We had an epiphany over dinner the other night. We realized that we speak our minds in our relationship considerably more than we have in previous relationships, and we’re also more willing to hold our tongue out of respect for each other’s experience, which honors our relationship.
My growing up family rarely argued, fought or bickered. Avoidance, collusion (usually against my father), abdication and silence were our coping mechanisms when faced with difficult situations, which would have been better served with uncomfortable yet honest conversations. Perhaps this is the main reason I’ve often felt more comfortable dealing with problems in silence. The problem with that approach of course is that I’ve subjugated my needs and ended up withholding from others and feeling resentful.
Before my relationship with Kelli, I’d typically do one of three things when upset, bothered or annoyed by something happening (or not happening!) in my relationship: seek sympathy from my best friend, process my feelings and options with my therapist or journal to increase my self-awareness in the hopes of figuring out what I needed to change about myself to improve the situation. Rarely did I initiate a conversation with the person at the center of the issue – my girlfriend. I may have been a willing participant if she initiated a conversation, though of course my responses were geared more toward appeasing her instead of balancing my needs and desires with hers.
After years of perpetuating this self-destructive and self-dismissive pattern, I began a new pattern with Kelli. What I find fascinating is that this change has come partly because of what I’ve learned about claiming my rightful place in the dynamic of a relationship and in large part because of Kelli’s ability to speak her desires and needs in a way that doesn’t discount mine. She models how to discuss without bickering and to dive into deeply vulnerable places with clarity and respect. And because our partnership feels solid for both of us, I feel the freedom to directly express my wants, needs and desires instead of relying on innuendos, body language or Vulcan mind-melding to convey my point. I’ve even gotten to the point where I don’t let the fact that we’re having a nice evening prevent me from speaking into what’s bothering me.
My growing up family infrequently bickered or argued. Additionally, my parents were reserved and contained with their emotions toward each other and toward my sister and I. I understand in many ways why my parents preferred polite silence and reserved emotional expression. They both grew up with more highly charged emotional volatility in their families, along with bickering about problems and solutions. So they chose the opposite as adults. The problem for me was that I didn’t learn how to disagree, solve problems, or express myself well with others. What I did learn was to maintain control and to appease and/or conform to others’ expectations in order to keep the peace and fit in. The Leave It To Beaver and Brady Bunch generation and culture further reinforced these coping mechanisms. Let’s present a nice, compliant, orderly, happy family to everyone. Don’t show your messy houses, messy kids and certainly not your messy emotions to anyone.
In many of my previous relationships I chose my parents’ method of keeping the peace by acquiescing. It gave me an outward false sense of control, accompanied by an inner sense of being out of control; my inner and outer selves were in constant conflict. Deep down I knew I wasn’t being authentic but I was afraid if I showed my true self, I wouldn’t be liked and certainly not loved. With my main goal of keeping my girlfriend happy, I’d privilege her wants and desires and stifle mine until I couldn’t hold back any longer…and then I’d bust open with neediness or anger or both. Speaking my mind in past relationships was often met with judgment, criticism or shame for expressing my authentic self, especially when it bumped up against my girlfriends’ ideas of whom I should be or how I should think. It took years of personal growth and relational experiences to learn how to do it differently with others and how to choose others who could do it differently. As I gained confidence and strength in my relationships, I learned to let go one step and one vulnerability at a time. In the process, I began to find my “true” self, my “true” wants and my “true” fit in an intimate relationship. And finally, I found my one…Dorothy.
Dorothy and I navigate vulnerability and authenticity by speaking our mind. Each of us endeavors to hold a place for the other to safely and openly express her thoughts, feelings, and desires. As in all relationships, we don’t always agree, we get mad at each and sometimes we have to sit with very uncomfortable feelings for a while. Dorothy models this well for me and I lose some of my impatience with discomfort by watching her move through her own discomfort with grace. Ultimately, we trust each other because we both take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings, and we don’t shame the other for theirs. Most importantly, we’ve learned that thoughts and feelings are reflections of our wants, our desires, our fears, our mistakes, our beliefs, and our hopes. We may or may not act on them. They may dissipate with time. They may stay with us. They may be strong or fleeting. Regardless, we stay with our thoughts and feelings until we’re clear on when and when not to act on them. They have much less control over us when we put them out there than when we try to hide them.
Dorothy and Kelli speak
On a recent weekday evening, Kelli and I were enjoying our end-of-day wind down time as we often do by cooking dinner together. We were laughing, sharing events in our day, close and sweetly connected. I was telling her what it was like to watch my aging parents decline toward the end of life, when she interrupted with her experience of watching her grandparents’ age. While I presumed she was probably attempting to draw a parallel between her experience and mine, I immediately felt disregarded. Instead of ‘letting it go’ and following the conversation where she was leading it, I told her I felt offended and dismissed. She apologized, saying she had no intention of doing that. I accepted her apology and we moved on though our lovely evening.
My first thought when Dorothy told me she felt offended and disregarded was to defend my intentions and my immediate feeling was frustration at what I perceived as her over-sensitivity. However, I paused and took a breath. Rather than responding out of defensiveness, I listened to her and checked my reaction. Dorothy told me more about her thoughts and feelings without shaming or blaming me but by simply expressing them and taking responsibility for them. Instead of responding with defensiveness, it was easy for me to apologize for not fully hearing her or patiently waiting for her to tell the full story before leading into my own experience.
Our Relationship speaks
Dorothy and Kelli realize that the relationship they both want is one of openness and authentic communication…not a relationship where one person wins and the other loses. They’ve both had to learn how to let go of parts of their conditioned past, in order to have a fulfilling relationship in the present. And they consistently practice speaking into the hard places where their vulnerabilities are raw and activated. They’ve learned not to acquiesce to keep the peace or avoid a disagreement. They know that the disagreements remain, even when unspoken, and the cost of not speaking stifles their feelings and builds resentment and emotional distance. The difference for them now is that they remain aware and committed to shifting their perspectives and honoring the relationship instead of winning the argument or proving themselves. They make mistakes, they take steps backwards but they remain awake and aware and are humbled by their mistakes, not shamed. They don’t hold onto grunges for long because they’re not worth it. They take opportunities to laugh and play in the midst of all of it because they’re always worth it!
Dorothy & Kelli
Kelli Williamson holds a Master of Arts degree in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from The School of Leadership and Education at the University of San Diego. Kelli has extensive experience working with couples, children and families. She has worked in private practice and held leadership positions in non-profit organizations directing counseling services, supervising staff and interns, and providing training in child and family therapy. In addition, she consults with non-profit agencies providing organizational development and leadership training.
Dorothy Emerson graduated from the University of California at Davis with a degree in Economics. She is a Senior Product Manager in the banking industry and has served on the board of directors for non-profit agencies serving women and children. Dorothy has expertise in building relationships by facilitating communication and collaboration while navigating complex systems. Dorothy is also the mother of two teenagers and she offers clarity and focus on listening to and following one’s heart as a parent.
Dorothy and Kelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.