Take ownership of the words we use
There are all kinds of relationships. If you interact with a person over time, you have a relationship.
People have work relationships. People have platonic relationships, and people have intimate relationships.
When relationships go bad or prove to be troubling, the individuals in those relationships often get depressed or anxious.
Their work suffers. They experience increased emotional pain and decreased psychological functioning.
If they come for help, they usually start telling a story filled with the words “we” and “us,” illustrating that what they want to fix is actually a two-person situation.
Now, you can work on a two-person situation with only half of those people present, but that is a less efficient way to go about it.
The best way to address the situational depression and anxiety that comes from painful and dysfunctional relationships is with both people present. The most efficient approach is a two-person process.
I say this referring to situations in which the two people are actually still together.
When the increased emotional pain and decreased psychological functioning is the result of the loss of a relationship, then it is truly a one-person process that is taking place, and that process is the process of grieving.
The DSM-5 considers such grief to be a psychological disorder, but many psychologists and psychotherapists regard it to be a normal and healthy response to significant loss.
When grief gets stuck or is purposely stuffed back down, then it can become problematic.
Many times in working with people it seems to me that communication breakdown is part of the mix.
People just miss one another, and the more they try to “fix” things, the wider the gap in understanding becomes.
That's because once you go off the rails with another person, just becoming more intense in your trying to be understood usually drives the wedge between you deeper.
When we communicate with one another we are attempting to share something that is true about us with that other.
That is, if we are trying to have an intimate relationship (not exactly the same thing as sex, although sex is usually included), then we want to know the other and to be known by the other.
One of the most typical ways that we miss one another, however, is what could be called the hermeneutics of the situation.
Hermeneutics refers to the rules of the way in which we interpret.
In the study of the Bible, for instance, the preacher exegetes (draws out the meaning of a text) using a set of hermeneutical principles.
In the interpretation of life experiences (something we all do, because we are hard wired to make such meaning so that we can adjust to life situations and survive), we also operate according to some basic principles.
There are four that come mind:
1. There is what we say
2. There is how we say it
3. There is the context in which this saying takes place
4. There is the foreground/background relationship between the what and the how
Imagine I walk through the door at home after work and say to you, “What's up?”.
Imagine I say it with raised eyebrows and a furrowed forehead.
Imagine your father used to come into your room at night after school and say that in exactly the same way, just before he would accuse you of all sorts of bad behaviour and beat you with a belt.
What do you think your reaction might be to me, and what do you think you would imagine I might mean by what I said and how I said it?
Now imagine that on my way home from work all I could think of was how I missed you all day and could not wait to get home to see you, to touch you, to tell you how much I loved you.
Imagine that I greeted you with a common greeting hoping to come closer and raised my eyebrows because I was trying to suggest that we get playful with one another, but furrowed my forehead because I was a bit anxious about my initiative.
People miss one another by not taking ownership of the meanings they make, the interpretations they give to what they experience. These are little stories we tell ourselves to explain “what is really going on”.
Thus, they are related to our sense of reality, which is important to maintain. However, none of us has an absolute grip on the truth with a capital “T.”
So, all these various impressions, theories, and stories we tell ourselves about what is going on between ourselves and other people, especially the people with whom we are trying to be the most close, need to be held very loosely.
We need to check them out to make sure we are correct or to correct ourselves where we are starting to go off the rails and misunderstand each other.
How can you do this?
First, own the interpretation, the story, or the theory you have made about the situation and the other person's part in it.
This is your own fantasy, a product of your imagination, and you might be correct, but you might also be wrong. Be sure you know that what you think is going on is only that — what you think.
Second, express it as your own imagination and ask for clarification.
“Honey, when you came through the door and said, ‘What's up?', I thought you were about to accuse me of something. Is that true?”
Third, listen for the clarifying response with a sense of detachment, like a reporter who just wants the facts.
Don't take the response personally, but do take the response seriously.
If you don't get the facts you need, ask for them more specifically, but in all your asking maintain the stance in your choice of words that makes it clear this is to help you understand the other person and not to attack or accuse the other person.
Finally, if it seems that you and your friend or significant other just keep sinking deeper into the swamp of broken communication, seek professional help with a psychologist or psychotherapist who can assist you in unravelling the process and understanding what factors keep contributing to your impasse.
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