The Real Reason You Can't Communicate With Your Partner
Secretly, silently, maybe even unconsciously, we think other people are just like us. We fall in love and assume the two of us see the world through the same lens, even if we get lots of clues that, actually, no, we don’t. So then we spend the next 45 years trying to convince our significant other to see everything our way.
When clients first come to see me, often they say they’re in search of communication skills. What it turns out most are really looking for is a surefire way to get their partner to agree with them. But who has ever succeeded in changing another person? No one I know.
To expect you to see the world the same way I do is a huge challenge. We get exasperated because underneath our point of view lies the question “Why aren’t you me?” Fortunately, the question itself can wake us up to just how absurd our expectations are. To tolerate the otherness in our partner requires generosity (recently found to be the most important quality in a long-term relationship), collaboration skills, and enough faith and trust in each other and what we’ve built together to feel at ease, unthreatened by our differences.
George, who owns a restaurant, is an open book. He’s got a knack for telling great little stories and loves to talk, not just to friends but to everyone. His wife, Sarah, is a poet. She’s quiet and serious and needs to spend a lot of time alone. Happily, they complement each other, most of the time. After long, hard hours at the restaurant, George is glad to go home to Sarah’s tranquil oasis. For her part, Sarah enjoys George’s gusto. He makes her laugh. Still, she’s a private person. Countless times she’s told him, “Please respect my privacy. Just leave me out of your stories.”
Recently, Sarah was a finalist for a prestigious poetry prize. Excited, she called George at the restaurant to share the news. Late that night, he brought home a bottle of Champagne. He poured two flutes and toasted her: “Here’s to my clever wife.”
“Thank you," Sarah said, “but you shouldn’t have. I haven’t won anything.”
“Yes, you have! It’s the recognition you deserve. The kitchen staff is excited. They’re going to bake you a cake.”
“What? You told them?” Sarah was livid.
George was bewildered. How could his wife be angry? In his view, Sarah’s nomination for the prize was an honor to celebrate. If she didn’t win, there was no shame in it.
But that wasn’t how she saw it. If she didn’t win, all of these people would know she was an also-ran.
“Why aren’t you me?” That was the question at the heart of this conflict.
How to duck the question? Here are two of the best resources I know and recommend: the Enneagram and the Imago dialogue. The Enneagram is an ancient system, whose classification of nine personality types has resurfaced in recent years and is now studied everywhere to learn how best to manage the self and to interact with others. This system offers us a road map to psychological and spiritual health. Online quizzes and explanations of how to find your way through this system are everywhere. Find your number, understand your partners and how you look at the world through two different pairs of glasses.
The Imago system, conceived by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, is another unique and powerful tool, which has the power to move participants from the surface conversation to the core of an issue. In this process (which you can find online and, even better, an IMAGO therapist to teach you) you learn how to really listen to the other person, as if you have crossed a bridge into their world and can see it from their eyes.
I was so happy to fall in love with a veterinarian. With my love of animals, it seemed as if it was my destiny. In our early years together, I used to travel with him down country roads as he looked after horses, cows, and the companion animals of farmers. I loved his gentle competence. He was my very own James Herriot. Years later, after we were married, I began to bring home rescue dogs and didn’t understand why he’d get so annoyed when I did. These rescues of mine and his angry reactions to them caused a lot of arguments and hurt feelings. One day I suggested we try an Imago dialogue.
The process involved my really listening so that I could try to repeat what I’d heard him just say. I asked him why he became a vet. To my surprise, this man I’d known for decades spoke of his love for science, for surgery, which is why he became a vet. I had never known this, not in decades of living with him. Of course, he was a pet owner, too, but the urge to rescue strays was my passion, not his. Through our Imago dialogue, I could finally understand why he resisted the idea of an animal rescue center in our home, if only because I felt firsthand that he wasn’t me.
Through the Enneagram and Imago dialogue, we can transform the way we see others, judge them, and interact. The difference in you will transform your relationships, not just with your lover or partner but with everyone in your life: family, friends, co-workers, and the person you buy your groceries from. When you interact differently, seeing life from their point of view, they will respond differently.
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