Weaving the Past Into an Empathic Present
I’ve been teaching couples how to successfully communicate for over four decades and have never seen the level of challenges they face today as technology explodes with ever-increasing ways to connect.
Because of these rapidly increasing developments, I, along with many relationship therapists, have developed new ways to simplify these demands in order to both minimize misunderstandings and increase more accurate communication.
The ability to communicate effectively is crucial to resolving relationship issues. Couples need more direct and uncluttered ways to talk to each other that encompass authenticity, clarity, empathy, and a deeper kind of support. To do that, they must be able to understand what most often drives those responses and to easily and quickly master that knowledge.
There are many variables that affect communication effectivity, but five seem to show up most often: gender differences, power hierarchies, childhood trauma, family culture, and emotional reactivity. These contributing players wind in and out of, and interact with, the styles people manifest when they try to communicate to one another who they are and what they need.
These variables, combined with the understanding of non-verbal cues, form the foundation for successful connection. They all rest upon two crucial pillars. The first pillar represents a couple’s ability to weave the past into the present and the present into the future. That means that relationship partners must keep in mind the history of who they’ve been as they share thoughts and feelings in the moment. All prior behaviors affect the present, and the present is the preparation for the future.
The second pillar represents a couple’s capability to offer each other fully empathic support as they process the past in the current interaction. Used together, weaving and empathy in the present ensures that the foundation for successful and deepening connection is being successfully built.
When partners are able to begin each new bid for connection with both of these supporters intact, they are far less likely to misunderstand or inaccurately judge the other’s experience. They can more accurately communicate to one another results in fewer misunderstandings and misconceptions.
I’ll illustrate how the reliance on these two pillars manifest in each of the five variables mentioned above and give an example of how they can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful outcome.
For the purposes of simplification, I’ll show only one partner expressing the two pillars in each example. In a real-life situation, both would be sharing on the same process as they interact with one another.
The First Variable: Gender Differences
In today’s world, more men are not as afraid of sharing their vulnerability, and more women are comfortable with being more assertive. Yet, in bids for contact, they often express themselves in more traditional ways.
Many people now are more comfortable with male energy and female energy to describe those differences, regardless of physical gender. As a result, the following examples may feel they can represent both men and women and the names of the people described are, therefore, purposefully gender neutral labels.
“Listen, babe. I didn’t like our fight last night either, but, when I’m upset, I know how to divert myself by going to the gym or getting involved in something I have to do. I don’t always get it fast enough that you might still be hurting or not done with the argument, and I know it drives you crazy when I try to talk the next day as if the fight didn’t happen. I just want you to know that I get that and want to fix it in a way that works for you, too. Maybe we can go over what we did and try to do it better the next time around. How are you feeling about getting back together and is there anything I can do right now to help it happen?”
Empathy in the Present
“I know I was fighting dirty last night because I was pissed. I realize that’s a lame reason, and there’s really no excuse. I want to make it up to you but I can see that you’re really pulled in and not ready to hear me. But you’re not pulling away physically so I hope that means that you’re not all the way gone. I don’t want to push in where I’m not wanted or if you’re not ready, but, if there is anything I can do right now to help you open up, I’m up for that. I’m really sorry I don’t pay enough attention to the way you feel when I’m angry. I need to do that.”
The Second Variable: Power Hierarchies
Whenever either partner holds the power cards in a relationship, communication will be skewed. Power can be expressed as aggression or demands, but it can also just be the leverage one partner has over the other that effectively causes the other partner to feel emotionally blackmailed. As long as the more powerless partner is afraid of loss or needs something the other can hold at bay, they will acquiesce. That doesn’t mean, however, that they will be okay with the decision.
When power is used to control, the more susceptible partner often ends up feeling as if they are the prey to a predator with only the options to flee, fight, go underground, or freeze.
“I was using my power over you last night by turning over and pretending you didn’t want sex. That wasn’t fair. I’ve done that in the past because I wasn’t getting what I needed from you to feel like you loved me, so I didn’t want to be intimate with you until I felt better. I saw that you were disappointed when you left in a hurry this morning without saying goodbye. I understand why you did that. I feel sad right now because I should have just been honest with you, but I didn’t trust that it would make any difference. Maybe I just assumed that and didn’t give you a chance to make it work.”
Empathy in the Present
“I’d really like to talk to you about what happened last night but, watching the way you’re avoiding me, I think you might not be in the mood to do that. You’re quiet and pulled in and that usually means you are hurt but don’t want to get angry again because you think I’m just making excuses.
I want you to know that I get where you are right now and I don’t want to try to be cute or act sexy just to appease you, because that would just start the whole process all over again. But I do miss you. Can we make love tonight? I would like to try again telling you how I feel along the way. Can we talk about how to do that?”
The Third Variable: Childhood Trauma
We are able to respond to our partners at the maturity level we’re currently at, but can also be pushed back into the past if something our partner says or does triggers an earlier memory.
When that happens, we regress to the age at which that memory occurred and are likely to project on to our partner the person we reacted to at that time. Those earlier memories can easily hijack our more mature responses in the moment, and limit our ability to respond accordingly.
“Looking back at our conversation last night, I realized that I was reacting to you as if you were going to leave me like my mom did when she left my dad for that other guy. You seemed so far away and uncaring and I could feel myself slipping into trying to be a good kid to get you to stay. I didn’t want to say or do anything wrong, and I lost my self-respect and independence.
It wasn’t your fault, but I know that if I didn’t tell you what was happening to me, you’d think I was a wimp with no self-respect. As soon as you left to go to your class, I felt my whole posture straighten out, and I realized what it was about. I don’t like being so damn dependent on you when that happens. It makes me see you as if you were my mom and not you.”
Empathy in the Present
“I’m seeing you look at me sort of not knowing what to expect after last night. I can see how hard you’re trying to be good to me right now, but I know that there’s more behind that. I’m worried that you lost some respect for me and don’t want to say it. You’re probably angry, too, for seeing me fold when you started telling me how I disappointed you.
I’m back in the present now and feeling plenty strong enough to hear your story without shutting you down. I want to let you know why I did what I did, and what triggered it. You can trust me to handle what we talk about now with the strength you fell for in me.”
The Fourth Variable: Family Culture
What we’re taught to believe as children, who we trust and why, and what we expect of ourselves, is embedded in us by our family culture as we grow up. These family cultural responses are often unconsciously expressed. They can pave the way for easier connection, or become unwitting saboteurs of our ability to connect with the person we love.
When we come from different family cultures, our words can have different meanings. Our judgments may be taken out of context, and our expressions are often misunderstood.
It is critical that coupes teach each other how those early teachings influence how each partner behaves.
“I was upset for hours last night when you made those remarks that said that men who are responsible for taking care of women and children deserve special credit for doing that. You know how hard my mom worked two jobs so that me and my sister would have an education. My dad kept losing jobs and my mom had to carry the load, but he still felt that he was the top dog, and was entitled to have whatever he wanted before any of us could ask for anything for ourselves.
After you fell asleep, I remembered that your dad took care of all of you kids after your mom died and would never have said those things, but maybe you felt that he didn’t think he got enough credit.
I know you love us and would do anything for us, and that I’ve never been a burden to you, but what you said hurt just the same. I think I need to tell you more about what it was like to help mom pretend that my dad was a better provider than he was when we all knew he was lazy and self-centered. I know that, if you knew more about what happened to me, you would never have said that.”
Empathy in the Present
“I can see in your eyes right now that what I’m saying is bringing back sad memories for you. It makes me feel uneasy, because I don’t want you to feel bad but, at the same time, I want you to know that what you said made me feel awful.
I know how hard you try to make our relationship equal and not to ever feel burdened by each other’s needs, but you must have some of your dad’s sorrows inside of you. Please know that we appreciate you so much and you don’t need to worry.”
The Fifth Variable: Emotional Reactivity
During stressful situations, many intimate partners react more strongly to each other than the situation seems to warrant, saying things they would never do were they not triggered at the time by something inside or from the past.
Extreme emotional responses are most often caused by present experiences but activate past ones that emerge in the heat of conflict. They can, if not understood and resolved, make a situation much more dramatic than it should be and hijack the ability for the partners to think clearly in the present.
“I was an absolute ass last night. I said things to you that I don’t mean when I was exploding. I was exhausted from the fourteen-hour days I’ve had to put into the office and obviously couldn’t handle your demands at that time. After you went to bed in the other room, I could hear you crying, but I was too into my own crap to go to you, even though I know you needed me.
I feel like such a jerk because I’ve done that before. I just assume that I’m in a bad space and you’ll automatically back off. I have no right to do that without checking in with you. It’s my god-damned asshole step-dad. He always thought my mom could take anything. I think I just swallowed it because I couldn’t protect her, and it comes out like this.
I know you had to shut down and walk away last night. You had every right to do that. I need to ask you for help when I’m drowning. Not making you the bad guy.”
Empathy in the Present
“Hey, sweetheart, look at me. You’re avoiding me at every turn and acting busy when I know you’re not. Your anger is fair. Your anger and pull-back right now are clear and I can see the pain behind your eyes.
I don’t want to keep making excuses for what I did. My mom went off like that on my dad and I felt sorry for him, but maybe I’m more like her. She’d always tease my dad the next day and use a kind of made up sweetness to get her back in the fold.
I don’t want to do that to you. I don’t even need you to open up right now because you have every reason to armor up against that guy you don’t like. But know that I see you and that I care. When you can, come to me and I promise I’ll be the guy you still love.”
These examples are only a small fraction of those I could cite for you to help explain how important weaving and empathy are to make communication between intimate partners dramatically improve.
If you put these two pillars in place and combine them with the awareness of the non-verbal behaviors that accompany them, you will find that your sense of trust and comfort with each other getting better each time you practice those skills. Knowing that the person you love most in the world remembers and cares about who you are makes the sharing of any issue easier to experience and resolve.