Improving Relationships

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


Today, problems between people often flow from major cultural changes that have created large differences in people’s values and expectations. These mismatches are often unrecognized and that’s potentially destructive.  When communication is assumed but actually there’s non-communication, it is easy to create confusion or conflict between the sexes, between same-sex couples, between family members, between generations, between friends or coworkers, between employees and employers, and even within individuals.  The result is that despite shared desires to make life good, people often inadvertently create mutual disappointment.

One of our friends received a phone call from a much younger reporter who asked to interview her at an upcoming professional meeting.  I’d be delighted, she said, adding in closing, I hope we get on, which meant “I hope the interview goes well.  At the meeting she learned to her dismay and embarrassment that the reporter had told everyone at his magazine that she had made a sexual pass at him.  He said, Do you know she actually said to me, I hope we get it on!  That was the phrase for his generation; her generation never even thought of it

When a man tells a woman I love you, he often means You arouse more passion in me than I have ever experienced before.  And when a woman tells a man that she loves him she often means, You make me feel very special, safe and secure.

We can miscommunicate with anyone; it’s that easy!  As Winston Churchill once observed,  “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”  When people use the same words they assume those words mean the same thing to the other person.  Sometimes they do.  And sometimes they don’t.

Miscommunication is often the result of different assumptions and expectations that people have.  The result?  Even when people do talk, they too often talk past each other.  Why?  There are many reasons.  First, we may never have really established common expectations with the person with whom we’re speaking.  We may just assume our expectations are shared from the facts of how we know the other person or our belief in a shared culture.  But we can be drastically wrong, as anyone knows who discovers when he or she first meets the parents of a serious lover that the parents hold political views wildly different from those of their child.

Expectations and assumptions change over time and in our world they have been changing at different speeds for individuals and certainly for different groups of people.  And often, the people involved don’t know it.

Recent studies all agree that for most people, their intimate relationships are more important than their work or anything else in determining how they feel about themselves and how satisfied they are with life.  This simply means that most people look to love, their family and their partners, for their sense of security and belonging.  In those relationships we can feel good in giving and loving and we can receive the wonderful perhaps vital message that we are lovable.

Men and women have always fought as well as loved. And of course there are couples who are happy or at least satisfied with each other.  But still, today, there seems to be an uncommon amount of trouble in the closest intimate relationships.  The statistical evidence is painfully clear: many people are unable to find a partner, others are in relationships which are deeply troubled, and others mourn relationships that are now dissolved. The rates of divorce, of separation, of people remaining single, of single parents heading households remain high.

Other symptoms of discontent are harder to document objectively but they are drearily familiar: arguing over who has the right to make decisions, painfully negotiating who does which household chores, debating the right to pursue ambitions in one’s career or otherwise.   Over the last forty years it has become hard to know what the rules are in relationships and so it has become increasingly hard to know what are your rights as well as responsibilities.

A common cause of miscommunication is over-loading a situation with emotional baggage from the past.  When people allow their old emotional stuff to have a big impact on what’s happening now, they don’t really hear, and they over react.  As a result they confuse and frustrate the people they’re “communicating” with.

We were at a friend’s house the day after Thanksgiving when our hostess was creating a casserole from turkey, onions and wild rice left over from the feast.  She was searching for something in her pantry and was clearly not satisfied with what she was finding.  When her mother said, Use chicken stock, she shook her head “no” and continued exploring the contents of her kitchen shelves.  After a few minutes her mother again called out, Use chicken stock, and again she shook her head “no.”  After the third time her mother advised chicken stock she turned and said, No.  The flavor isn’t strong enough for wild rice.

Her mother rose from her seat and as she left the kitchen she muttered, That’s the nastiest thing anyone ever said to me.  There was a lot more than chicken stock on that mother’s mind, but only she could have known what it was.

When situations threaten to force people to recognize that the relationship they have assumed is different or even absent, they often try to cope with that sense of loss by seeking to escape that awareness by not confronting, by not disclosing, by being silent, even by leaving.  They avoid any unpleasantness.  Then resentments multiply until little things like not picking up a dirty sock or not making dinner or not using chicken stock can provoke a major emotional outburst which seems to have come from out of nowhere.  When feelings of need or fear, envy or resentment are always smoldering, it takes only a little fuel to spark a heated flare.

When people manage their life by avoiding significant talking and by maintaining surface pleasantries, the chances are good that a bewilderingly major confrontation or emotional collapse may follow from an apparently insignificant beginning.  That’s because endless pleasantries can paper over situations of major disappointment and disagreement but those mis-matched expectations and interpretations do not disappear.  They’ve just been shoved underground.  People who share good will toward each other need to learn they can and should examine their expectations of each other so that they can achieve true agreement or honest disagreement. In the long run, silence is rarely a solution.  In other words, listen hard, focus on the other person, ask questions….. and speak up!

The fear that your feelings are not reciprocated is one reason that people create Secret Tests.  A Secret Test is a lop-sided situation in which one person makes a demand on another but doesn’t let the other know it.  In Secret Tests a person refuses to state what is wanted because “If you really love me you’d understand me without my having to say a word and you would know what I would prefer and you would give it to me gladly so to make you prove your love I’m not going to tell you what I want because this is a test of how much you really know and love me.”  In other words, the unsuspecting subject can only pass a Secret Test if the test remains secret.

Unfortunately, in conventional conversations we may not only learn that we aren’t being heard at the deepest and most important levels but we also may learn that the other person did not really “listen” at all.  And what do we infer from that, even if only unconsciously?  That we are no longer important to that person.


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