Sam’s wife, Beth, made a simple statement, or so she thought. “Let’s put in a walk-in shower.” Sam was immediately sour on the idea. He grimaced and said it wasn’t a good idea. This upset Beth and she responded strongly. “Why are you always so negative when I make a suggestion?” Sam quickly responded, “Because it’s just one more thing I have to deal with.” “But why can’t we just talk about it?” Beth replied.
Sam and Beth were both exasperated by the conversation and withdrew. Later that day, they were able to agree that the pattern of this discussion was all too familiar and needed to change. So bringing it to their next counseling session seemed like the safest and most hopeful route to take.
Beth was the plaintiff. “I just want to bring things up that we can discuss together reasonably and rationally.” Sam got in a dig, “You mean that you want me to agree to what you want to do!” “That’s not fair,” Beth replied. “Well, you’re not the one who will be doing the work,” Sam said.
Sam is a hands-on guy who can build or fix just about anything. He’s also someone who needs a lot of time to clarify thoughts and feelings. Beth, on the other hand, thrives on interpersonal engagement and also has strong visual skills. She has stronger verbal skills than Sam, as well.
I asked Sam what prompted his initial reaction to Beth bringing up the walk-in shower. He told us that when Beth brings up something like the shower, he doesn’t just see the shower, he sees (visual-spatial) the whole house. He instantaneously sees the plumbing and electrical systems, as well as the structural elements of the building. Not only that, but he pictures each and every other part of the house which needs care, attention and fixing.
Beth was, indeed, taken aback. She said, “Sam, why are you thinking about all of those things when I just brought up the shower?” She was genuinely puzzled. Beth continued, “Why do you put yourself through all that?” Then Sam said what we’ve all said at one time or another, “I’m not trying to do it, it’s just how I am!”
Sam doesn’t have any choice about the complex images that come into his mind, but he does have a choice about how he responds and what meaning he gives it. Working with his natural communication style helped him (and Beth) understand that Sam really does see the whole picture immediately, and, at times, that is overwhelming. Learning to identify the feeling part—being overwhelmed—was key for him in managing his reactions better. He learned to tell Beth when he felt overwhelmed. For her part, Beth recognized that Sam sees everything at once, so she can ask him to describe the picture, giving her a better idea of what’s going on.
In addition, Sam discovered that although he’s seeing everything at once, he can engage Beth in talking about priorities (logical) and they can make decisions together. He also realized that he wasn’t giving Beth enough space to think out loud (interpersonal) and share her enthusiasm. Being so quick to react because he was feeling overwhelmed, he squashed any opportunity for her to dream out loud.
When communication gets hijacked by our emotional reactions, it hurts the relationship. Sam and Beth each felt invisible to the other. The result was beliefs that hurt: I’m not loved, cared about, or valued. None of this was true, but it felt that way when the emotional reactions overshadowed the truth. By accounting better for their stylistic differences, they developed communication structures that gave them a real opportunity for connection, collaboration, and understanding. This, of course, strengthened their relationship.