A couple walks into my office and I point to a wall tapestry that is rich in colors (reds, orange, greens, yellows, tans and browns), I ask them to come back the following week with a pillow to match the tapestry. The following week they return with different colors; one green the other red. So then I ask them to bring an orange candle to match the wall art…and they return with still different shades of orange. This is the power of perception. When we work on relationships this core communication pattern is the essence of the work we do. Often the “arguments” we have within our intimate relationships is rooted in a perception and understanding of the meaning of the words and actions of our partner.
Our lived experiences shape the meaning we assign to the actions we see, words we hear. One of my favorite examples of this is from graduate school. My professor shared about a couple he was working with, that argued regularly about the closing (or lack there of) of their gate. After they talked through this pattern of conflict many times, they were able to determine the gate was representative of one partner’s sense of safety and by not closing the gate the message was sent “your safety doesn’t matter to me”. This is perception. The assigned meaning to actions and the internalized beliefs associated with these actions. Some instances of these beliefs are connected to experiences as a child, others developed later into our adulthood. Detangling this rat’s nest of emotions/associations may take some time but will result in a more sound relationships in the present.
Drilling down on the “talking about talking” (metacommunication) and these perceptions help to increase the connection to our partner and to resolve the automatic stress response during moments of conflict. When we can notice our thoughts and let them float by and lean into the truth and knowledge that our relationship is safe and loving we have a better chance to hear the true intent of our partner not the perception.
Some exercises we would work on therapy to bolster your communication clarity are simple reflective listening, I statement things that we all logically know to do. The problem arises when our emotional reactivity shuts that logic down. During couples therapy we will practice communication in a safe environment, where I can facilitate the conversation. Having opportunities to practice these communication strategies in a calm way, allows for the neuropathways to change and for conversations to be productive at home with more success and to create space to feel connected together.
Join me as we finally answer who’s on first?