I see a lot of couples who seem, from the outside, to have a really good life, and their friends and family may not know that they are not okay. But they are not okay; they can’t communicate anymore, not anywhere, not any time, not at the breakfast table, not when they go out together, not even in bed. One gets frustrated and says their partner doesn’t listen, and the other feels very hurt by what is said in anger. One blames their partner loudly, the other goes silent, which makes the noisy partner even more hurtful things, and the quiet one withdraw even further into their shell.
What’s gone wrong? I suggested in my last post that a change in the couple’s world is usually the trigger; trouble at work, death or illness of a parent, the birth of a baby; anything which puts pressure on one partner, puts pressure on the relationship. A life-changing event affects both partners; it’s a bit like being on a seesaw, where you are nicely balancing each other, and someone else jumps on one end, throwing one up into the air, while the other crashes to the ground.
On the seesaw, you don’t blame each other, you can see what happened. In a relationship, the changes are more subtle, and slower, so we don’t understand what has happened, we don’t recognise what stresses have thrown us off balance. We blame our partner for being less loving, more preoccupied, different in some way. We get angry because we don’t understand what is wrong, and we say hurtful, damaging, personal things. Our partner, wounded, but not knowing how to respond, withdraws into silence. One doesn’t know how to express their hurt without attacking, the other is too hurt to defend, and it becomes harder and harder to love each other. Neither listens; they each put up a defensive wall – of sound, or of silence – but both walls block the other out.
Who, or what can break the deadlock? There are simple steps you can take to help you start listening to each other again. It’s easier to start talking with the help of a supportive outsider; a counsellor or therapist, but if you want to try on your own first, and you are both willing to have a go, then Step 1 is that hurtful, personal remarks are not allowed, not ever. We don’t change our partner’s mind, or behaviour, by beating them over the head verbally. Words wound, they cause deep damage to our relationship, and the repair job takes time. Step 2 is about how the silent partner can find his or her voice. I’ll talk about more steps next time.