The Watering Can
The Watering Can
Adina Gilliam, LMFT
"Strange name for a blog", you might say. "Doesn't speak to what you're presenting, Adina". Well actually, I beg to differ. I recently read an article on The Gottman's page, The Marriage Minute, entitled The Grass is Greener Where You Water It and it really resonated with me. I've created this blog to provide you some small insights to help you feed your relationship and as a reminder that where we put our energy matters! As a marriage counselor, I see many couples struggling to maintain connection. Work schedules, children, extended family (or lack thereof), financial worries, relationship infidelities all contribute to diffused energy and intention into the most important relationship you have: your significant other/spouse. In almost every occasion in which I've worked with couples trying to repair a relationship injury, the snapshot they provide of their relationship prior to the trauma was one of "going through the motions" of living together and too often, prioritizing other entities than their marriage. Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, refers these other entities as Thirds in his book, Wired for Love.
Thirds are ever-present. We do not live with our spouse in a vacuum sealed, sanitary world where there aren't intrusions from outside sources. We KNOW this. Learning how to communicate about those intrusions and keeping the mutual (for both you and your spouse) best interest of the relationship in the forefront of your decisions most of the time will make a great impact for you.
Here's an example: John and Marnie come to see me because they recently have experienced higher than normal conflict with each other and want some help navigating through. In the first session, I learn that they moved to a new neighborhood while Marnie was pregnant. Eager to make connections with their neighbors, they tried to cultivate some social relationships and did so successfully as there are several couples around their age on their block. The neighbors started a tradition of meeting together at each others' houses for drinks and a bonfire on Friday nights after work. Towards the end of her pregnancy, however, Marnie was quite uncomfortable and exhausted and no longer wanted to partake in the socializing. John was supportive, checked on Marnie multiple times during the day while at work and truly felt he is doing "his part" to make sure she was taken care of. On Fridays, John came home from work, changed from work clothes and then went out to have his Friday drinks with the neighbors. Often, Marnie didn't even acknowledge that John came home and he began to feel like she didn't care if he was there. Marnie began to feel unsettled with this pattern but was met with rebuttals such as "Come on babe, it's been a long week" and told "I'll only go for one drink" but would sometimes lose track of time and be gone for longer than she was comfortable with. Marnie began to feel alone. She began to doubt John's devotion and even began thinking that maybe he didn't want the baby. The resentment started to build. She began being critical of John's behaviors. Unintentionally, she'd pick fights with him on Fridays even before he left work. She began to feel like John cared more about having drinks with the neighbors than he did about her feelings. Meanwhile, John's work was very demanding and stressful and it really helped him transition into the weekend to have this ritualized time with the neighbors. He also felt like the time to do this was limited as he was certain when their baby was born, he and Marnie would have limited time to socialize..
But they were unaware of ANY this at the time because they weren't talking about it.
They were making assumptions about their spouse's behaviors based on the pain they were feeling. He began to feel like he couldn't do anything right and that she was being overly demanding and critical. She began to feel like he just didn't care.
How did we address this third? I helped them do the following:
1. TRULY UNDERSTAND WHAT THEIR PARTNER IS ASKING FOR. Look past the complaint to hear the true, underlying wish. John truly heard that Marnie was feeling slighted.
2. RECOGNIZE THEIR OWN STORIES. Each had a assumptive story about the other's motives for their behavior. When Marnie had a clearer understanding of what John needed, she was able to see the behavior through a different lens and feel less threatened by it.
3. LEARN HOW TO QUICKLY REPAIR INJURIES BY APOLOGIZING WITHOUT CAVEAT. Seeing your role in conflict and quickly apologizing does NOT remove culpability form your partner's role in the conflict. A crucial part of repair is being able to say "I hear you and I'm sorry I yelled at you" and NOT "I hear you and I'm sorry I yelled at you but you really should have done xyz". Can you feel the difference?
4. CREATE A WAY OF MEETING BOTH PARTNERS' NEEDS. With some facilitation, Marnie and John were able to co-create a Friday night ritual that worked for both of them. John came home from work on Fridays and was greeted with a hug and a kiss by Marnie. He changed from his work clothes and they spent 30 minutes or so chatting. John always asked Marnie if she wanted to come, knowing that the answer would likely be "no". (Feeling wanted, Marnie actually began saying yes more!). So that Marnie didn't have to obsess about the time John was gone, he became more mindful of the time spent out. In fact, with the reduced conflict, John's desire to even go dissipated. With the reduced conflict, they found ways to connect in a meaningful way. John opened up more about his stress at work and Marnie talked about anxieties of losing her independence as a new mom.
In keeping with the metaphor of gardening, I'll finish with one of my favorite memes. Live and love with intention.