Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

When Less Is More

Sometimes it's what you don't say that really makes a difference.

Charlie: A while back, friends of ours who are writing a book on relationships that deals with ways of loving a man and of loving a woman asked us to offer a contribution to their manuscript. When I began thinking about the ways that I experience being loved by Linda, there were so many things that came to mind that the list felt overwhelming. I also found myself feeling surprised to see that it wasn't just the things that Linda does for me (and she does a lot!) that I find myself really appreciating, but all that she doesn't do that really makes my day. Sometimes not doing things requires more effort, self-restraint, and love than doing them does.

For example, a while back, Linda and I were on a road trip and I was driving. We were in Nevada and we'd gotten off of the main road and had found ourselves out in the middle of nowhere with no idea where we were or how to get to where we were hoping to get to. Of course, asking for directions wasn't an option for me since that would have meant that I really was lost, so I kept driving and getting increasingly more lost while Linda suggested that it might be a good idea for us to find a filling station and pull in to ask the attendant how to get un-lost. I agreed that that would be a good idea, after I tried just one more time to find the right road first. Needless to say, I did eventually ask for directions and we did eventually get back on track and I did get to feel like the total jerk that I was for not just admitting up front that I was lost and following Linda's advice. I gave her ample opportunity to remind me that she was correct to advise me to seek out roadside assistance, but she never took advantage of the opportunity to remind me that she was right and I was wrong.

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"Why would I want to do that?" she told me in response to my question of why she never said anything to me about my stubbornness and refusal to solicit help. "You were already feeling badly about getting lost. I didn't want you to feel worse than you already did. I don't ever want you to suffer from attacks of guilt or shame and if I can do anything to help you to avoid them, of course I will."

It seems that every response that Linda makes to me springs forth from love; not just the obvious things like rubbing my back, cleaning the kitchen, telling me that she feels lucky to be married to me, and handling all of the other large and small details of life that she does in the course of each day, but the things that she doesn't do, like react to me with hostility or anger when I'm in a grumpy mood and I'm taking my frustration out on her by being critical or judgmental. Rather than counterattack or get defensive with me, Linda allows me to "run my number" until I see (and usually get embarrassed by) what I'm doing and then apologize to her. It seems to take a lot less time for me to get around to recognizing my transgressions and acknowledging them when Linda doesn't blame me, even if I'm blameworthy at the time.

I love how Linda never claims the moral high ground even when she has every right to. She never reminds me that she was right or I was wrong, even on those not-so-rare occasions when that is clearly then case. I love what she doesn't say when I'm upset hurt, sad, angry or scared, how she doesn't try to cheer me up or get me to feel better or to change my mood, but rather brings a loving and understanding presence to me in the face of my distress and opens her heart to stand with me in a way that enables me to feel that I'm loved and that I'm not alone. She holds all of my feelings with me with care and compassion, and transforms them from garbage to compost.

I love how Linda doesn't give me advice when I'm confused unless I ask for it, and sometimes, not even then. She doesn't tell me what she thinks I need to do or say or see or understand, but rather, she just lets me be where I am, how I am, and she joins me there. The gift of her presence reminds me that the answers and solutions to most of my concerns are within me and that if I can quiet down enough to listen to that still small voice within me, I'm much more likely to find the answers I seek than by trying to find them in the opinions of others.

I love how Linda doesn't let me argue with her by refusing to take an adversarial position with me. She states her point of view without trying to coerce me into agreeing with her, making it impossible for me to get into a conflict with her. She always manages to resist the temptation to point out exactly what is wrong with my point of view and instead focuses on the how she sees things, leaving it up to me to come to my own conclusion. Linda's openness serves as a mirror that compels me to see for myself what I am saying and why I am saying it, by not allowing me to direct my focus onto her. I don't always end up agreeing with her, but more often than not, because I don't feel defensive, the outcome of our discussions is greater understanding and respect on both of our parts. Her openness powerfully provokes me to look within myself. Linda's silence is fierce and loving. She doesn't let me off the hook by getting reactive with me. She doesn't try to convince me that I'm wrong, which makes it nearly impossible for me not to see it when I am.

Linda doesn't try to manipulate me with tears, anger, guilt, or withdrawal. She just stays present with me and speaks only what is necessary. She doesn't try to get me unstuck when I am, and she doesn't finish my sentences when I can't find the correct words. She just hangs in there giving me the patience and compassion in her presence that I need but can't find within myself at those times. And when she does speak, she speaks from the truth of her heart, rather than the judgments of her mind.

What I am most grateful to Linda for is the model that she has been to me in being an example of truly respectful and compassionate communication. In the earlier days of our relationship the idea of holding a non-defensive, non-argumentative stance when feelings would begin to get intense, had been an unrealistic and unwise option to even attempt to take. These days it’s just become second nature to do so.

I guess that when it comes to relationships, sometimes more isn’t better, particularly when it’s more of what you don’t really need. Except for some things, like gratitude, which it seems I feel more of towards Linda all the time.

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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