We’re driving together, my wife and I. I crack the window for fresh air. Ten seconds later she touches her shoulder, as if to ward off a chill. I close the window.
I turn up the radio for a Bach cello passage. Her sigh is barely audible. I turn down the music.
We’re married 38 years. I know her moves, she knows mine. (For example, I have a special cough that reminds her I hate Frazier reruns.)
We share a secret language.
Pretty normal. All couples find such ways to communicate with — and yes, control — each other.
We signal feelings, preferences and reactions to our partner, and our partner adjusts accordingly. Secret-language messages fly back and forth between us all day long. Couples together a while speak it automatically, even unconsciously,
It’s mostly harmless, even helpful. Saves time, energy, strengthens our bond.
But some people depend on secret communication because they don’t know how to express themselves in an unsecret way.
Most couples I see for marriage counseling lack this ability. Usually they grew up in families unable to model healthy emotional communication. They’ve no clue how to talk about feelings. Secret language – what therapists call acting-out — is the only one they speak.
They also tend to expect others to intuit their meaning. If you really loved me, they rationalize, you’d know how I feel.
But that’s silly. My wife and I love each other. We still can’t read each other’s minds.
Back in the car I notice a tinge of resentment. That Bach I turned down is Yo-Yo Ma playing the deep, gorgeous prelude to the First Cello Suite.
“I’m turning this up,” I say. “It’s short. Okay?”
“Sure,” my wife says.
Most relationships are ruined not by what we express, but by what we hold back.
redux (adj): brought back
Her husband is alcoholic. This is her second marriage. Her first husband was alcoholic too.
As was dad.
“I always swore I’d never marry someone like my father,” she says. “Then I do it twice. What am I, stupid? Self-destructive?”
“Neither,” I say. “You’re still trying to get dad to stop drinking.”
She looks at me as if I just spoke Klingon.
“Kids with a problem parent often grow up to find partners that remind them of the parent. It’s why kids from alcoholic families marry alcoholics, kids from abusive families marry abusers, and so on.”
“We’re all stupid?” she frowns.
“No. You’re all trying to heal the old wound.
“First you recreate the scene of the crime by finding someone like dad. Then you try to fix him. If you can fix him it’s almost as good as fixing your father. At least that’s the unconscious logic. It’s called repetition compulsion.”
“Does it ever work?”
I shake my head. “Not in my experience.”
“How can I stop?” she asks.
“Well, you become conscious of your unconscious motive. That’s what we’re doing now.”
“Then you grieve the old wound – let yourself feel and express what you couldn’t as a kid. The helplessness, anxiety, sadness, anger.”
Her eyes fill.
“I know. Not fun. But essential to putting the past behind you.”
“Then you start making choices based on your current situation instead of the old nightmare. For example, you accept that your husband’s drinking – like dad’s – is a problem only he can solve. You stop trying to control it. I’ll help with that.”
“Sounds like lots of work,” she says.
“Sure,” I say. “Recovery’s never a walk in the park.
“Just better than repeating the nightmare.”
Magic word, No.
As in No thanks, I don’t want to.
Or No, that’s not good for me.
Solves many problems.
Saves endless energy.
Deflects tons of discomfort and pain.
True, not always easy to say.
Especially if you’ve been denied that right in the past.
Especially if nobody taught you that it is a right.
But that’s what it is. Everyone has the right to say No.
It’s also a necessity. Sort of like carrying a gun in a rough part of town.
You don’t have to wave it around or point it at people. But it’s nice to have on your hip when push comes to shove.
And let’s face it.
There are places and people in your life you shouldn’t visit unarmed.
Six women, crying.
All moms or grandmothers, and all worried about a kid.
One kid is gay and her parents are rejecting her. One’s being fed junk food and left alone all day with tv. One (a big one) is a germophobe whose marriage is in jeopardy. One (another big one) drinks too much. And the last flies into rages when he can’t get his way.
Anxiety, frustration, guilt and helplessness slowly fill the group room like a swimming pool.
And behind each story is one question: What can I do about this? And the same frightened answer: I can’t do anything.
“Okay,” I say finally. “Ready for some good news?”
They look at me.
“Not the answer you’re looking for, probably. And not where you’re looking for it. Not out there, among the people you love and want to rescue and the problems you hate and want to solve.”
I get up from my chair and go to a mobile hanging in one corner. It’s my Seafood Mobile, all fish, crabs and starfish. I flick a tuna with my finger. The whole mobile bounces.
“This is a family,” I say. “See what happens when one member’s in trouble? The trouble migrates throughout the system. Affects everyone. Got that?”
“Now watch.” I hold the tuna between my thumb and forefinger. The mobile calms down. “This is what happens when one member stabilizes or heals. That healing migrates throughout the system too.”
I sit down again.
“You’ve no control over these problems. But you also have more power than you know. You can be the calm fish. You can help stabilize the system.
“Remember when you were kids? Remember the adults that helped you the most? They weren’t the anxious, angry or desperate ones. Not the ones who scolded or punished or rescued.
“They were the ones who reassured you, encouraged you, praised you, helped you feel good about yourselves. Who modeled calmness, acceptance, or faith. Who helped convince you – because they really believed it – that Everything Will Be Okay.”
“That’s what you can bring to your families.
“Your kids and grandkids are each in their own little rowboat. You can’t row it for them. Can’t stop the storm or calm the waters. You don’t have that kind of control.
“But if you learn how to calm yourselves without controlling, you can offer them a safe harbor. Model faith that Everything Will Be Okay. And provide an emotional space where they can pull in, drop oars, catch their breath, regain hope.
“Not a small thing.”
“Of course I love my son,” replies the abusive father. “You think I don’t?”
“Depends on what you mean by the word love,” I say. “Are you talking about a feeling or behavior?”
“I don’t follow.”
“I believe you feel love for your son. But love’s not just a feeling. It’s behavior.”
“Behavior,” he repeats.
“A specific set of them, actually: Attention. Acceptance. Approval. Affection. The four A’s.
“How good are you at those behaviors?”
He is silent.
“Look,” I say. “I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I know something about your background. I know your own dad used to hit you too.”
He looks at me.
“And it’s pretty hard to give what you weren’t given. Hard, without a healthy model, to be a healthy parent.”
“I want to,” he says.
“Good,” I say. “Then the question to start asking yourself isn’t Do I love my son?
“It’s Does my son feel loved?”
She wants advice about how to reach her troubled-but-defensive son.
‘What if I say X?” she asks. “Would that work? Or what if I say Y?”
And each time I ask, “What happened last time you tried that approach?”
Her replies vary, but amount to the same thing. “He ignored me,” she says, or “He shut down,” or “He got angry.”
We go round and round on this until she sees the real problem:
Lack of empathy.
Empathy is the ability to be aware of and sensitive to another person’s feelings. It means being able to answer the question How would I feel if I were you?
An essential relationship skill, it has roots deep in a skill essential to self-care:
Sensitivity to our own feelings.
Think about it. If you don’t know how (or were never permitted) to treat your own feelings with sensitivity and respect, how can you treat the feelings of others any better?
And if you try anyway (as this mom was), at best you’re faking it. You’re guessing.
So learning empathy always starts with the homework of learning to listen to yourself.
You can’t give away what you don’t have.