The most important lesson we learned in couples therapy — Down To There

I don’t cry often. And when I do, it’s almost never in public. But there I was, sitting across from my husband at a restaurant at the San Francisco airport with tears streaming down my face.

A few weeks earlier, we had a huge blow up. I was telling him about an idea I had for our house. I was looking for help brainstorming, but hadn’t told him that, and his responses were more focused on feasibility.

Rather than appreciate the practical insights he was contributing, I was solely focused on the fact that he was neither dreaming with me, nor encouraging my ideas. And I completely lost my s#&%. Like really, truly and completely lost my s#&%.

The feeling reminded me how I sometimes feel when we are getting ready for bed and my husband gets on his phone. Have you ever experienced that kind of moment? Where you have a really BIG emotion triggered by a really small thing? 

Sometimes when I have this kind of reaction, an internal pep talk or time alone will calm me down. Not this time. This time, my emotions demanded my complete attention for several weeks.

My husband asked me what was going on. “You don’t make me feel special” I replied instinctively. Sweet engineer that he is, he immediately offered solutions. What if he did _____? Or maybe _____?  But those practical ideas missed the mark. My feelings only seemed to get bigger. 

This wasn’t what I needed! But what did I need? I had no idea. I was struggling.

After a week, my husband seemed pretty dejected. Our attempts to talk through it were ending badly. He felt blamed. He was willing to put in effort and make changes, but his offers didn’t seem to “work”. He was frustrated and started getting defensive when I shared my feelings.

He suggested we see a couples therapist and I agreed we needed outside help. In our first session, our therapist suggested a new conversation structure. When one of us shared a feeling, the other person was simply to repeat the feeling back and say “Tell me more”. 

That was it. No solutions. No attacking. No defending. Just repeating the feeling back. It seemed deceptively simple, but at that point, we were up for trying anything.

Fast-forward back to that moment at the San Francisco airport. I had just shared something with my husband and he nodded and started a new conversation about something entirely different. BAM! Those BIG emotions rushed back. So I asked, “Hey – I notice I’m having a big emotion right now that I’d really like to share with you. Are you willing to try the whole no-solutions-no-attacking-no-defending structure?”

He said yes and I started. “When I share something with you and you switch the subject like that, I feel ignored.” He gulped. It was clear it was going to be hard for him to listen to my feelings without getting defensive. But he did as the therapist said and responded “It sounds like you feel ignored. Tell me more.”

“Yeah, it’s actually really hard for me to communicate an idea and when you switch subjects so quickly, I feel like I don’t get a chance to get to the bottom of what I’m trying to say.” He seemed to soften as he heard this. “It sounds like it’s hard for you to feel like you get a chance to be fully heard. Tell me more.”

“Yes, it’s actually how I feel with emotions a lot as well. It’s frustrating to feel emotional, but not know what emotion I’m feeling. If you don’t hang in the conversation with me, it feels lonely, like you aren’t actually here with me or like what I’m saying is not interesting.”

I felt ashamed telling him those things. I felt needy and insecure. Tears started to form. But these tears felt different. Instead of tears of frustration, these tears felt like relief. He wasn’t trying to fix anything or to defend himself… he was simply… here. He looked and me and said, “It sounds like part of you feels lonely and another part of you feels sad. That sounds tough.”

“Yeah, it is. I don’t want to feel this way and I feel like I’m actually the one that created this dynamic between us. I’m so independent and rarely show my emotions. I don’t know how I would expect you to know what to do when I do want to share my feelings. And that makes me even more sad!”

Tears were streaming down my face at this point. Something clicked. For a moment, I had actually gotten to the heart of what was bothering me. After weeks of conversations that only seemed to make things worse, I suddenly was feeling better. 

He had no idea how well this conversation was going. From his vantage point, he wasn’t offering any solutions and I was uncontrollably crying. So I said “I know this sounds crazy, but this is the best conversation I’ve had with you in weeks.” 

Since that moment, I’ve been able to return the favor and be there for him when he had big emotions. And while the conversations never seem easy, they do seem effective… being seen and heard is apparently quite powerful. 

A cool side effect is that this kind of listening works equally well with our 11-year-old son! So not only did this one thing from couples therapy result in my husband being a better husband, and me being a better wife… but it’s also helped us be better parents.

Why we aren’t all assigned therapists at birth? This stuff is gold.

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