As Brad climbed out of bed Heather was aware he didn’t give her a good morning kiss. “That’s odd.” she thought. Then later at breakfast when he poured himself a cup of coffee but didn’t offer her any, she began to wonder what was wrong.
“Are you okay, hon?” she asked, hoping to get some insight into his demeanor.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, continuing to read the paper.
Heather’s heart began to sink. “He’s going behind the stone wall,” she thought to herself. Knowing how this could upset her and wanting to avoid an argument, Heather decided she’d leave early for work.
Brad was still reading the paper when she said good-bye, withholding her usual hug. She walked out, soundly shutting the door.
On the way to work she tried to regain her composure. “Why is he so afraid of intimacy”, she asked herself. She was pondering this question when she walked into the office.
“Good morning”, Edith called over the cubical. “You’re here early.”
“Yeah”, Heather replied, “I figured I’d come to work where the atmosphere is friendlier”.
“You and Brad have a fight?” Edith asked.
“No. A fight I could handle. But when he goes behind that stone wall, it drives me crazy”, Heather confided.
“Maybe something’s bothering him”, offered Edith.
“Well, can’t he say that?” Heather replied sarcastically.
“Try not to take it so personally”, Edith said, going back to her work.
“Easy for you to say”, Heather thought. But during the day she contemplated Edith’s advice and tried thinking of ways to engage Brad without starting a fight. In the past she would have picked at him until he came out of his shell, preferring an argument to the cold silence, but she didn’t want to do that this time. By the end of the day she had come up with a plan.
Heather rushed home after work to have dinner in the oven by the time Brad arrived. When he walked in he was greeted by the smell of her cooking.
“Hey”, he said, tossing his briefcase on the couch, “What smells so good?”
“Veggie lasagna and garlic bread”, Heather replied. “It’s just about ready.”
Once they sat down to dinner she saw Brad visibly relax and she took this as a cue to open the conversation she had planned. “I want to talk about this morning”, she began.
“What about it?” Brad asked.
“You went behind the stone wall”, she said.
“I wasn’t stonewalling”, replied Brad.
“Yes, you were”, Heather came back, trying to keep her voice calm.
“I know when I’m stonewalling and when I’m not”, Brad growled, pushing back from the table. “Did it ever occur to you that I might have something on my mind?”
“Like what?” Heather asked impatiently.
Brad got up from the table. “You obviously have forgotten what was going on with me today. That’s some vote of confidence.”
“Can’t you tell me!” Heather criticized.
“Can’t you remember!” Brad retorted.
All of a sudden it hit her: today was Brad’s performance review – his first evaluation with his new boss.
He had mentioned it several times earlier in the week, how could she have forgotten. The guilt of her actions felt so yucky she immediately wanted to counter-attack and make this his fault. (She was quite adept at manipulating an argument to make her mistakes look like his.) But something inside her wouldn’t let her do it. She was guilty as charged, and for the first time in their relationship, she made a conscious choice to admit it.
“You’re right”, Heather said quietly, “I was wrong. I did forget. I should have been supporting you and here I’ve made your day more difficult.”
There was an awkward silence, only this time Heather didn’t try to put her own interpretation on it.
She waited patiently for Brad to respond.
“Heather, you and I handle stress differently. You talk it out, I think it out. I want you to remember that before you jump to conclusions next time. Okay?”
“Okay, I promise”, Heather replied, “on one condition. If you hurry up and tell me how the evaluation went.”
“Let me put it this way”, Brad grinned as he grabbed her around the waist, “this can be a celebration dinner.”
We each bring our own reality into relationships – replete with preconceived ideas and images. Quite often this reality distorts the perceptions we have of others. The best way to prevent the distortion is to tune in to one another and stay in communication. When the distortion does occur, the quickest way out is through ownership, i.e. acknowledging our behaviour.
It would be safe to assume that Heather had the early experience of a significant person, most likely a caretaker, shutting her out or ignoring her needs. Because of this, she came into adulthood with an image of love that includes being ignored. This creates the propensity to see this trait in significant relationships, especially her partner. When her partner is stonewalling, or even if she simply perceives that he is shutting her out, she experiences all the pain she has ever felt related to this experience. This is the way the brain works. Once she experienced silence as painful, as it would be if a caretaker were not responding to her needs, then silence from Brad would reactivate these painful feelings. The remedy for this is for Heather to understand silence in a new way. That is, for her brain to have a new image of silence. In Heather’s case, once she understood that Brad’s silence was really about his fear of the upcoming evaluation with his boss, she could readily see that she had not been shut out, rather, Brad was ‘thinking it out’ as he described. This is known as a TMM – a temporary moment of maturity. In an instant you get it! You see the truth, and it sets you free. This is why change in perception is a permanent change. Now that Heather has another way of looking at silence, she will never be as reactive again. Will she like silence? Maybe not, but she will not overreact to it like she did. If we live long enough we will have many moments of maturity, when we get to see reality and start to experience true love.
Distinguished professor Pat Love, Ed.D. is the author of Hot Monogamy and The Truth About Love. Her newest book (with Steven Stosny) How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It has been translated into nine languages. She is in demand as an expert presenter at national and international conferences.
Sunny Shulkin, LCSW, BCD, is a Master Trainer of Imago Relationship Therapy and counsels and teaches nationally and internationally.
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