Several years ago some graduate students I was working with formed a study group to discuss why groups of people behave the way they do. One day one of them said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what we’re doing. As hard as it is, I believe this is something we could use with our high school students.”
Another added immediately, “Oh, I agree. It would be utter foolishness to try it!”
A little surprised, I asked the second person, “What did you hear John say?”
He replied quickly, “Oh, he said this kind of format would never work with our students.”
I then asked the rest of the group what they had heard John say. About half said that he had meant the group method would be useful; half said he didn’t think it would work.
I then asked, “Why did we hear opposite things?” There was a period of silence.
Then a former army colonel said, “Because we only hear what we want to hear!” The group remained silent as he continued: “I don’t think you understand. My wife has been telling me this for ten years and I never listened. Now I see that she is right. I never listen to her except when she says what I want to hear!”
Of course, it isn’t always that easy. Besides hearing just what they want to hear, some marriage partners consciously or unconsciously “protect” themselves by avoiding or distorting communication. Some husbands and wives seem to be more concerned with “winning” than with communicating.
For example, after a difficult day a wife might say, “The children were terrible this afternoon,” hoping for understanding and compassionate support from her husband. He, sensing that to become involved would be emotionally draining, avoids the real issue and protects himself by responding with, “By now, I would have had the house under control.” He “wins” a point—as he supposes—by showing his superior executive skill, but communication is lost.
On the other hand, the husband might come home from work delighted with an important achievement, only to find his wife too busy to listen. Perhaps she is protecting her own ego from the disappointment of a discouraging day, but in “winning” the self-protection game, she sacrifices open communication.
To build a climate of understanding with each other, we first have to understand ourselves and the ways we play the protection game. We have to separate what we are hearing from what our spouse is saying. And to really hear another person, we have to risk conceding a point, doing something we don’t want to do, or bringing about a change in our thinking or in our behavior. Avoiding or distorting communication is easier in the short-run than listening to each other and facing the responsibility that hearing might require. For, understanding each other requires trading the protection game, in which one person loses and the other wins, for open communication, through which both can win.
I remember a couple (whom I’ll call Jim and Sue) who never seemed to be able to discuss important issues openly—and it was baffling and frustrating to both of them. As I talked with Jim I learned that his mother was a very controlling and demanding woman. The family had learned that to get along they had to agree with her and let her “win” in every conversation. That was their protection game. Jim had very deep love and respect for his mother, but he also knew that she was often wrong. Over the years his frustration had been deeply buried because it had been unsafe to express how he felt about her constant badgering.
As a result, he had developed deep feelings of self-deprecation and guilt. The only way he could feel safe in his interaction with Sue was to constantly seek her support—to the extent that all conflict in their marriage was avoided. Consequently every time they tried to talk about anything important, the issues would get distorted and mixed in with Jim’s fear of being dominated and hurt by a difference of opinion or a temporary lack of support. Unknowingly, Jim was playing the same old game with a new partner! His way of “winning” with Sue was to avoid conflict instead of resolving it.
As they came to understand what was happening, he and Sue were able to start carrying on adult conversations devoid of defensive maneuvers.
A week after the discussion on group behavior I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the former army colonel in the group of graduate students related two experiences that resulted from our discussion. One day his wife asked him if he had talked with their eight-year-old about the mess in her bedroom. He felt a surge of frustration and some anger at being accused of negligence and was about to say, “I don’t think that is my responsibility.” But he caught himself and decided that his wife was probably not accusing, but only inquiring. So instead of responding to a distortion of her question, he focused on her real meaning and said, “I’m never very successful in talking with her about things like that,” thus admitting one of his limitations as a father. They then had an extended conversation about their need to work together as parents to effectively discipline the children. His wife was able to make several helpful suggestions to him which he later found useful in talking to their daughter.
Later in the week, they started to talk about their budget. He had always handled the budget, considering it his duty as husband—but he found it difficult to make it stretch far enough. When she raised a question about some unpaid bills, he started to defend himself by saying, “You don’t trust me to use the money wisely.”
She calmly said, “No, that’s not what I said.”
Reminding himself that he needed to listen to what she was really saying, he asked for clarification. She expressed some concerns, and they had a long talk about his anxiety to make things stretch. Because of his change in attitude, he was receptive, for the first time, to her offer to help out by making a budget and setting limits on credit purchases. Through her warmth and support, he realized that he could quit protecting himself by always needing to be in control of the finances and being “right” in money matters. Now they felt united—they could work together on the problem.
Real understanding between partners requires that they give up needing to win in their interaction. When they can gently and lovingly inquire into the other’s meaning instead of defending their own position, new closeness and communication are possible. In relationships that are open and free from distortions, conflicts generally tend to get worked through to an acceptable solution, and often mutual support is strengthened and intimacy deepens.