The way Guy and Maria entered the room was already typical of the problem they struggled with. Guy is a banker and he arrived in his impeccable suit, carrying his important briefcase, almost leaving me in no doubt of his nationality: he’s English; a calm and impressive man. Marching in front of him was his wife, the creative Spanish woman who seemed to have made it her thing to match the colours in her clothes to her personality: full of exuberance.
Seeking an audience
“Opposites attract” but, at that particular moment they were more “opposite” than “attracted” and so he took his seat in one corner of the couch and she in the other. Guy assumed a very deliberate posture by leaning backwards, placing his left ankle on his right knee and resting his left arm on the back of the couch. “There, bring it on!” he seemed to beam. At the same time, Guy was a man of few words and he returned – certainly during the first half hour – all my questions with nothing more than “yes” and “no”. I felt as though I, the therapist, was seeking an audience with him. The only reason Guy was here, was to please his wife.
Meanwhile I noticed that Maria was taking the lead and could barely sit still. To compensate for Guy’s attitude she tried to be ‘of service’ and she looked at me, smiling and friendly, most of the time. As soon as I directed my questions to her, tears started to flow. “We had an argument yesterday, again…” An entire story followed and I could imagine that this was the way it would go at home as well: Maria who talks and talks and Guy who doesn’t understand what she’s on about. It’s moments like these that Guy, in a way, leaves the conversation and waits until the storm blows over. To prevent this from happening during our session, I included him again in the conversation by asking Maria: “Would you like to hear what Guy thinks of this?” after which I asked him: “What’s it like for you to hear all this?” This sudden attention on the way he was feeling surprised Guy so that, at first all he could say was: “I don’t like it when Maria is sad and feels this way.” I also noticed him slowly starting to open up so I asked Maria: “What is it you’d like to know?” This gave Guy the feeling that he was involved in the conversation and he didn’t just have to listen to Maria’s story. This finally encouraged him to show his emotions. When I asked Maria one more time “How are you really feeling?” all of a sudden she was able to say in one sentence: “I feel insecure and most of the time I’m scared I’m not good enough.” From that moment I noticed an improved connection between the two of them, and also towards me. Guy and Maria were able to listen to each other with more understanding and – perhaps the biggest difference – they had physical contact (his hand caressing her neck, her hand on his leg).
“So Maria, what is it you want from Guy?”
“I just want him to listen more to me and to tell me how he really feels.”
Guy looked at her slightly confused. “Have we solved this then?”
“Yes, well, it’s solved for me. I already appreciated this, you never tell me how you feel…!”
It seemed to have clicked for Guy. I could almost hear him think: “So the only thing I need to do is tell her how I’m feeling?”
This was the clearest example of ‘self pleasing’. Guy kept showing Maria what it was he wanted: peace, clarity and not too much emotional pressure – especially since he had difficulty handling Maria’s emotions. Maria did the same thing: by constantly telling him how she was feeling, and clearly expressing these emotions, she came across as a nag. While her question to Guy was: “Can you give this back to me? Because then I know where stand I am and what you are thinking.”
“Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating” *
The best moment for me was when Guy told us how he felt. It was so short and clear that it made me realize how much the two of them could learn from each other. The same thing can be said for many other couples: often one can learn to use a few more words and also to use words that are connected to emotions. So not stopping at “I think it’s annoying”, but also to question: Do I find it frustrating? Does it frighten me or make me feel angry or powerless? The other could learn to not always include other things (“And then you didn’t do this, while we had agreed that and then all you said was…”), and to say “I don’t feel good enough for you. I’m afraid you don’t like me.” That’s usually all it comes down to…
*Quote from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind