An Excerpt from Love Cycles by Linda Carroll
It’s difficult to have real exchanges with our partner if we’re not clear about our needs and motivations. First we must be honest and listen to ourselves. Then we must be honest and listen to our partner, in good faith. Otherwise, so-called communication is nothing more than an empty exercise. Here’s an example of this dynamic, which played out in two meetings with a couple I saw in my practice.
As Rob and his girlfriend, Mandy sat in my office, Rob spoke enthusiastically about his weekend. He’d just come back from a “fantastic celebration,” his twenty-fifth high school reunion, but he hadn’t invited Mandy to go with him.
“I feel excluded,” Mandy said, looking down at her feet. “I know you wanted to spend time with old friends, and I actually thought that was great. Except you didn’t ask me to come.” She hesitated for a moment. “I felt like maybe you weren’t proud enough of me to introduce me to your friends.”
“I’m really glad you shared,” Rob said, leaning in close to her. “I can understand how you feel.” He capped his response with a smile and a hug.
Mandy settled back in her chair, somewhat mollified.
The following month, Rob took the lead in planning a weekend ski trip with some of the same friends. Once again, he failed to invite Mandy. This time, when he began to “actively listen” to her feelings of exclusion, she jumped up and strode out of my office. Rob sat there, amazed at his girlfriend’s negative reaction. He worked in an industry whose products were cutting-edge, and glitches in the newest systems often led to consumer complaints. He was a master at grievance management. The communication skills that worked so well in that environment were ones he used in one-time interactions with customers. With Mandy, however, he ran into trouble. She had begun to witness enough repeat performances of his listening to her protests with all the right responses, while continuing the same old behavior, to see them for what they were — well-practiced management techniques rather than genuine listening. Although Rob was in couples counseling, he seemed unwilling to learn how to listen to his partner with the necessary empathy, curiosity, and willingness to change that allow real growth in a relationship.
If Rob had used his considerable communication skills to connect rather than to manipulate, he would have heard Mandy’s pain about not being invited to the school reunion rather than just pretending he had. Out of respect for her feelings, he might have then asked her along on the ski trip or come clean and explained his needs for time alone with his old friends.
Your Emotional Core
If you get stuck in behavior that doesn’t work, as Rob did, it’s time to explore your emotional core. Reflecting on your family history and understanding its impact on you is one of the best ways to get information about how you operate in your intimate relationship. My experience as a therapist has taught me to look out for two red flags when people recall their childhoods. The first flag pops up when I hear that “everything was perfect,” and the second when I’m told that “everything was awful.”
The story of a perfect childhood is one of omission. No one escapes entirely from the human condition and its trouble, loss, fear, and difficult passages. We might prefer memories in which everyone smiles in the photograph, and the message says “Happy Holidays from the (Perfect) Family.” But our real history is more complicated. Every family is made up of moments and seasons, and every sibling is born into a different family, in terms of how she reacts to circumstances and how she interacts with other members.
If you remember your childhood as perfect, your rosy remembrance is probably a reflection of your positive personality and perhaps your adherence to a family value that admits only to the flawless. If you believe that everything in your childhood was bad, that belief, too, reflects your personality and your family ethos and is most likely an overstatement. If things were so uniformly wretched, where did you get the skill and the courage to read a book like this? To go to work, make dinner, find friends, and maintain hope that life will get better? (Of course, some people have enjoyed reasonably happy, safe, and loving childhoods, while others have grown up with a lot of struggle, pain, and fear. It is the 100 percent stories — all bad or all good — that I am addressing here.)
Not all the clues about how we interact and behave can be found by looking at our families, of course. Some people who come from solid, caring homes find themselves at a perpetual loss in adulthood. Others who grew up in poster families for dysfunction manage to build rich, happy lives. Nonetheless, every family wields a lasting impact. All of us can benefit by revisiting our beginnings and paying special attention to the childhood beliefs and behaviors that we bring into our present relationships.
Linda Carroll is the author of Love Cycles. A couple’s therapist for over thirty years, she is certified in Transpersonal Psychology and Imago Therapy and is a master teacher in Pairs Therapy. She lives in Corvallis, OR, offers workshops across the country, and is a frequent speaker at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Visit her online at www.lindaacarroll.com.
Adapted from the book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Wholehearted Love ©2014 by Linda Carroll. Published with permission of New World Library www.newworldlibrary.com.