One of my favorite things about my relationship with my wife is the amount of time we spend cooking in the kitchen. Hey hey! That’s what she said!! But, no, this is not a euphemism. We literally spend a lot of time cooking food in our kitchen. At this point in our lives juggling her new career and my working plus studying regimen, these are the times we get to reconnect after a long day.
It’s worth noting, though, that our kitchen isn’t that big and, despite our best attempts, we sometimes get in each others’ way. We step on toes or tip things over. When we’re hungry, we are a little more sensitive to our invasions of our personal space bubbles.
When you spend this kind of time together, it’s amazing the kind of things you learn about your partner. This story is about just that.
Above our stove is a range hood that sits at about my eye level. If I’m standing at the stove, I’ll often lean my arm against the front of the range hood while I’m doing something productive like waiting for water to boil. Just a couple of days ago, Kristy and I were working away in the kitchen – if I’m honest, she was probably working and I was goofing around. But we were talking, and since I hadn’t seen her all day I wanted to be close to her. So, I leaned against the range hood as I often do.
Then there was a startling crash. I had inadvertently knocked a magnetic timer off of the range hood onto the stove top. As you can imagine, it caught us both by surprise, but my wife startles a little more easily than I do.
She jumped. She also said – no, exclaimed, “Desmond!”
My immediate reaction was not to laugh, or simply replace the timer on the range hood, but to go on the defensive. “What?!? It was an ACCIDENT.”
It’s important to notice a couple of things here. First, my wife had a very simple response. Literally, the only word that she said was my name. Secondly, my reaction was pretty emotional for something so apparently benign. The ALL-CAPS emphasis was real.
I heard a whole lot more than my wife said. She literally said my name but I added a lifetime of past experiences. I added all of those times that I didn’t feel good enough, the self-expectations to do the best I could possibly do. I added fears of failure. I heard her say that I scared her. I heard her blame me.
She said none of this, but I heard it all.
Here’s the important lesson we learned. As some of the great therapists have said, “We cannot not communicate.” Everything we do and say has a lot more information that tags along. All of our individual histories contribute to who we are right now. It colors what we see and hear. It affects how we interpret things. It’s important to be aware of this when we’re having conversations with others, especially our significant relationships.
We don’t actually respond to the things that our partners say. We respond to what we hear them say. In the absence of details, our brains are incredibly adept at filling in blanks from its library of past experiences. If you get a couple of people locked in this pattern of adding their own information to the words that are actually being said, you can see how our attempts to communicate and quickly go off the rails.
Thankfully, my wife is aware enough that she was able to name what was happening and bring it to my attention in order to keep our evening from getting too crazy.
But this truth – that we respond to the things that we hear them say – is important to be aware of. We can only truly communicate with another person when we get to a place that acknowledges the filters through which process data coming into our brains are not fully aligned with the filters of the person sending the message. If nothing else, it begs for us to do some internal work towards a deeper sense of self-awareness; we have to know what filters we have in place, where they come from, and if they’re still useful.
Another example might help make this point. Imagine Sally and Susie are a couple. Sally had a lovely childhood with the exception of a horrible memory of a neighbors dog that would always chase her, scaring her, and on one particularly bad day, biting her leg pretty badly. Susie had a similarly wonderful upbringing and always had a pet dog or two at home. She loved them, and squeezed them, and (for the purposes of this story) she even had called one George. Sally and Susie love each other and had been living together for about a year when Susie says to Sally, “I really want to get a dog!” What she was intending to say is that dogs had always been special to her. They provided companionship. They provided someone to talk to when her friends abandoned her. She wants to bring a dog into their mix because her dogs have been family members and, in way, she’d love to start building the same sense of family with Sally. For Susie, this has the potential to be a beautiful moment. This is a step towards building a life long relationships with the woman she loves.
Sally is terrified. She misses all of the beautiful complexities about beginning a family and spending their lives together. Without noticing all of the other context, Sally’s brain is flooded with terrifying emotions, of memories of frightening and dangerous encounters. Her emotions are blaring at such a high volume in this moment that she is simply unable to think rationally to process that she has never actually told her girlfriend about this. Instead, her brain senses danger, ready to fly or flee. Her brain is automatically trying to figure out if this other person and their attempt to bring a danger into their home can be trusted. She lashes to create temporary distance. Sally and Susie are left with no clue about what just happened or what was behind the other’s reaction.
Yes, this is an extreme case. Still, it shows that we bring all of our lived experience – the relationships, the parenting, the memories, the hopes, the dreams – into every interaction with another person. Even though these things are unseen, they provide influence on the people that we are becoming and the ways that we filter the things we think we hear.
When my wife said my name after I dropped the timer, I heard her blaming me for doing something wrong. Doing the right thing is a pressure that I’ve always been aware of and to feel like I’m doing something wrong gives me a guilty, visceral reaction.
When she had asked me for months about a noise in her car that I thought was nothing, she felt like I might not have trusted her. Now, she is a brilliant woman who I trust more than anything – except my own experience evidently. What was she supposed to think when my words (“Oh yeah, I’ll take care of it.”) didn’t line up with my actions (Months of playing down the importance of the potential car repairs)? How many other times did people not take her seriously in her life?
Every experience shapes who we are and who we will be. Every time someone from our past has taken a particular tone or given us a particular look, some thing about how the world works gets internalized in our consciousness. The more these patterns have been reinforced, the harder they are to break. These patterns live deep down in our brains in the regions that get activated during our most heated and emotional interactions. Our emotional reactions usually come up from the depths where we tend to have less rational control. That’s why our reactions can seem so stupefying – even to ourselves. We aren’t always fully aware of the way things have gotten wired down there. The more serious or traumatic the experience, the more inexplicable our reactions often are.
It can appear as it these emotions have mystical powers over us. They don’t. It might seem that way, but they don’t.
Our reactions make sense when we consider all of the ways that our experience has shaped us. The more awareness that we can focus on our interior world the more we can begin to understand why things happen the way that they do. But, more than that, we can perhaps begin to see our reactions and the reactions of those we love most as being something other than simply in-the-moment overreactions. We can begin to compassion for the patterns of reacting that have been established in us by some combination of our own learning, the ways that others have treated us, and the things that we have experienced.
Remarkably, this compassionate stance is the way that we can begin to change our internal world so that it is more attuned to our current experience. Through deliberate work on ourselves, we can begin to change this fundamental wiring that filters every experience. Even more, these when we take the same fundamental stance with others, a compassionate understanding even helps to make similar changes deep in the minds of those we love. The more we show genuine care and love, the more their brains feel safe and can rewire in such a way that is less about surviving and more about thriving.