The ripples of the August heat rise off the road, visually blurring the traffic lined up in front of me as we wait in the New Jersey Shore traffic. I am feeling claustrophobic, boxed in by cars on all sides. I have my window open – air surfing - you know – where you make wave motions with your hand out the window? Okay, I am bored in this wretched traffic. Exhaust and cigarette smoke waft into our car and the kids start to complain. I go to put my window up and I glance into my side mirror. “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Ugh… this makes me feel even more claustrophobic. It triggered me into thinking that there a lot of instances when things are not as they appear in relationships – they present one way and are perceived another. I can think of many times (too many to count) when my husband reacts to something strongly or unusually and I am left bewildered. We often make the mistake of assuming what our partner is thinking, saying, implying, referring to, reacting to, or is motivated by. We think it’s one thing, when actually it’s another. Many times we don’t know what is behind our partner’s emotional reactions. As I go deeper into this thought back to my therapist role, I realize this issue is the cause of most conflicts between couples. It’s almost as if, at times, couples are speaking different languages to one another when they are in conflict and I, as the therapist, become their interpreter. Different things represent different things for different people. Now I know that that is a very confusing sentence. Let me clarify with an example. Money is a good way to illustrate my point, because money may represent any number of things to an individual. It can represent love, respect, value, security, instability, anxiety, scarcity, status, etc. In a relationship when the topic of money comes up or an issue arises revolving around money – two people can literally be reacting from different emotional states based on what money represents to them. Couples can begin to speak their own “emotional language” and frequently not the same one. Furthermore, they may lack awareness of their partner’s associations and what is driving them in their reactions.
Using the example of money, a couple may encounter conflict if there isn’t an understanding of what money represents to each individual. Case in point, a couple is having a heated discussion over the wife not balancing the joint checkbook. The husband reacts with strong anger and embarrassment every time the account becomes overdrawn and she allows this to happen. Underlying his reaction are several things. For him, it brings up feelings of insufficiency. Money has always represented security, and he also directly links it to his value and ability to provide. This stems from his own childhood, where money was tight – therefore he grew up associating money with security and sufficiency and desiring to create both in his life. The wife, not realizing why he is reacting so strongly, gets defensive and doesn’t understand why he gets so upset. If the wife had knowledge of her husband’s relationship with money (his backstory if you will) she may change her behavior or gain greater respect and understanding of him – possibly avoiding conflict. Knowing your partner’s associations with things like money, age, parenting, food, roles, sex, etc. helps reduce arguments and misunderstandings. Getting to know your partner’s associations through dialogue creates awareness, and often more acceptance. Conflict naturally reduces. This takes time and effort.
So, back to my car scene on the New Jersey Turnpike… I begin to sweat. I realize it’s not because I am hot – I rolled the window up and put the air-conditioning on full-blast. I am sweating because of my escalating claustrophobic feelings while being stuck with cars all around me sitting idle for so long. At this point, the kids are beginning to bicker. My husband looks at me like I am from Mars for having such a freak-out over what he perceives to be nothing. Mentally, I search my childhood files to do some self-analysis. I ponder… Why do I hate to be in confined spaces so much? Then, a light bulb goes off. I pull up a memory that involves an appliance box, duct tape, and my retaliating, pranking little brother. Need I say more? Confined spaces = fear and entrapment for me. I open the sunroof, hoping it will help relieve my anxiety and my attention is quickly snapped back to my bickering girls in the back seat… and I blurt out in frustration, “ Please stop that! At least neither one of you were taped up by the other in a dark box and left for dead!” Silence and peace finally fell over our car while they stared forward at me, dumbfounded with maybe a little touch of fear. Big tip of the day: showing a little of your crazy goes a long way when it comes to mothering sometimes – just sayin’.