Thursday, 1 March 2012

Remembering to listen

Conversation between couples can degenerate into arguments with undignified rapidity because a phrase invokes memories of past conflicts.

They have been described as "toothpaste" arguments, where a comment about leaving the top off the toothpaste leads to a tennis game of volleys about the faults of the other.

I've seen bickering couples and they are all the same. Offense is taken not at what is said, but how it is said. A comment can be the start of a familiar chain of criticism and sometimes it seems quicker to jump to offense being taken without the journey to get there.

Saddest of all is rehashing the argument in an attempt to convince the other where the fault lies: "I said... then you said..."

I so don't want to be part of that couple.

But I had just that feeling when I took the wrong bus in the Capital two weeks ago. Because of my error we had to walk for 5 minutes rather than dropping right in front of our destination. A simple mistake - I recognised the number of the bus because it was one we took often. What I forgot was we needed to go a little further on this occassion.

Even writing this I feel the emotion of hurt at the unwarranted criticism and patronising instruction to check in future. I struggle to think of anyone else who would speak to me in such a way, coming up only with my parents or a teacher when I was six years old.

At the same time I am angry because I know that with friends - or in past relationships - such a mistake would be no issue at all. Instead of sucking joy out of the day, it would have passed in a second as nothing of importance.

I am breathless at the injustice. With the situations reversed, I would have accepted the mistake cheerfully. I know for a fact that I accept far worse errors with words of reassurance not castigation.

Explaining I don't want to be spoken to in this way does no good. In fact, it generally leads to a circle of justifications and recriminations. "I said... you said..."


Then I had a thought.

The hurt I feel, I think most partners feel, in these situations is fundamentally because I cannot understand how my wife could speak to me in this way if she loved me.

That old chestnut of it is not what is said, but how it is said.

My responses are no doubt as hurtful, even if I know that I wouldn't go down this bickering path if she hadn't started it. "You said... so I said..."

The clue, however, surely lies in the fact I am made to feel that I am six again.

In truth, it is not my wife that makes me feel that way. It is my reaction to her in these situations.

Certainly that childhood feeling of injustice, hurt and anger is real. But I am no longer six.

So I decided the next time not to argue back but to listen to the criticism. To explore it. I may be disappointed that my wife is sometimes so annoyed by little things, but is the underlying cause that she does not love me? Or is it just her feet are tired and she's really pissed at the thought of having to walk even five minutes more?

My memory tag for the 21 February is one word: listening.

It was the first opportunity I had to put this approach into practice. It passed off okay.

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