Even when intimate partners communicate effectively much of the time, they often find themselves misunderstanding each other repeatedly in some areas. These frustrating, seemingly unpredictable interactions can be hard to detect, and can quickly mushroom into hurtful exchanges.
In my four decades of working with couples, I have often seen these miscommunications begin long before the partners recognize that they are participating in them. It is as if they are doing just fine and then, within a few minutes, fall off an emotional cliff. Even with the best of intentions, they don’t see them coming.
Several years ago, with the help of several couples in my relationship group, I created an easy and effective exercise that could stop these conflicts before they became damaging.
The partners involved would first identify the areas of interpersonal communication where they regularly made incorrect assumptions about what the other partner was feeling or thinking.
Then, in each separate interaction, they would assign a number from one to ten to identify the intensity of what they were feeling in each of those chosen areas. The other partner would then give the number span they would have thought that partner was feeling before he or she shared it. That would lead to dialogue that would help the couple understand the differences and why they existed.
My group and I called our new technique, “One-to-ten Hypothetical Assumptions Using Number Spans to Improve Intimate Communication.” Each couple went home each week, practiced, and came back to share their results and suggestions for improvement.
As the technique evolved, an unexpected bonus occurred. Every couple reported that they not only identified and healed many of their repeated negative interactions, but practicing the technique opened up new areas of communication they had not seen before.
Understanding each other’s levels of intensity and reasons for feeling that way, the partners began to not only share more in each interaction, but began to let the other know what was coming before it happened. Most important, they had had fun doing it, a great predictor of continued practice.
Here is an example of how the process works:
Judy and Jeremy had been married eleven years. They had four children from barely two until nine years old. Sleep deprivation, financial challenges, and in-law problems had taken their toll, but they still loved each other and were far from giving up on their relationship. They would start off most evenings glad to see one another and to share their days, yet would repeatedly end up in superficial bickering they did not intend.
These consistent, early evening superficial conflicts seemed senseless to both of them, yet they could not seem to stop. They would apologize profusely after each of their frustrating interactions, promising to be kinder to each other the next day, but it didn’t seem to help.
After a few sessions, we were able to narrow down the important issues for each of them that seemed the likely culprits.
For Judy, there were four:
Empathy: She wanted Jeremy to feel her exhaustion and stressors on the other end of four young children and to express his support.
Mother-in-law: Jeremy’s mother lived with them. She was an irritable person, continuously telling Judy how she could be running her life better. Judy wanted Jeremy to help her keep his mother in line.
Help with the kids at night: When she felt overwhelmed and needed help with the nightly needs of the children, she wanted Jeremy to figure out what she needed and do it without her having to ask.
Affection: Because Jeremy’s sexual needs were more pressing than hers, she was afraid to ask for affection without sexual pressure but frequently needed more nurturing and physical comfort.
Jeremy also had his own four issues:
Appreciation: Though he never felt conflicted about supporting his family, he did need to be more often verbally appreciated for the long hours he was working.
Sexual needs: He understood Judy’s exhaustion at the end of long days of mothering, but still wanted to feel sexually desired more often. Judy was reluctant to get more help, but he would have gladly paid for it just for her to be less tired and more available that way.
His mother: Though he was very familiar with his mother’s irritating ways, he hated to be in the middle. Each night he would have to hear about the current distressing interactions between Judy and his mother and often could not, or didn’t want to, try to facilitate resolution.
Personal Connection: Jeremy loved the times that he and Judy would take long walks or just listen to music together, sharing their dreams and fears. It seemed to him that they never had any prime-time intimacy any more, exclusive of sexual connection. He wanted his best friend back.
I told them about the Number Span Plan and they were totally on board, excited to try something that might break their negative patterns. When Jeremy came home from work, he and Judy were to take five minutes alone and assign a number from one to ten to each of their four basic concerns, in order. A “one” would mean that particular need wasn’t very pressing at that time. A “ten” would mean the opposite, that the need felt was significant.
The first night, Jeremy went first. “I’m a 9, 4, 10, and 7. Work was a drag, so I’m about a 9 in needing appreciation. I’m not particularly horny, so I’d put needing sex at a 4. My mom called me four times today to complain so I’m a 10 in wanting to avoid anything that happened between the two of you today. Let’s see. Non-exhausted intimate talking with you alone before we fall asleep? I think about a 7, or maybe even higher. I really need time with you to talk about some things that are pressing right now, but I never feel comfortable burdening you anymore after your long day.
Judy was incredulous. “I would have sworn you were a 3 In needing appreciation, a 10 in sex because it’s been a week, maybe a 6 about your mom because she never told me she called you, and just a 2 in needing to spend special time with me. I never would have called it right if you hadn’t told me, babe. I’m blown away. I would have made all my own assumptions and acted on them without ever checking them out. I really need to get this, and I want to. I want to know more about what you’re feeling.”
Jeremy immediately felt closer to Judy, just to understand that she not only had lost touch, but was so eager to regain it. It made him want to share more with her.
“Because the work load was easier this week, I started to work on my backlog. I’d forgotten some crucial stuff and I worked through my lunch hour. My boss was on one of his rampages last week and needed a scapegoat. Unfortunately, I was the only one in house. I just felt beaten down and wondering what working so hard is all about. I’ve been exhausted, probably feeling my resentment because I didn’t have to look at him.
I was so tired when I got home, that I couldn’t even think about sex. When my mom was on me today to complain that you were ignoring her, I expected to hear a lot of negativity from you about her when I got home so I was ready to fight about it. I really wanted to talk to you before you collapsed. I hate feeling like your fifth child at the end of your day.”
Judy listened carefully, looking at Jeremy in a way she hadn’t for a long time. She felt only compassion and felt no need to defend or challenge him. She asked if he just needed to talk more or was ready to hear her numbers. He was not only interested, he was encouraged.
“I’m a 9, 3, 5, and 10,” she said. “The 9 is about wanting you to think about what it’s like to be constantly interrupted by energy vampires and their unpredictable emergencies. I didn’t even have time to shower today and it was four o’clock before I realized I hadn’t eaten. I know this is my job, and I feel so lucky to have the kids, but I just need my best friend to offer emotional support. It makes it so much easier when I don’t feel so alone.
The 3 on your mom is pretty low because I thought today was better. Go figure. I’d still like you to ask, though. I willingly brought her here, but it’s always difficult. I don’t want you in the middle, but she just drives me nuts some days. The 5 is just that I’m pretty organized tonight with the kids, but they all need you to and I’d like you to offer help, even a little.
The last one is hard for me because I haven’t really met your needs for a while, so I feel guilty about even asking but it’s a 10. I really need to crawl into your arms tonight and just be held."
Jeremy was clearly puzzled and concerned. “I can’t believe I could be this off. I would have picked a 6, 10, 7, and 5. The kids seemed rested and involved, much more so than usual at this time of night, so I thought you wouldn’t need my emotional or logistical support. I thought my mother’s calls were a sure signal you’d be hurt and angry and that you’d unleash as soon as I got home. The house is picked up and one of your great dinners is ready.
I thought you had everything under control. You seemed so pulled in and independent, like you didn’t need anything. I would never have thought you wanted me near you or would think I wanted sex if I touched you, so I stayed separate. I feel so sad that we are so far apart. I want to know more.”
Judy was eager to share. “I was missing being close to you so I worked all day to clean the house and keep the kids under control. The baby is sick, and Luci took a bad fall. I was at the doctor’s office for two hours, cleaned up diarrhea and vomit off the new carpet, and kept a migraine under control. I just didn’t want you to have to come home to that.
My 3 about your mom is that she went out with friends today and actually came home smiling. I have no idea what she was complaining to you about, so I wasn’t thinking about her and me much. I got the kids bathed before you came home, so there’s not a lot to help with, but I desperately need to cuddle up against a loving adult. You’re right, honey, I didn’t want sex but I was afraid you’d expect it if I held on to you the way I wanted to.”
Judy and Jeremy continued to practice their number span each evening to better understand what the other was really feeling, instead of what they had so often incorrectly assumed in the past. The experiment was working so well, they began adding new areas of conflict to resolve. After time, their bickering had not only stopped, but they had successfully separated out unimportant issues from those that really needed attention and felt closer than they had in a long time.
Number Span Hypotheses are not only effective in intimate relationships; they work in friendships and with family members. Often what appear to be complex-appearing situations in many relationships are just simple issues buried under incorrect assumptions with counter-productive thoughts and behaviors following close behind.
No matter how much that intimate partners may love and cherish each other, these run-away sequences can take their toll. The solution is to understand and stop them before they take hold. Once accurately identified, they can be replaced with correct information and deeper communication. Those new interactions then become the foundation for more intimate exploration.