This is part three of my series on relationship skills for people who have experienced abuse and/or trauma. You can find the rest of this series on my blog.
My first argument with David began as we attempted to make the bed. Really. He liked to make the bed military style and I, with all my physical problems, wanted the sheets free for my constantly cramping “pigeon-toed” feet.
As we argued, several things became real apparent.
- He was not my ex-husband.
- I was not his ex-wife.
- He was not my mother.
- I was not his mother.
- He didn’t want to hurt me.
- I didn’t want to hurt him.
- He was not any of the people who had hurt me.
- I was not any of the people who had hurt him.
In the midst of a tumultuous argument, you have uninvited visitors in your home, creating chaos, stirring up trouble, telling stories, and being downright rude. If these were real live people invading your home, you’d call the police! Or at least throw them out.
How do you throw them out? The answer is in my next true story, which is about my first counseling job.
The title was ‘relief evening counselor’. I later figured out that I was the ‘relief’ or substitute because they couldn’t keep anyone in this position!
I worked by myself. No one but the residents were there during my work hours. There were no other staff present, no guards, no emergency phone, and no safety arrangements for anyone. My hours were from 6 PM to 12 Midnight. In all my interesting jobs, this one in a halfway house for women just out of prison was simply incredibly stupid and dangerous. Had I been a little older, I would have known better than to take the job!
I was not yet trained in psychology; and, in fact, had only attended one community class for paraprofessional type counseling. In that class, however, I learned this very profound and essential fact. The greatest need all people have is to be heard and understood.
Regrettably, this does not happen as often as it should. Instead, we act out the ‘triggering response’ from our pasts. Imagine little buttons all over you. Each button is attached to your stored feelings, thoughts, and past hurts from every painful fight you have ever had with anyone. Actually, those buttons also include all the stored feelings and thoughts from every hurt you ever experienced in your life.
Your partner says something, like David did, about “The RIGHT Way to make the bed”. And your buttons get pushed, like mine. His tone of voice, his confidence that he was absolutely right, and his body language pushed my buttons, surprisingly enough, from every doctor’s visit I had ever had. And there I was, no longer in present time, but back as a child in the doctor’s office being misunderstood and pushed around. (Once I was even hit by the nurse for crying.)
Then, I said something totally unrelated to our current dilemma, but out of my past. And I pushed his buttons. And we were off and running. What a mess! It is a wonder people ever get to be in love!
That paraprofessional counseling class taught that the cure for this “triggering response” is listening. They taught a form of active listening, where you listen carefully to what is being said. You don’t argue no matter how outlandish the other person’s statements may seem. You listen and let the other person that you hear them in an authentic manner.
That authenticity is critical. We see parodies of this on television. They are laughable. It’s funny on television, but brutal in real life. “I hear you.” “You said such and such.” The person repeats in a robotic and exacting manner that is actually insulting. It’s important to try and understand what your loved one is saying. And then let them know with some degree of the compassion you have for them. Compassion, because you love them.
This is very hard. In the midst of a real fight, it takes a serious amount of self-control. We were encouraged to practice frequently.
Back to the halfway house where there was a woman out of control. She had scissors in her hand and wanted to kill another woman. She was actually walking rapidly from one part of the house to another as I tried to do something. The only weapon I had was from that class: my understanding of compassionate listening.
I followed her repeating in my own words everything she said. I didn’t argue with her. I just repeated as best I could her feelings. What happened next is a very permanent photographic image in my mind! She stopped in the middle of a hallway. Her entire body language changed. Best of all she told me what was bothering her. And that was the end of the danger.
Much later, it occurred to me that if this would work in the midst of a physically dangerous situation, it would probably work in the midst of an emotionally dangerous situation. This could solve an argument! Only one of us had to stay out of the fight. One of us had to keep those historical people at bay long enough to listen. In the beginning, that person was me.
It always worked, when I had the emotional stamina to refrain from acting out my dramas and listen to what he had to say. Just like the woman in the halfway house, he would stop, his entire body language would change, and he would tell me what was bothering him. Then, and only then, could he hear what was bothering me.
This part is important too. He was completely incapable of hearing me until I heard him first. He was an outrageous man, so we could expect that. But this is also true with my current, much more sane husband. He simply cannot hear me until I hear him first.
Fair or unfair, so what. I love him! This is the way of successful communication. I do what works and listen carefully. Then I tell what is on my mind.
Then we would talk like the loving people we were. I was concerned about his feelings and he was concerned about mine. Finally, we could solve the issue in a way that benefited both of us.
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©2016 by Laura Coleman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons