When Love Brings Pain - #2

Communication relieves pain surprisingly well.

Posted Feb 16, 2015

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Readers often ask if I believe in monogamy. They may expect a “no” because I study mammals, and few mammals are monogamous. But I do believe in monogamy. I understand the pain that can sour people on it. But giving up on relationships brings pain too, and so does an endless quest for “the one.” The solution is to build skills for resolving conflict.

You may think nothing is more painful than another lecture on communication. I've had that reaction to many relationship guides. They dwell on wounds and traumas, and they want me to speak in ways that sound artificial. That’s why I was excited to find a relationship guide I actually enjoyed: The Power of Two by Dr. Susan Heitler.

It felt like eavesdropping. Imagine listening to a couple fighting, and another couple that resolves conflict smoothly. The difference is immediately clear. The happy-couple skills are explained in Power of Two's online coaching program as well as the book and workbook. The online program costs about the price of a book per month after a free trial, and you can cancel whenever you want. I was glad to try it because, I confess, I have tried to “fix” my husband at times. I know you’re not supposed to do that, but…do you want to hear what he does? 

It’s easy to find fault with your partner because each brain is different. When things are not done your way, your brain releases chemicals that give you a sense of life-or-death urgency. That’s because our brain chemicals wire up from life experience. Your experience wired in specific ways of feeling good and avoiding pain. No two people have the same stock of experience, so your sense of urgency will not always mesh with your partner’s. How can two people get along on so many different issues? The Power of Two offers clear, simple guidelines:

Ask for what you want.
This may seem simple, but when you eavesdrop on the unhappy couples, you see how they fail to ask for what they want. We hint, we defend, we attack, we say what we don’t want, without getting around to actually saying what we want.

Listen to what your partner wants.
You may think you’re already doing that, but listening defensively or judgmentally is not the same as “listening to learn.” You want your partner to listen cooperatively, so you owe them the same.

I benefitted most from the “crossover” concept. Sometimes I cross over into my husband’s brain instead of honoring his boundary. I learned to focus on my own needs instead of crossing over into his. You may say it’s “considerate” to focus on the other person’s needs, but it leads to trouble. You tend to jump to conclusions about their needs, and hide behind them instead of taking responsibility for your own wants. I should steer my own ship instead of trying to steer his.

Here’s a simple example: I ask my husband what time he wants to have dinner, and he gives me a long explanation of his computer problems. Before the Power of Two, I crossed over into his head to guess what he wants. Is he saying he wants to eat late so he can fix his problem? Or to eat now because he’s not getting anything done? Why doesn’t he talk in a way I can understand? Why is he so evasive? How can I change this? You can see how I wind myself into a spin. This happened a lot because you can't ask my husband how his day was without getting an incomprehensible string of data analytics. I would force a smile because I know there are worse things in life. But my eyeballs would roll in different directions, my muscles would tighten, and I would feel bad. 

The Power of Two taught me to focus on me instead of him. Why am I asking him when he wants to have dinner? Because I’ve just finished an activity and need to decide which activity to start next. If I tell him that, he gives me a perfectly straight answer. I get what I need if I ask! Of course, he still gives me source code sometimes, but I don’t have to respond by feeling ignored and powerless. I can stop and think about what I really need, and find a way to “just say it.”

Once I felt stuck, and fortunately the interactive website has a button that says “talk to your coach.” I wrote down my problem and my live coach replied in less than 2 days. She gave me a clear answer, and selected exercises specifically for my issue. Each was about five minutes long, and there was a nice variety of videos and readings. Many were interactive, so I could build and test my skills. The videos ranged from a real-life workshop to a cartoon couple to a chat from the head coach.

You might be thinking “my partner should do that.” The program is designed to work with individuals or couples. You get to define your goals, and your coach adds the appropriate modules to your activities folder so you can work on them at your convenience.

You may wish I had thrown the dinner at my husband’s face. But that would not get me what I want. I want the power of two. As Dr. Heitler explains, raising any number to the power of two makes it exponentially greater than just doubling the number. I am exponentially greater in this relationship as long as we communicate. As I shift from adversarial listening to cooperative listening, he does too. It’s a miracle!

The next post in this series explores two more great tools for getting love and avoiding pain: Deeper Dating and InLoveInformed. To be sure to get them you can subscribe to Your Neurochemical Self. (Click the orange RSS button at the bottom right of the linked page.)