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From Zdravi život (Healthy Life) magazine, no. 80/2010

The Ability to Dialogue – How to Acquire it in a Serious Relationship and Marriage

Written by: Ljiljana Bastaic, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, Director of the Centre for the Improvement of the Quality of Life and Communication, Zagreb

As a reaction to my article about marriage relationships published in December, I often hear comments: “It is all very interesting, but how can it help me?” Or “You mention dialogues. We talk, but that does not help, we end up arguing even more.”

Let us begin with a short metaphor. Let us imagine life is a river that is sometimes calm and appears slow, and sometimes full of eddies, straits and underwater rocks. Navigating the river of life can be calm and slow as well as tiresome and risky. Think now of the relationship between two people, think of marriage as a small boat which has been used from ancient times to navigate rivers. Two people sit in it and each has an oar to row with. In order to maintain the direction, it is necessary that each person rows on his side of the boat following the rhythm of the other. Collaboration and harmony are needed.

It is easy to row when the river is peaceful. Then only one partner in the boat can row, even though this requires more effort because he/she needs to change the side of the boat on which he/she rows, as if he/she was alone in the boat. If he/she rows only on his/her side, the boat will start to run in circles. After a while fatigue appears. This fatigue is in my office manifested as a complaint: “I do everything in our relationship, you are nowhere to be seen.” “You only do stuff that interests you, while I do everything to keep our family together.” This means that even in peaceful periods of life it is crucial to cooperate to mutual satisfaction, and not to accept the initiative and involvement of the other with equanimity, as if it were self-understood.

When the river of life enters the straits, it quickens and starts bouncing over visible and invisible rocks. Survival depends on how much effort both rowers invest to keep the boat going in the right direction, i.e. in the direction which leads out of the danger zone. Various scenarios are possible. One of the rowers can get scared and, panicking, begin with counterproductive manoeuvres, or give up rowing and place all the responsibility on the partner. It can happen that the skill they both possess is not sufficient to keep the boat afloat. Then trouble arrives, the boat turns over and both rowers find themselves in water.

Such situations in long-term relationships and in marriage are very frequent and it is lucky that this sort of marriage “shipwreck” can serve as a warning that something in the rowing must be improved.

It happens more and more frequently that “wet and chilled” “rowers” swim to the “shore” in front of my office hoping that I will provide them with a magic formula on how to navigate without effort or overturns, or to convince the other partner that he/she is rowing in the wrong way.

If we forget about the metaphor now and take a look at the reasons why partners most often ask my help as marriage counsellor and coach, then it is because:

  • Frequent quarrels destroy relationships
  • There is a serious danger of divorce
  • Infidelity

In most cases both partners expect the confirmation of their beliefs, trying to win me over to their side. In fact they hope that I will affirm that they are right and the other is wrong. They try so hard to prove that justice is on their side that, because of all the noise they are making, they cannot hear their partner. Both are deeply disappointed and hurt and they reproach the partner for the breakdown of illusion about the eternal, blessed feeling of being in love.

Personally, I believe there are very few reasons why marriage and couples therapy and coaching  is not possible, and that is when one of the partners refuses to participate or when there is repeated physical or verbal violence. In the atmosphere of constant fear in which one of the partners lives, it is impossible to work on establishing mutual openness necessary for the re-building of shaken trust and respect. However, even in those situations there sometimes is a chance to help the bully and the “victim” to exit their usual roles.

So, when a couple knocks at my door, their mouths are usually full of criticisms and reproach, and their ears are deaf. Those ears can hear only “insults”, and they primarily listen only to their own response to it. Also, both are blind to their own behaviour, while they magnify all the aspects of the other’s behaviour. However strange it may sound, this is a pretty normal occurrence in the situation of chronic conflict and dissatisfaction. Normal, but counterproductive.

Criticizing and attacking causes the mobilization of defences, because we defend ourselves from the pain that the criticism provokes. Behind the walls of our defence systems we no longer see our partner in all of his/her human complexity but only see that aspect which endangers us. We identify the partner with the attack. He/she as a person then become the danger, and not his/her behaviour. We see him/her as an enemy, we withdraw our energy from the relationship and with it compassion and sympathy for our partner, thus losing contact, the essential link in the relationship. Then the idea of the wrong choice of partner begins to develop.

In Imago we believe that criticism and attack are analogous to crying in childhood with which we tried to direct our parents’ attention to our desires and needs. The parents could not, did not know how, or did not want to respond to our child’s demand, or they would meet our demands only after our prolonged crying. This fact remains etched in our unconscious, and so in a situation in which we are overwhelmed with emotions, our adult mind is “silent” because we begin to use our instinctive mechanisms. This is human, but counterproductive, because in our adult age we possess ways and skills which we did not possess as children, and the situation is not the same anymore. We are not in the same way and in the same manner dependent on our partner as we were on our parents, and therefore we can use our adult skills in our relationship with our partner. We just need to recognize them and practice them.

Work on communication, which is initially the key characteristic of therapy, helps partners to mollify their reactions and to open their ears to what the partner is saying. Besides, the session in its structure, as well as my presence as therapist, guarantees a certain safety in communication. In session partners are usually more ready to perceive the ways in which they hurt their partner with their behaviour, and also recognize what is at the root of such behaviour.

The first step in practising the new communication skills is helping partners to slow down the process happening between them so that they can perceive more easily in which moments they are hurting each other. I also help them to learn how to calm themselves so that they are no longer at the mercy of the onslaughts of their own emotions. At the same time I teach them that listening to what the other is saying is easier when they have the task of repeating what was said. Such practice in which we listen and then repeat partner’s words initially seems artificial. But learning new habits in spheres in which there already exist established habits, seems clumsy.

In order to learn to communicate with respect, we need to learn to calm ourselves and to hear the other even in emotionally charged situations. We need to learn to delay our response which in an argument starts to form immediately in our mind, thus preventing us to hear all the words intended for us and to focus fully on what the partner is saying. The repetition of partner’s words should be perceived as auxiliary wheels on a child’s bicycle. We have them on until we learn to control the “handlebar”, our mind. When we are capable of controlling our mind, the auxiliary wheels, i.e. the repetition is no longer necessary because we can listen with full concentration, and that is the basis of respectful communication and the development of the relationship of deep mutual respect, when old flames can be rekindled.

These first steps in establishing a more open and safe relationship require discipline and practice. With discipline and practice we begin to accept the new as our own. And with it we open the space for next steps.

The second and third step are much more complex and they require work on psychological and emotional levels, as well as descending into the past in both of partners’ lives. In these past times uncomfortable and even traumatic experiences are still alive. Bringing them out to the surface enables partners to observe each other in all their human dimensions. This gives impetus to increased sympathy in the relationship, which is the best glue for an alienated relationship. Then partners slowly begin to understand the reasons for hurt and begin to correct that behaviour which evokes old traumas. They understand that the problem regarding the, e.g. cleaning the kitchen is not literally the problem of washing and cleaning and therefore trivial, but that underneath is hidden a need which can be related to recognition, appreciation, and with it self-respect.

Life in a committed relationship, a relationship shared with such a crucial person as our partner, is a great opportunity for both of partners to get the wind beneath their wings in their striving to develop into complex, whole and satisfied human beings.