A number of years ago when my son was 5, he drew with BLACK SHARPIE on his closet wall an enormous black spider, complete with a web on which he was perched. He so very proudly asked me to come into his room to look at his masterpiece. I had just come home from work so I was in a more serene place (tends to happen after 8 hours of teaching individuals and couples how to behave when they are in their healthiest place of being). Rather than showing my darling Picasso what I was feeling on the inside (did I mention SHARPIE?) I said “Wow, will you look at that? That…that is…a very large spider on the wall. Why did you choose to put it on the wall?” (I didn’t lecture, I was just inquisitive.)
Now, because I am not a model of perfection, nor do I ever pretend to be, I am giving an example of when I did it well, really well as far as I am concerned. I did not practice congruence (when what one is feeling on the inside matches one’s expression on the outside) because on the inside I was furious. But knowing this often shuts people down, especially children–oh wait, nope it usually shuts everyone down–I kept my cool.
My son, beaming, said “Well I drew it for you, I wanted you to always have it and never lose it. I know you are sad when you lose things.” (Side note: my father had passed away a few months prior.) Ugh. My heart dropped. The story I told myself (see blog from two weeks ago) was that my son was being rebellious, he knows we don’t color on walls, that we color on paper. If I would have blown up, yelled, shamed, expressed extreme disappointment, my guess is he would have shut down and I may not have heard his adorable motivation behind his art.
Despite still being very attracted to my husband, at times it is harder to be curious with him! My son’s small blue eyes, blonde hair and remnants of cute baby cheeks are hard to stay mad at. After working this job for a while, the techniques I use with my children are JUST AS, IF NOT MORE effective with my spouse.
My curiosity continues…
During therapy, I often ask couples to be curious about each other and each other’s motivations. So many times couples mind-read and as an expert in the field, I gotta tell you people, you are usually doing it all wrong!!! Take for example, a couple I will call Bonnie and Clyde (names have to be changed for confidentiality purposes so why not have fun?). Bonnie had a friend who was just diagnosed with cancer and she wanted to fly across the country to see her. She was really upset when she got the call and ran up to Clyde who was in the middle of refereeing an argument among their three children and texting back his paralegal regarding an urgent matter. She was crying as she told him she needed to get on a plane and go and his response (as he is usually the calmer one in the coupleship) was “just wait” while holding up his hand to her. She stormed off. He was caught off guard and after handling his current situation he went to find Bonnie, a very angry Bonnie. She started yelling at him and he got defensive and began attempting to justify his asking her to wait. A very large fight ensued and both of them got down right mean and curiosity flew right out the window. Oftentimes in situations like this it is hard to slow down and seek to understand. But arguments are SO MUCH more successful when you’re able to do that. The next day, still fuming, they walked into a perfectly timed scheduled couples therapy session. As I was walking them through the skill of being curious they both learned this about each other:
-Bonnie felt unimportant and dismissed when Clyde asked her to wait so she reacted meanly and defensively. She didn’t tell him how she felt, she just reacted. Bonnie also is one of seven children and rarely felt important growing up, so is easily upset when her “unimportant” and “dismissed” buttons are triggered.
-Clyde was asking her to wait so he could devote his full attention to her so he could support her during this difficult time, as well as help rationally figure out how to get her to her friend ASAP. He also has a mother who is very dramatic and this stirred up some stuff for him and he found himself reacting like his Dad does to his mom. He didn’t realize this until the therapy session (a wonderful gift I often give…pointing out that people have turned out just like their parents!!! Ugh!).
They both learned the importance of curiosity and slowing down. A very advanced skill, especially difficult to practice in the heat of the moment, but well worth the energy to learn it and add it to your toolbox for a healthier, curiosity creates compassion which creates connection.
- Don’t use Sharpies on the wall.
- If you use Sharpies on the wall there had better be a good reason for it.
- Practice being curious and seek to understand why you and your partner are reacting in hurtful ways.
- Oftentimes, when we react to our partners, there is a trigger behind it.
- Slowing down and talking about those triggers leads to a happier relationship.