I have personally witnessed or heard reports of literally hundreds upon hundreds of scenarios in which loving, intimate partners have polarized in a nanosecond. And I’m not talking here about the instant you discover that your husband has actually been conducting a complex love life on an interactive porn site. I’m talking about little stuff, or what you’d think would be little stuff. Let’s take driving routes, as an extremely common example.
Ben and Sue are driving from their home in the suburbs to see a movie downtown. They truly start out in a terrific, happy mood, really liking each other. Ben is driving and automatically takes the local back roads route he takes to work everyday.
“What are you doing? Take the expressway!” gasps, Sue, as if endangered. “We’ll never make the movie if you go that way!” Should Ben not heed Sue’s warning, and fast, she may well become frantic—a combination of her fear of being late and her belief that her invaluable advice is not being taken seriously. As Sue continues in emergency mode, this would be a time for Ben to use this Flashcard.
But there are other ways this driving thing can go. Ben is driving again, and calmly, Sue offers, “Do you think it might be wiser to get onto 76? It might be the speedier way to head out this time of day.” That’s all she says, but Ben immediately flips out. “For crying out loud, will you quit bugging me! Don’t you think I can think for myself? What’s with you…are you trying to start a fight? etc. etc. etc?” This would be a time for Sue to pull over and use this Flashcard.
I cannot tell you, how common both scenarios are. Likely, if you keep a copy of this book in the car, it will get as much use as if kept anywhere else. It has been suggested to this author that she make some sort of arrangement with Toyota or General Motors for all new cars to come with a set of Flashcards for Real Life in the glove compartment.
Being in a car with your partner creates forced proximity and, when you each have a different picture of the ideal route—an instant differentiation crisis: My partner isn’t me. Such conditions, in a car or out, can quickly turn a friend into an adversary. Allow this flash card to remind your partner of your friendship.
This we might call a companion card to Flashcard #43: “You are not being crazy. I can see why you’d be upset with me.” The earlier message tells your partner that it is reasonable for them to be upset with you. It is truly entering their frame-of-reference and it is lovely validation.
But trust me--assuring your partner they aren’t crazy won’t be nearly as thrilling to them as assuring them that you actually know when you are. To have implied that your partner was insensitive, disappointing, misguided or generally bad and then withdraw your projection so cleanly, will, at least in the moment, free your partner from any need to keep proving that you are crazy. In fact, they can take all the energy they were using to get you to see yourself, and throw it into really liking you. It might make you nervous.
While this book was conceptualized largely for adult intimate relationships, this message is so on-point, wholesome and reparative, I strongly recommend flashing it to just about any child of yours who is old enough to read it. In fact, don’t wait until your next bout of overkill. Just cheerfully reference your last one, and flash accordingly. Your kid will get it instantly, be gratefully stunned, and, as time goes by, be deeply appreciative of having been saved years of personal growth work to get validation for what they suspected to be true but couldn’t fully trust.
My guess is that you could flash this card to a total stranger, and they’d be somehow relieved.
I can’t tell you all the times I’ve worked with women in individual therapy who are bright, articulate, empathic, willing to look at themselves honestly and open to feedback, and somewhat miserable in their marriages with allegedly “sub-relational” husbands. They say things like, “I just can’t get him to open up” and “He talks to no one…he has no friends….he barely makes small-talk with his brother…” and “He’s a decent guy, but his mother sucked the lifeforce out of him….” and “He’s terrified of feelings.”
Not rarely these reluctant husbands do make an appearance in therapy, and more often than not, this is what happens after I ask the husband how things are from his end:
Husband: It’s been tough. I know Sharon is disappointed that we’re not closer—but she’s not the only one. We haven’t made love in six months and I miss her. As a matter of fact…
Wife (interrupting): “Haven’t made love? And with whom would I do that? The man who missed his son’s soccer game on Saturday?”
And then I interrupt the wife, and say something like, “I know you have wanted your husband to engage more, and you deserve it. But for that to happen, he needs to feel safe opening up. And that means letting him know you are really interested in hearing his experience, even if it makes you uncomfortable, even if it isn’t ‘the whole story.’”
For those of you with a seemingly sub-engaged partner—and I’m certainly also addressing men here who wish their women would open up more—really take yourself on and ask, Do I do my part to open up the space for my partner or do I unwittingly close it up. For those of you who find yourselves in the position of the husband in my consulting room, give this Flashcard a try. It’s a beautiful way to start reconstructing your rightful place in your relationship.
Introduction to section VII. Apologizing
I grew up in the generation where the line in the 1970 tear-jerker Love Story (with Ali McGraw as a dying Radcliff student married to Harvard jock Ryan O’Neal) became a household phrase: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This phrase keeps showing up in my head as I approach this field note, and as someone who has probably quoted it mindlessly many times, I now feel called upon to explore whether or not I actually believe it. So I first polled a number of people who seem to agree with my Beloved, who just put it succinctly: “It’s rubbish.”
He is a man who walks his talk, and truth be known, I do like it a lot when he says he is sorry…and it does make me feel loved. But in the spirit of this book, it’s not just because an apology is a wonderful gift, a deserved acknowledgment that you caused me pain, a sign of genuine remorse or a bridge back to a feel-good space between us. A real apology is a beautiful combination of vulnerability and responsibility-taking, and I feel loved because my guy is so willing to own something less than honorable about himself with the intention of keeping himself clean. Then I get something even better than being loved--I get to love a man I see as honorable. And we all know the difference, when you think of all the times apologies have been offered with a false note: “Yeah, I am sorry, and can we just get past this, please?”
The Flashcards in this section provide 11 opportunities to take something that transpired between you and your partner that was petty, mean-spirited, hurtful or just plain thoughtless, and turn the moment into something honorable. The Love Story quote has to do with trusting that your Beloved already feels sorrow for any pain caused. But to me, it’s not the requirement of an apology or lack of requirement that says much about love. It’s that real love flourishes best between people who are committed to being whole.
This is what this card is not to be used for: to get your partner to stop talking about something that matters to them, but is making you uncomfortable….to avoid talking about or taking responsibility for something that ought to be mattering to you….to move your partner into a sexual situation under the guise of suggesting friendly, healing contact. Even as I write this, I regret introducing any suspiciousness into this field note, but I am doing so because I want to preserve the sanctity of this Flashcard. That’s how potentially beautiful it is.
There’s a certain point in a rupture with your partner where you are kind of spent, you notice you might be listlessly repeating yourself because you’ve gotten your essential points out, something doesn’t seem so life-and-death anymore, your partner is seeming more reasonable than they appeared 15 minutes ago, and frankly, you are not sure where to go next. It’s no longer combative, but it’s not exactly cozy either. I say, go for it…go for cozy.
Look, I’m a wordsmith—this whole book is about using words to bridge the gaps between human beings. But even I know that often, it will be the non-verbal connection between you that is what is going to feel really, really real—when you can stop thinking and move into the gentleness that makes you wonder how things could have possibly gotten so nutty between you.
Holding each other, by the way, does not have to be in a horizontal position. You might be in a place where standing in a sustained hug is what most honors the moment. Or one of you might sit on the other’s lap. One couple I know of, finds it calming to sit on the floor back-to-back in silence, and then speak from that place.
An upset does not have to be 100% resolved to offer this Flashcard. But feel into it—it can be a tender, if not inspired, way to take a magic carpet ride from 3rd base to home.