Repair Your Relationship in a Flash

Sometimes when we argue our words go in one ear and out the other. Here's a new way of communicating.

by Nancy Dreyfus, Psy.D.
Photograph: iStock photo

Think of all the times you and your partner have been in a terrific space—loving, warm, really in sync—and some little thing happens (what you would later call a little stupid thing), and suddenly you not only can’t get back to dreamy, you can’t get back to “normal.”   

For instance: After a day of affectionate texting, you are about to leave for a romantic dinner—only one of you is now glued to the computer, and the other is getting agitated. The Online Person now resents having their delay interpreted as some form of insincerity, and before long, each sees the other as sabotaging the evening. In the restaurant, it’s civil but not friendly. Or… You’re in bed with your honey, and for some reason there’s a little more stop-and-start than usual, and your partner declares, “You’re obviously just not that in to it.” You protest, “That’s not true!” but something has been triggered. You are dismayed and at a loss as to how to turn this around. How, you wonder, could we have felt so close 20 minutes ago… and now this??   

As a relationship-oriented psychotherapist, I can tell you that complications and misunderstandings like this arise all the time in generally healthy relationships. It is why the single most popular complaint I hear in my consulting room is, “I wish I didn’t have to walk on eggshells around him (or her).”

I could write a book as to why, in a nanosecond, we can feel so disappointed, invalidated, unheard or just plain unmet by our loved one. In fact, I have written a book, Talk To Me Like I’m Someone You Love, that addresses this issue. The heart of the book, however, offers what the subtitle, Relationship Repair in a Flash, promises—a way to harness the power of the written word in order to quickly get back to an authentic, happy sense of connection.

I kid you not. It really can be as easy as showing a flashcard to your partner that says everything you wish you could say simply and without inflection.

I wouldn’t have believed it either if I hadn’t conducted the worst couples session of my life a few years back. A relentlessly critical wife was haranguing her husband, calling a business decision of his “asinine”—my own mother’s favorite criticism of my father. In an instant, I reverted to an overwhelmed child incapable of stopping her parents’ warfare, and was rendered almost mute.

As a last-ditch effort to offer something resembling therapy, I scribbled on a nearby envelope, “Talk to me like I’m someone you love,” handed it to the husband and whispered, “Hold it up to her.” And he did.  The wife was immediately disoriented, but soon softly acknowledged, “I guess I haven’t been very nice.” The husband sat up straighter, aligning himself with the dignity in the message. The couple made eye contact in a way I had not been sure they were capable of and left holding hands.

I was floored.

Since that time I have been fascinated with the power of written messages to pierce our defensiveness, engender respect, inspire tenderness and provide a face-saving way for a couple who have dug in their heels to pivot. I have engineered many such messages that move a couple from “the issue” (i.e. parenting….money….are you really into making love? ...etc.) to a more fundamental point: that how we are relating to this issue is the issue. 

Imagine what might have happened with the couple going out to dinner or the one with derailed lovemaking, if someone held up a message like: “I realize I’m over-reacting. Can you give me a minute to get sane again?” Or, “I am your friend. It’s painful seeing how quickly I become your enemy.” Or, “I cannot tell you how much I regret the direction I took this in.” Or simply, “I love you, I hate fighting, and can’t we just hug?”

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