Are you there for me?

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published December 23, 2011

We were cleaning after our dinner guests leave and I said to my husband, "I would shake that tablecloth out tonight". He nodded, and said, "Okay" and I realized that he totally misunderstood me only when he then sat down to read. Hmm. Startled, I looked at him, smiled and asked him when he was planning to shake out the crumbs. More startled, he looked at me and said, "I thought you said you were going to shake it!"

Oh wow - and I think after thirty-three years of being together we have very good communication. We were listening, we just didn't hear each other in the same way and we had what I say in the office is a "miscue". I was guilty of cardinal rule number one - say what you mean and mean what you say. I knew what I meant but my partner sure didn't.

"I would…” really means, "I think that you should…" (at least according to this wife!) Similarly "we should" often means, "I'd like you to…” Now I knew that and many other women might know that but I certainly can't assume that anyone else should know it. In other words I was telling my husband that he should shake out the cloth and his okay meant he thought I was going to do it. Rule number two - don't make assumptions. Go back and ask for clarification and always attempt to understand your partner's perspective. That requires real listening. The tablecloth was not a big deal, but what if it was our children that needed to be picked up at school and I thought he was, while he thought I was. Is it any wonder that couples have difficulty in communicating these days?

Typically the woman initiates the referral to my office and it is she who is usually less satisfied in her relationship. On a scale of zero to ten, with ten being very happy, the woman's rating is often lower than her partner’s by at least a few points. Women often want to discuss and analyze a problem ad nauseum whereas the man's goal is to solve things and move on. Lots of talk may leave the man uncomfortable; too little talk leaves the woman feeling unheard and unloved. Most arguments are about nothing at all significant; when processed adequately they are quickly forgotten. When not processed however, they can quickly escalate and create real stress within the relationship. By understanding and validating your partner's feelings, knowing what triggered the argument, and taking steps to improve the situation, you create an atmosphere of trust and safety, and each person feels heard.

When couples first come to see me they want to talk about what's wrong in the relationship, and each hopes that I will "help" their partner to change. They neglect to see their own role in maintaining the status quo, the importance of working together with their partner, and may miss what is positive in their relationship entirely. They may both want the same thing, but often go about it in different ways and as a result, instead of waltzing together, step on each other’s toes, over and over again.

When a couple is in a secure and safe relationship, they appear emotionally connected and in synch with each other. They "feel close", enjoy intimacy, feel validated and respected, and make frequent deposits into the couple’s "good will bank". In a good relationship, even when one person steps on the other’s toes, they can still feel safe in asking for what they need, get back in step and reconnect effectively. You trust your partner, feel secure, and are there for each other, being exquisitely attuned to each other's needs. You are "in love". When you can understand your partner's thinking, it is much easier to dance together. But when issues come up over and over again, when needs are not expressed or there is criticism and blaming, and issues don't get resolved, the resultant distress can become very painful. This may lead to abuse or withdrawing, shutting down and leaving the relationship. At the end of the day people need to believe that their partner is there for them and truly cares. When partners seem distant, indifferent or rejecting, there is hurt and pain, anger and frustration and lack of good will. While conflict is a normal part of any relationship, it is how this conflict is resolved that will, in part, determine how secure you feel about your partner and your relationship.

Just look, for example, at the often endless "to do" list that many women generate, and their sense of "abandonment" when their partners don't jump to share more fully in the burdens of home and children, but rather see themselves as "helping". When all is fine in the relationship, the list and responsibilities can be discussed openly, each person's feelings heard, tasks get accomplished and all forgotten. When not, resentment may develop, spread into other aspects of the relationship and the couple find themselves kicking each other. There is no desire "to dance". Rule number three - be polite - check to see if your husband's "list" is the same as yours and if both of you have reasonable expectations. While you may think that your list should take priority, he may feel that his should. While you may want a more equal partnership, he may not understand what and why you are complaining.

So when a woman complains that she doesn't quite understand how she could be running around doing ten things while her spouse, sits, sleeps or reads the paper, she is really saying to her partner, if you are there for me and appreciate my needs, you'd be helping. He in turn may be thinking "why do I have to do everything”, “why can't I have time to unwind” and “why do you have to nag?” When each has a mutual understanding of the other's needs, the connectivity in the relationship is enhanced, the couple work as a team and time is made for both to have their needs met in a warm and loving way. At the end of the day, this is what a good relationship is all about.