Marriage Counseling 101: The Dialogue

We’d spent our first session introducing ourselves and covering our individual backgrounds and medical histories while sitting next to each other on a small couch.  When we walked into our second marriage counseling session, we found two chairs set up a few feet apart facing one another.

This was, apparently, the proper setting for The Dialogue.

That’s what our counselor keeps calling it.  “We’re going to learn The Dialogue” and “hopefully you’ll use The Dialogue at home” and “The Dialogue provides the framework for what we’ll do.”  It took about five minutes for The Dialogue to sound funny, like if you say bowl or helicopter or Neil Diamond over and over again.  I don’t know if it’s because she puts the word “The” in front of it every single time or if it was just a simple matter of repetition.

But anyway, The Dialogue.

She explained the rules of The Dialogue.

The first step is mirroring.  Your partner – because that’s what you call your husband or wife during marriage counseling – will say something.  Then you will repeat it.  You don’t repeat what it means or what they’re saying, you just parrot back what they said.  She emphasized that it didn’t have to be repeated perfectly, but the closer you got the better your partner would feel.

The next step is validating.  Validating, she explained, is not agreeing.  It’s simply affirming that your partner is not crazy.  You confirm that you can logically see how they could be thinking whatever it is that they’re thinking.  I was particularly elated at this description.  I thought it was about damn time he admitted I wasn’t crazy.

The final step is empathizing.  This is where you try to understand what your partner is feeling.

It sounded simple enough.  I nodded my head that yes, of course I understood.  Jared shrugged, indicating that yeah, sure, OK.

Jared, I’d like you to speak first,” she said.  “I get the feeling that Britt does most of the talking in this relationship, and it would be good for you to talk.”

I hate it when people say this.  It might be a simple and possibly accurate observation, but it feels like condemnation.  It sounds an awful lot like “Jared, you poor thing, you can’t ever get a word in edge wise with this mouthy broad, can you?”  I resisted the urge to explain to her that someone has to do the freaking talking, thank you very much.

Instead, I settled back into my chair and prepared to mirror.  Jared shifted in his.

“I guess… um… I feel like…” Jared began.

I bit my tongue.  What he felt like was bullshit, I thought.  It seemed like it took him five minutes to explain how much it made perfect sense for him to lie to me last week.

“You said…” she prompted me.

I looked at her for confirmation that he was obviously doing this wrong.  She looked back and offered no such validation.

“Do I have to repeat the ums and the ‘I guesses’?” I asked.

Without so much as a smile she shook her head and told me to do the best I could.

“You said…” I began, and proceed to repeat the absolute crap he had just said to me.  I’m pretty sure I failed miserably at keeping the disdain from my voice.

“Is that right?” I asked.

“Did I get it,” she corrected me.  “We try to keep right and wrong out of this.  You’re just repeating what he said.”

“Did I get it?” I asked again.

“Yes,” Jared nodded.

“Is there more…” she prompted again.

“Is there more?” I asked.

Jared looked nervously at me and then again at her.  She nodded.  He looked back at me.  I sat stone still and refused to roll my eyes.

“Well, yes.  I also feel…” he went further.

I clenched my jaw.  This is bullshit, I thought.  Utter and total bullshit!

“You said…” she prompted again.  I wanted to remind her that I was a fairly intelligent person and was capable of remembering my part.

“You said…” I parroted his words back to him, choking on a few of them.  “Did I get?”

He nodded.

“Is there more…”

Jesus, Lady.  How much more of this are we going to listen to?  I took a deep breath.

“Is there more?”

He looked again at her, and then at me, and then back to her as if to say “really?  I’m getting away with this?  I can just keep going and she can’t say anything?”  His shoulders relaxed a little and I could feel him winding up.

I seethed.  Just you wait until it’s my turn, I thought.

“I’m afraid that you…” he went on again.

His sentences were getting longer and it was getting harder to concentrate on mirroring and being defensive.  I had to lean forward in my chair a little to focus better on what he was saying so that I could remember and repeat back.

“You said…” I parroted perfectly.  “Did I get it?” he nodded.  “Is there more?”

I was rocking The Freaking Dialogue.

And of course there was more.  He went on for what seemed like forever.  I braced myself every time I asked if there was more because dear GOD there was always freaking MORE.  I started to wonder if we’d ever get to Step 2, let alone Step 3.  He was settling into the role of speaker quite nicely and I worried that he’d completely forgotten that we had to get through more steps before our session was over.

“Is there more?” I asked again.

He rolled his eyes up, searching the ceiling for more he could possibly add as long as he had the floor.  I prayed to God that the white popcorn texture wouldn’t provide him further inspiration.  “Mmmm….” I waited, “nope!  I think that’s it.”  He seemed terribly satisfied with himself.

“OK, Britt,” she turned to me, “I want you to summarize what Jared just said.”

“You want me to summarize all of that?” I asked incredulously.

“Do the best you can.”

I took another deep breath and proceeded to repeat again most of what I’d heard.  I found myself choking on words again.  The last sentence was especially difficult to get out.  “And you’re afraid that…”

Afraid.  That was the word he’d used.  I knew because I had been paying very close attention in order to get my part right (because, bullshit, there is totally a right and wrong way to do this.  Clearly.)

“Did I get it?”

“Yes.”

“OK, now, Britt, can you validate what Jared is thinking?”

“Uh…” I didn’t say any more than that but I shot her a look that clearly said “are you freaking crazy?”

“You don’t have to agree,” she reminded me.  “But is there something in what Jared said that makes sense?”

“Uh….” I stuttered again, thinking about how much of what he said sounded like illogical excuses that no, as a matter of fact, I could not understand.

“Knowing Jared, what did he say that you can logically understand that yes, you can see how he would feel that way.”  She was clearly not going to give up and affirm that he was avoiding the truth while I was obviously the only one thinking rationally.  I was going to have to do this if we were going to get through the steps.

“OK..” I thought about what he’d said again.  I thought about what I knew about Jared and how his mind works and I thought more about what he’d said.  I squirmed a little in my chair as I felt myself get into his head and realize that this was not a comfortable place for me to be.  “OK,” I met his gaze, “it makes sense that you would think…”

It sure felt an awful lot like I was agreeing with him, regardless of her previous assurances that validating wasn’t the same as saying you agreed.  If nothing else, I certainly understood, and it made me squirm a little more.

“OK, now, Britt, what I want you to do is guess what he’s feeling.  And this time, I want you to guess three things you think he might be feeling right now.”

I thought about the things I understood.  Afraid.  There was that word again.  But it wasn’t just a word anymore, it was a feeling.  I choked again, but this time on my own tears.

“I think you’re feeling…” God, this was hard, “I think you’re feeling scared.”

His eyes reddened.  My God, he was scared.  He was 6 feet tall and fumbling with his fingers and thumbs and pulling on the soles of his shoes, and he was scared.  My heart melted and broke simultaneously.  I felt, for the first time, the full weight of how scared he was about what was going on in our marriage.  I hated that he was feeling this way.  But more importantly, I knew that he was feeling it.

I gave two more adjectives to describe how he might be feeling and he confirmed that, yes, those words were accurate.  We stared at each other from our facing chairs, me crying openly and him not crying but having difficulty keeping his eyes from getting redder.  He forced a smile and I looked down at my feet.

We sat there like that for an eternity.  One of us reached out and squeezed the other’s hand, and I wanted nothing more but for this session to be over so that I could hug him.

“Now, Britt,” she broke the silence, “I don’t normally do this in one session, but in this case I think it’s important that you each have a chance to speak.  So, you’re going to be the speaker and Jared is going to mirror you.”

Finally! I thought.  I was already triumphant, thinking about how now I would get to explain how much of what he had said was dead wrong.  Now I would finally get the chance to unleash all of those thoughts I’d bitten down on for the last 30 minutes or so.

“OK!”  I sat up straighter in my chair, prepared to set the record straight.

“Here’s the thing,” she interrupted before I could start.  “You just validated and empathized with what he said.  You can’t take that all back with ‘yeah, but’ now.  If what you said just now is true, you can’t immediately turn around and disagree.”

Shit.

It took me a few minutes, but I finally got out my first statement.  With the “you said” prompt from the counselor, Jared repeated back what I said.

Kind of.

“Did I get it?”

I said nothing and looked at the counselor.

“Did he get it?” she asked.

Is she deaf? I wondered.  “Well, um, no.  Not exactly.”

“OK, tell him again.”

I clarified.  He repeated.  Kind of.

“Did I get it?”

“Um, well, almost.”

We went back and forth like this three times before she stopped us.

Jared, you are doing a great job,” she assured him.  “Every sentence, like every person, is different.  And you are doing a great job of listening and mirroring.  But some people have different levels of the need to be understood.  That’s all that is going on here.  Let’s try again, but this time, Britt, say it in smaller chunks.”

I thought that was interesting.  I’d never heard that before, that the need to be understood wasn’t exactly universal.  I wondered if maybe I hadn’t parroted perfectly so much as Jared was OK with the idea that I got the gist of what he was saying, whereas I was desperate to have him get it just right, down to the subtle nuances because the nuances mattered and changed the specific meaning of what I was saying.

We continued on in smaller chunks and worked through Steps 1, 2 and 3 until we had both been validated and empathized with.  She congratulated us both on staying present and being committed to the process, and I handed her a check as we walked out the door.

It was hard.

I realized that maybe I wasn’t the great listener and communicator that I had thought I was.  The image of Jared relaxing and opening up in a safe place stuck with me, and I remembered it later in the week when I found myself trying to convince him that he had nothing to worry about when he tried to talk to me about an issue at work.  “You said that you’re nervous because…”, I reverted to The Dialogue, and while he laughed, he seemed to appreciate it.

Of course, a few days later I insisted that “I have been working my ass off to listen to you and it would be nice if I got a freaking turn here!“  “You said…” he responded, and while I laughed, I appreciated it.

I highly doubt that we are rocking The Dialogue.

But we’re trying.

******

I decided to write about this, as discreetly as I could, because walking into counseling blind is really scary for a lot of people.  You have no idea what the format will be or how a stranger could possibly help you, or even where you’ll begin.  When a relationship is so convoluted and there are layers and layers of resentment, it’s hard to know what layer to start with.  Maybe knowing a little more about what we’re going through will make it a little less scary for someone else.

Also, my husband is totally not scared of anything.  Ever.  And he tears apart trees with his bare hands.  He’s totally manly.

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