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You Can be Right or You Can be Married

“You can be right or you can be married” is a saying of the famous couples therapist, Terry Real*. He even goes so far as to list “being right” as the first of five losing strategies. Yet it’s also one of the most difficult concepts for distressed couples to grasp, especially if being right is all they’ve got, as the only alternative is being wrong.

The problem with debating right or wrong is that it involves a cognitive process using the front part of the brain that completely negates the lived experience stored in the relational part of the brain. Relational living means connecting with how our significant other is experiencing a situation, and recognizing that while our own experience may be different, that’s okay. In fact, it simply means we’re human. Learning how to hear and empathize with our partner’s experience – and then letting them know that we had a different experience – is not only crucial for conflict resolution, it’s crucial for intimacy.

The story I tell my couples to illustrate this concept starts with a rite of passage from my teen years, where it was typical to go to a pub and buy a round of drinks before your 18th birthday (the legal age for buying alcohol in England). Being asked to show ID (or “getting carded” as they say in the US) was rare, but if it happened, it was the ultimate humiliation. Here you were, thinking you were so cool and sophisticated and grown up, and some bar-tender got to tell the world (or at least the punters down the pub) that actually, you were just an acned teenager acting way out of your league.

Ouch.

Fast forward to the grand old age of 32. It was my first full day in the States, my house had been trashed by the renters, and I was being denied a much-needed gin & tonic at TGI Friday’s (of all places) because I didn’t yet have a US driving license and it hadn’t occurred to me to take my passport to the bar.

“Oh it’s a compliment!” cooed my 50-year-old female co-workers, somehow missing the fact that, a) I was only thirty-two, and b) it’s hardly flattering to be denied a cocktail.

“Well, the server could lose their job if they served alcohol to under-age minors”, the male co-workers mansplained, somehow also missing the fact that I was thirty-two, and, frankly, the point.

While both of these responses may have been “right”, neither of them were especially helpful, and neither allowed me to feel seen, felt or understood. Both were aimed at correcting my interpretation of the situation – perhaps with the intention of helping me feel less upset about it – but it didn’t work, because the relational piece was missing. A more relational response (aside from being served a measly gin & tonic in the first place) would have been someone saying, “Oh honey, what a bad day! I’m so sorry,” or even, “Ooof, those carding rules can seem so arbitrary sometimes.” Yet nobody did – and still doesn’t – perhaps because my experience is literally foreign in a land where nobody bats an eye about being asked to show ID.

The point of this story is that although our significant others might not literally be from a foreign country, they are from a foreign land. Their land – of family rules, norms, expectations and experiences, past hurts and humiliations – is different from ours. And those foreign lands inform how we experience interactions in the present day. Debating whether each other’s lived experience is right or wrong is not only unnecessary but actually quite ridiculous; our lived experience just is what it is. Instead of working to correct our significant other’s perception, we need to first empathize, and then get curious. “Oh I’m so sorry you felt so sad/hurt/misunderstood.” “Tell me about that.” “What did it mean to you?” “What did it remind you of?” “Oh, that’s really interesting, because it landed very differently for me.”

As for me, I’ll be honest that it still ticks me off a bit when I get carded, but these days I’m a lot more relational about it. I no longer cry (as I did that day in TGI Friday’s), roll my eyes in contempt or make a big production of pulling my driving license out of my purse and slamming it down on the counter. I now understand that the servers don’t make the carding policy, it’s not worth losing their job over, and if they can’t tell I’m nearing 50, it’s probably a good thing.

I do, however, still glance at my husband, who – because he knows a bit about my lived experience – gives me a sympathetic look, rubs his hand on my back and says, “Sorry, hon. I know that bugs you.”

Which is all it takes to be relational.

 

Jane McCampbell-Stuart is a licensed therapist, a certified EMDR therapist and a relational coach. She works with individuals and couples, helping all of us become the very best version of ourselves.

*Terry Real is the founder of The Relational Life institute. His website is www.terryreal.com.

 

 

The Don’t Ask Conundrum

“Those who ask don’t get, and those who don’t ask, don’t want!”

This was one of my grandfather’s favorite sayings; albeit delivered with a twinkle in his eye, but delivered nonetheless – mostly when he caught my siblings and I looking hopefully at the sweetie-tin on the mantlepiece, the ice-cream van in the park, or the last chocolate biscuit on the tea-trolley.

It would be many years before I learned about double-binds as a therapeutic concept, but even at six years old, the conundrum was not lost on me. 

Ask and you’d appear ungrateful for what you’d already been given. Even worse, you’d put a kindly elder in the heartbreaking position of giving up something they were saving for themselves because they didn’t want to say no to a child. 

Don’t ask, and nobody would realize you were even interested. “Well, since no-one else wants it,” my father would say, helping himself to the last of my grandmother’s perfectly crispy roast potatoes, right in front of our forlorn, puppy-dog eyes.

Because when you can’t ask, puppy-dog eyes are your only recourse. You gaze longingly at what you desire, and then beseechingly at the person with the power to grant it, in the hope that they might notice, take pity on you, and offer it up. The trick is to be obvious enough to get your grandfather’s attention but subtle enough not to arouse your dad’s, because he’s been playing the game for longer, and is better at it than you are. He’s also acutely attuned to how your behavior around his parents might reflect badly on him.

“Say please!” “Say thank you!” “Don’t be greedy!” “I think you’ve had enough!”

With upbringings like that, it’s no wonder we all have such a hard time asking for what we want; why we drop hints and send indirect signals that can be quietly ignored by the receiver or briskly denied by the sender should they inadvertently make anyone upset. But it only takes a few years of marriage for the puppy-dog eyes to slowly degenerate into glares towards the overflowing trash-can interspersed with some stomping about, banging of cupboard doors and a sarcastic “nothing!” when asked what’s wrong.

Our biggest difficulty – and women, I’m mostly talking to you – is that despite what fairy tales and Disney would have us believe, significant others don’t typically swoop in to heal all the wounds of childhood and indulge us benevolently like our grandparents did (or should have). They don’t yet have the wisdom, the life-perspective – or frankly, the time – to anticipate and meet our needs as much as we might want, expect, or feel entitled to. And – if they’re anything like most of the men who come to me for couples therapy – they’re probably just expecting us to meet our own needs, which is what they’ve learned to do for themselves.

Incidentally, meeting our own needs is a reasonable – if not entirely relational – solution to the don’t ask conundrum. A more relational solution, honestly, is to just use our words. Which means that next time we want our significant other to unload the dishwasher, take the kids to a dental appointment or share the last profiterole, we should try just asking – preferably in the same tone of voice we would use to ask a co-worker to help us move a table. Our significant other gets to respond with a yes, a no or a counteroffer. They don’t get to ignore the request, judge the request as ridiculous or say yes and not follow through – because all those would be anti-relational. And why would anyone be anti-relational when we’ve asked them so nicely? 

Unless we forgot to say please.

Jane McCampbell-Stuart is a licensed marriage & family therapist and relational coach. She works with individuals and couples, encouraging relationality and helping all of us become the very best version of ourselves. Find her at therapyjane.com.