Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Life Lesson in Listening

Guest Blog by Polybidave-

When going through a break up, the feelings can be overwhelming.  It is at times like these that we question many things about ourselves, the relationship we had, and what exactly we are doing with our life.  I don't particularly like these moments, but once you get past the worst of it there is a part that I do look forward to, though it is also painful.

Once you can breathe again, and are able to think about your “ex” without crying constantly, that is the time to unpack some of the sources of conflict.  I went through the pain, right?  I might as well get some benefit from that.  If I'm going to screw up again some day (hint: I will) I want to make sure I don't screw up in precisely the same way.  Someone wise once said something to the effect that failing to learn from the mistakes of our past dooms us to repeat them.  I wish I had thought of that first, it sounds really smart.

I was moved to write this after a recent conversation where I realized that one of my “lessons” was potentially useful for someone else.  I value this lesson highly, as it cost me a relationship of 11 years.  Please don't read flippancy into that last statement, I am not mocking the loss.  Rather, I'm acknowledging the extremely high price of the lesson, and painful though it is, it is precious to me, that knowledge gleaned.  I acknowledge that it is an oversimplification to say that “this one thing” is what caused the demise of our partnership.  I do, however, firmly believe that this was the single largest contributing factor.  I also firmly believe that the entire arc of our relationship would have flowed differently had I possessed the ability to do this “right”.  

I was in a long term relationship with a person who I loved very much, who loved me very much, and we had a mutually enjoyable, exciting sex life to boot.  Things were going great.  For a time I tried to meet some of my partner's needs that weren't really my thing, but I didn't think it would hurt.  In the end, I let them know that this experiment wasn't working for me, and we changed the way things looked.  It was at this point that a detachment happened.  There was less frequency, less joyful enthusiasm, and less creativity in the way that we shared sexuality.  

Time passed, and while I have a very long atrophy cycle for intimacy, my partner was far more sensitive to the shift that we were experiencing.  My partner tried to manage their feelings internally for a time, but eventually came to me expressing dissatisfaction with the way things were going.  

“We never have sex any more.”

I remember hearing that and having two thoughts.  First, “That's not true, we have sex... uh... hmm.  Yeah, I think it's been a month or longer, that is a long time.”  Then second, “Ooh!  My partner wants to have sex with me.  I'm wanted!”

So, we had sex.  All of the attendant sounds were present. We talked about it afterward and my partner said that it was good and that it “helped”, and we made a commitment to continue this behavior with greater frequency.  We did just that, having sex between once per week to once every two weeks.  Still not frequent, but more frequent.  We would have sex every time my partner initiated, but I wasn't initiating.  Yes, that should be a red flag.  There were reasons, but I'm not going to sidetrack into that.

This continued for some time, and I thought that my partner's needs were being met, until one day I was blindsided with the following statement:

“We never have sex any more.”

I remember hearing that and having two thoughts.  First, “We just had sex last Thursday.”  Then second, “Do they not even remember that we had sex?”  I felt worried and hurt.  I gathered my memories and marshaled the facts, and made the case for the truth about objective reality.  We HAD had sex.  We DO have sex.  This conversation ended up a bit more heated.  My partner backed off their claim that we didn't have sex, not agreeing with me necessarily, leaving things vague and still obviously upset.  They didn't have more to bring up so we dropped it and went on with our day.  I was uncertain how to resolve a disagreement about objective reality.  Video cameras?

This came up, again and again, over the next several months.  It devolved into two points of view that didn't change much.  My position was, “You are invalidating me as a sexual partner.  The sex we have is so unsatisfying for you, or insufficient in some way, such that you don't even remember when we have it.  I'm hurt.  I'm angry that you are being irrational.  I need you to acknowledge that we are having sex, and if you want more frequency, or variety, or if something needs to change, you need to make that clear and ask for what you need.”  Their position was, “We don't have sex any more.  You are distant.  I can't stay as close to you if we aren't sexual.  I need that to sustain the level of intimacy we had.  I am losing a connection with you that I valued, in fact, it feels like it's already lost.  I feel like, in some ways, we aren't partners any longer.  It's like you've left me.”

Yep, still hurts to write about this.

My feelings intensified with time while my partner's apathy grew.  I can be a passionate orator when provoked and this was provoking the hell out of me.  I continued to argue on the level of objective reality, missing the answer.  This wasn't the time to discuss objective reality.  When two people disagree on a matter of opinion, that's one thing.  When two people disagree on a fact, then one of two things is happening.  Either the information being compared is misunderstood or one of the people is being irrational.  I thought someone was being irrational.  That was incorrect.  Our situation wasn't a case of the latter, it was a case of the former.  My partner's words were not literally true, but there was absolutely a truth that was lying underneath that they couldn't accurately express.  My refutation of their literal words were a barrier to more effective communication, a red herring.

Here is what I want to say to you, my painful, precious lesson.  When you have a “failure to agree on reality” moment with someone you love, where you think that one of you is crazy, tell yourself that this is not the time to discuss objective reality.  Stop arguing.  Stop saying, “But we just had sex last Thursday, don't you even remember?  Was I that inadequate?”  That's not addressing the issue. It comes across as argumentative, and it makes the other person feel like they are not being heard... well, because they aren't being heard.

The conversation needs to be reframed.  Take it out of the world of facts, and dive into the world of feelings.  Use reflective listening.  Ask questions.  Probe.  Validate.  Be gentle.  Here are some examples of what I wish that I would have said differently:

“I love you.  It sounds like your needs aren't being met.  How would you like things to look different?”

“I think that we had sex last Thursday, I have a firm memory of that.  However, that's clearly not addressing your feelings. What can we do differently that would feel better?”

“You are important to me.  When you tell me that, 'we don't have sex any more', can you share more about that?  Are there other related needs that are also not being fulfilled?  What are some additional ways that we can meet those needs, not instead of having sex, but in addition to having sex?”

I am normally very good at validating another person's experience, even when it is uncomfortable for me personally, or I strongly disagree with their version of reality.  When it was my partner, however, and they were disagreeing about a reality that we had shared, I became triggered.  I lost a part of my tool box that I am normally highly skilled at (empathetic listening) because I got hung up with the surface level discussion about what had happened or not happened.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, in that moment, tell yourself two things.  First, there is a cause for this, a source.  Unless you discover the source, all the “proof” in the world won't solve your problem.  Second, YOU might be the one who is triggered.  I can't emphasize that enough.  The entire time that my partner and I were having this challenge I was under the impression that they were acting nuts and I was perfectly rational.  I was triggered too, and not using my relationship skills as I would have liked to.  My empathetic listening skills were shut off in my attempt to defensively prove that “I'm not bad”.

After having the recent conversation where I mentioned this lesson, obliquely, I continued to think that this one was good enough to share.  If I gained value from it, and another person seemed to find value in it, then odds are that even more people might find it valuable.  So, there it is.  

Thank you for reading!  


Ps1: Yes, in a perfect world each person has better self-knowledge and is better able to clearly communicate and negotiate for what they need.  The above is not “how things should be”, but rather, what to do when things are going off the rails.  It is a path to getting at the self-knowledge that is missing through compassionate, supportive communication.  


Ps2:  I vacillated on whether or not to share this.  At one point in our disagreement over objective reality my partner decided to keep a “sex log”, recording each sexual encounter between us.  This did not solve the problem, though it did decrease the strength of their position over time.  Let me repeat, this did NOT help.  This left them “losing a debate” with their partner, not getting help with their feelings.  What good is winning a debate if you lose a partner?
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