those problems overcome by two people in a room who wanted something different and who were willing to endure some awkward, accented love-speak from each other as they learn to be with each other in new ways.
Is Your Marriage Too Far Gone?
I’m a big believer that any marriage can be saved if both people really want it to happen. I don’t say this lightly. I just say it knowing that many couples have fought through some terrible things together and came out better on the other side. Again, there’s no magic elixir to be had, but by doing the arduous and often painful (at first) work of learning to trust and support each other in new ways, it’s possible.
Be Realistic About Your Healing Time Frame
If your marriage is a dumpster fire, it’s not going to get solved overnight, so don’t put that pressure on yourself or your spouse. But consider some of the advice above (all based in solid marriage research by leading experts in the field), and pack your bag for a journey together. Whether it’s at a marriage conference, a retreat, reading a good marriage book together and talking seriously about the questions the author asks, or calling up a psychologist like me, I hope you’ll give your relationship a fighting chance. Sometimes even the awkward moments can be fun, if we’re willing to make the choice to see them that way.
Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 949-478-0665 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.