One of the things I’ve learned to do in conducting therapy is to respect the power of language.
I focus on how people use language in their responses to each other and their descriptions about what happens between them. I ask about what words mean.
Language gets a lot of feeling going in us. I want to help couples find out what is really meant by the words that each uses. When a member of a couple steps into a word-ditch (uses provocative language unintentionally), I refrain from disagreeing or suggesting other, more “productive” words right at that moment, so we can gain immediate access to important information about the word that was chosen.
When we’re sure that we absolutely know the meaning of the words that others use, we can miss what is actually meant. This is fraught in a special way for those in intimate relationships, where the results of misunderstanding can be feeling hurt, polarized and alone.
Often, language and behavior has a purpose that we may not see. If we ask more about what people mean by their words, we can find out more about a couple’s hidden needs and purposes. This was brought to life in the following exchange:
Deirdre talked with driving, palpable anxiety about big fears in her relationships with the couple’s acquaintances. She had spoken about these fears many times to Donovan. As she talked, he opened his mouth as if to speak, smiled with what I sensed was frustration, and, looking down, shook his head.
Deirdre saw his reactions and said that they signaled that he was dismissive and contemptuous toward her, adding that she didn’t feel that he took her fears seriously and consequently, she felt more alone. In order to feel less alone, she made her case again, fervently defending herself and her fear. As she did, Donovan smiled, laughed and shook his head more.
There came a moment when Deirdre detailed her belief one more time about friends feeling judgmental toward her (this is one way that she expresses feeling vulnerable), and Donovan burst out with a laugh, “That’s ridiculous.” I felt the tension that had been crackling in the room rise to a new level. I thought, “Oh, boy, Donovan, now you’ve just stepped into a hole. We need to think about how you’re going to get out of it.” As this was going through my mind, Deirdre, who was clearly feeling shamed and criticized, started another round of defending herself, this time about not being ridiculous. And Donovan again shook his head smiling, which I’ve since come to know is way of expressing anxiety and helplessness, morphing into anger when not given a voice.
Banking on the relationship that we’d built, I chose a moment when she paused and said, “Look, Deirdre, I can see how you wouldn’t like Donovan’s using the word “ridiculous” about you, and would naturally want to make it clear that you and what you feel are not ridiculous. Even though that seems necessary, I have a feeling that we’re skipping a step here. I think we don’t know what Donovan actually meant when he used that word. We need more information about what he was trying to say. Is it okay if we shift our attention to that and find out more what he meant? I realize that will be a hard thing to do when you think he was criticizing you.”
She said, “Okay, but it’s going to be really hard to listen to him.” I replied, “That makes sense, that you aren’t feeling trusting right now, and you don’t know if he’s going to say something hurtful. Let’s just take it a step at a time, and if you object to something he says, you’ll have a chance to tell him. Is that all right?”
She nodded, taking a breath with a bit of a quaver.
I asked Donovan what “ridiculous” meant for him, with curiosity, open to whatever he might say.
At first, he was stymied. He didn’t know how to respond, other than to repeat, “What she’s saying is just ridiculous.” If he had had other words for this sensation, he would have spoken them. I could feel myself helping Deirdre to hold herself back from interrupting, making eye contact with her, helping her to wait through his exploration, while encouraging him. I asked him what he might be trying to accomplish by telling her that her fear was ridiculous, and I conveyed certainty that he was trying to achieve something meaningful.
Then he spoke of what it’s like to hear her talk about a fear that he is sure has no foundation in fact, as has happened many times. He talked about how disquieting it is to him to hear her ratchet up anxiety and increase her own distress. He expects that he must do something about this, to take away her discomfort. He doesn’t know what else he is supposed to do when she talks in this way.
As we discovered, for Donovan, saying “That’s ridiculous” is a way to get Deirdre to have more perspective, to decrease her intense and fearful emotion. He does this in an effort to contain his own anxiety and achieve equilibrium and to bind her extreme anxiety. “That’s ridiculous” is an effort to help her and their relationship. It really doesn’t work for him, because what he says inadvertently evokes shame in Deirdre about her needs and how she expresses them. If I took the language or even his laugh at face value, I could believe that he intended for her to feel ashamed.
But he wants something very different. When I invited him to consider what this all means to him, he was able to reflect on it. After months of slowing down the process with them to look at this painful pattern, Donovan is able to recognize that when Deirdre has these strong anxious reactions, he feels as though he has failed. If she is unhappy in even the smallest way, he holds himself responsible for not having created the conditions in which she would be relaxed and happy.
We’ve started to talk more about the almost constant presence of guilt in him toward people whom he loves. Perhaps he will contemplate how this sense of responsibility and guilt might have formed amid family struggles when he was young. In doing so, he may develop more compassion toward himself, feel some freedom from the unreasoning guilt he feels in his relationship, and listen more easily when Deirdre is fearful.
As it turns out, when I ask Deirdre what she expects of Donovan in this situation, she says that she wants him to listen to her and that she doesn’t expect him to take the feelings away.
She adds that she really wants him to feel the same way that she does. She faces her disappointment about his not feeling exactly as she does and recognizes the unlikelihood that he will. She comes to appreciate that acknowledgment and validation are possible between them and that she feels better when Donovan offers them to her. For her part, she may explore how her intensity of fear developed, and eventually access more options for coping with it.
As time goes on, the three of us see that it is very hard for him to stop using this word. He continued to use it in this and subsequent sessions, automatically, when his emotions were not accessible to him in other words, like a life preserver that he hung on to to help him float more lightly in these choppy waters. Deirdre became empathetic about how hard this pattern was to change and his feeling so responsible.
Now I can say to him, “Boy, that word again, it just keeps popping up, even though it doesn’t really help you out. What’s happening for you?” When I express sincere interest, he can look at this situation with interest and patience as well. The couple has a goal to do this for each other and themselves.
“Ridiculous” has become code for “I’m feeling responsible for how unhappy and uncomfortable you are. I don’t know how to make this better for you and I feel bad about it.”
So, what presents as dismissive language has a serious purpose, and we have worked together to find out what it is. This helps to increase the empathy between partners, while making room for more effective language to develop. “Effective” language, which involves sharing vulnerability, helps increase connection and trust.
This is one of many instances in which exploring words that appear to be mean or insensitive (while not abusive) can be a doorway into better understanding for a couple of their own and each other’s experience and can lead to greater closeness.