What you are holding in your hands is a very helpful, practical and sometimes magical tool that can move you and a loved one in a much kinder direction when you are stuck in an unhappy spiral of arguing, defensiveness or ordinary terrible listening.
The idea behind this book is rooted in a piece of basic common sense: no matter what form the strain in your relationship is taking—jumping down each other’s throats, nitpicking, walking on eggshells, or endlessly re-visiting an ancient grievance—it will be near impossible to begin to solve your problems if the energy between you and your partner is feeling more unfriendly than friendly. Getting to friendly, of course, is the trick, and this is what Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love is here to help you with.
As a psychotherapist specializing in couples therapy as well as the veteran of a 20-year marriage, I have noticed something about the way words are used or not used, to make this shift. If a couple is unable to make contact in a way that feels genuine, there are virtually no words that can fix what’s wrong. Over and over, we can try to hammer our point home or make nice for the sake of peace……and over and over, no matter how articulate or forceful or even compliant we are, the longing for connection remains until it is, at least, recognized. Sometimes this is for 20 minutes…sometimes it is for years…sometimes, sadly, never. Whether it gets expressed directly or not, the continued experience of feeling unheard and unseen, leads to rage. And I can assure you that few of us are exceptional at maintaining an atmosphere of friendly mutuality when we’re feeling threatened.
I created Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love for couples (and sometimes, parents and children) to transform unproductive, mean or just plain crummy interactions into moments of connection. I like to see this book as a first-aid kit for swiftly generating goodwill and contact in exchanges that have gone off course. It contains 101 what I’ve come to call Flashcards for Real Life—frank, non-defensive messages that have the power to quietly reverse the course of a difficult interaction by going right to the heart of “feeling connected.” These messages work because one person has made the momentous choice to redirect the ongoing tension they are experiencing with another person from the content of the interaction—parenting, money, sex, how-could-you-have forgotten-to-pick-up-the-prescription? etc.)—to the context. This is the real arena--how the two of you are treating each other in the moment.
In order to explain in more depth how this book works, let me tell you the story of how I came to create it. Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of couples as well as individuals in relationship, and watched the stunning ease with which partners get de-railed in their attempts to connect and sustain connection. I’ve watched couples miss over and over again what marital researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. calls each other’s “bids for connection.” I’ve watched women explain in precise detail to their husbands, what felt so off to them in their husbands’ approach--and still not feel much closer at the end of this impassioned sharing. I concluded that an important key to repairing a rupture in connection was increasing levels of vulnerability. So I would coach or ideally, inspire partners who were having an upset, to “drop down” to a deeper level of internal sensing, and share with their loved one where they were feeling: invisible, disrespected, lectured, belittled, invaded, bullied, shamed, unappreciated, ignored, unrelated to, trapped, humored or simply unheard.
Usually this defused tension considerably, particularly if both partners shared and both felt received by the other. Yet, I also couldn’t help but notice that this defusing of tension didn’t always lead to a warm, tender feeling of emotional closeness. Our couple might feel relieved that peace was being restored, that no one was still upset with them, that at last, their previous reactivity made some sense to their loved one. But it didn’t always lead to a hug, either a physical one or an energetic one. Partners could get high marks in processing a conflict, and then go their separate ways, and not really feel the special closeness they hoped would emerge from their sincere clearing.
At a time when I was fascinated with the enormous gifts of intimate communication, as well as sensing some way that words weren’t always enough, I had a couples session with one of the most critical wives and emotionally battered husbands I had ever worked with. Through what I can only call divine intervention, or perhaps God’s peculiar sense of humor, the particular couple in my consulting room also happened to be sent from central casting to re-play the roles of my parents. As I had witnessed countless times in my own childhood, this woman was unrelenting in her criticism of her increasingly inarticulate, emotionally withdrawn husband. I remember the wife smirking and faulting her husband for an “asinine” business decision, Quickly after, in what clinically would be called my “counter-transference reaction,” I felt myself go numb in the familiar way I did as a child. I was all but directionless as to how to proceed with my clients, and felt unusually incompetant as a therapist. More as a last resort than an intentional therapeutic act, I scribbled on a scrap piece of paper in my office, “Talk to me like I’m someone you love!” and whispered to the near-mute husband, “Hold it up to her.”
The husband did this and within seconds the wife softened, truly startling both her husband and me when what came out of her mouth was, “I haven’t been very nice, have I?....You deserve better from me.” The husband sat straighter in his chair, embodying the self-respect his message carried. He didn’t quite smile at her yet, but when he looked his wife in the eye, for the first time I had ever seen, it was without fear. Within minutes, the ancient power differential between the partners shifted, and a realer, gentler, and strikingly more mutual connection began emerging in front of everyone’s eyes. Soon the two of them were focusing on some decision they had to make regarding something having to do with one of their kids. They looked like they were actual friends and equals. I felt like I had found an answer to a prayer.
Lets start with a question. If being in a warm intimate space with a loved one is so desirable, feels so good, and is often the experience declared to be, arguably, the most wonderful feature of human existence, why is it that so often even a very small thing can disrupt the good feeling between a couple and make it so hard to get back to it? Why is it that a minor disagreement, let alone a full-scale fight, can be so hard to repair. Why is it that sometimes, your partner can genuinely say “I’m sorry,” and you can hear the words, know he or she feels badly, and still not feel as relaxed or safe with them as you did before, say, they interpreted a lost sales receipt as saying something “significant” about your lack of responsibility… or before you made a smartass remark that you thought was so witty it wouldn’t have left you partner feeling small and devalued—but it did…. before you were questioned about something—almost anything--with “that tone” in your partner’s voice.
Think of all the times you and a partner were happily anticipating a special evening, and by the time you got in the car and were heading for the restaurant, it was already less-than-relaxed between you. Consider Laura and Michael, who had been looking forward to going out to a 9th anniversary dinner:
“We were supposed to have a special evening together, Michael, just the two of us—and you had to go run and answer your cell phone. (pleadingly) It’s our anniversary….”
“Laura, we have the whole evening ahead of us. You know I want to be with you. I made the reservation weeks ago. (mild irritation in his voice) Why do you have to focus on one little thing and ruin everything?“
“I’ve ruined everything? I’m only telling you how I feel. If the plan is to be close tonight, do you think you could listen to how I feel? If you really cared about our evening you never would have picked up the phone in the first place.”
“Why don’t you ask me why I picked up the phone—that might show caring about someone’s feelings other than your own. Laura, you know how precarious things are between Terry and me at the office. Why can’t you trust that I picked up the phone for a good reason?”
“But it’s always a good reason. Why can’t you simply appreciate how much it bothers me that we never seem to have time together without an interruption. It feels like you would rather win a point with Terry than just be with me.”
“Now I’m irritated. Stop with the analysis, Laura. If you weren’t so insecure, you could allow me taking one brief call without falling apart.“
“Oh, really? If you weren’t so insecure, you could hear the phone ring and not have to check whether your world was falling apart…”
Do couples therapists make house calls? How does a simple moment get so complicated? How could a well-intentioned romantic evening turn sour so fast? Why can’t Laura stop pushing? Why can’t Michael just see that she’s hurt? Why are they so hell-bent on proving how insensitive the other is? Why is this downward spiral so hard to stop?
The answers to these questions are addressed in great detail throughout Talk To Me Like I’m Someone You Love, but for the abbreviated website version, I’ll just say this:
Notice that when Laura initially registers upset that he took the call, Michael didn’t immediately respond, “Honey, I can totally see why you might have worried I was going to get all tied up with work on our anniversary—and you would have every reason in the world to be upset with me if I did that.” This would have gotten everything back on track, not to mention establishing Michael as the most conscious male of the decade! Why? Because he would have given Laura what all of our wounded parts, and many of our healthy parts crave—the experience we often didn’t get enough of in childhood, the experience of feeling felt by a loved one. If Laura had had enough of feeling felt when she was younger, she would have had the self-worth to experience the minor interruption by Michael as an annoyance, not a catastrophe. She might have acknowledged her annoyance playfully by saying something like, “Okay, Buster, you can take the call, but for every minute on the phone you have to massage me for two minutes!” The annoyance is registered, and the energy stays friendly.
Furthermore, ruptures between couples often get superficial healing because apologies and acknowledgments are offered, often times sincerely (“You are right…I shouldn’t have picked up the phone”). But they don’t hit the mark. They don’t leave an upset partner feeling felt, conveying a message that their being upset makes sense to the other. Often this has to do with Partner A acknowledging the impact of his or her behavior on Partner B, something far more meaningful than just acknowledging that the behavior itself was unwise.
Though this is just the tip of the iceberg theory-wise, let’s move on to the practicum. Let’s go back to our anniversary couple, Laura and Michael and revisit them and their parting shots:
“But it’s always a good reason. Why can’t you simply appreciate how much it bothers me when we never seem to have time together without an interruption. It feels like you would rather win a point with Terry than just be with me.”
“Now I’m irritated. Stop with the analysis, Laura. If you weren’t so insecure, you could tolerate me taking one brief call without falling apart. “
“Oh, really? If you weren’t so insecure, you could hear the phone ring and not have to check whether your world was falling apart…”
Now imagine that one of our defensive duo happens to have a copy of Talk To Me Like I’m Someone You Love, goes to page 22, and kindly holds up that page to the other: “This feels awful. Can we start again and really listen to each other?”
Imagine the sniping ceasing and the defensiveness gone. Perhaps, the couple smile at each other a bit sheepishly, but their affection is real. Imagine the conversation resuming about their evening out, only this time with an infusion of tenderness and care.
Where only minutes before, Laura and Michael seemed headed for an achingly familiar downward spiral, we now hear things like, “Thank you, sweetie” and “I felt horrible thinking we had almost blown our evening” and “I melted when you held up that page.” We might even hear, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening,” “I’m so sorry I gave you a hard time.” Wordlessly the couple beam to each other,“ I like it when we remember that we like each other.”
I grew up in the generation where the line in the 1970 tear-jerker Love Story (with Ali McGraw as a dying Radcliff student married to Harvard jock Ryan O’Neal) became a household phrase: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This phrase keeps showing up in my head as I approach this field note, and as someone who has probably quoted it mindlessly many times, I now feel called upon to explore whether or not I actually believe it. So I first polled a number of people who seem to agree with my Beloved, who just put it thusly: “Love means always having to say you're sorry.”
He is a man who walks his talk, and truth be known, I do like it a lot when he says he is sorry…and it does make me feel loved. But in the spirit of this book, it’s not just because an apology is a wonderful gift, a deserved acknowledgment that you caused me pain, a sign of genuine remorse or a bridge back to a feel-good space between us.
A real apology is a beautiful combination of vulnerability and responsibility-taking, and I feel loved because my guy is so willing to own something less than honorable about himself with the intention of keeping himself clean. Then I get something even better than being loved--I get to love a man I see as honorable. And we all know the difference, when you think of all the times apologies have been offered with a false note: “Yeah, I am sorry, and can we just get past this, please?”
The Flashcards in this section provide 11 opportunities to take something that transpired between you and your partner that was petty, mean-spirited, hurtful or just plain thoughtless, and turn the moment into something honorable. The Love Story quote has to do with trusting that your Beloved already feels sorrow for any pain caused. But to me, it’s not the requirement of an apology or lack of requirement that says much about love. It’s that real love flourishes best between people who are committed to being whole.
"It was Nancy Dreyfus who first called my attention to repair attempts (with her flashcards). She inspired our research into this important process of attempting to change the affect during marital conflict resolution."
– John Gottman, author of The Relationship Cure and many other books.