Before John and I got married we went couples therapy. Double sessions. For three years.
Often it was excruciating as hell. So much so that we took separate cars because the drive home could be more painful than the session itself and who needed that?
Then one day, we turned a corner. Believe me, had we never turned that corner, we couldn’t have gotten married. The turn was hard won.
Likely Neutral Patti (so named because she was so neutral that she wouldn’t talk about anything more than the weather if one of us went to bathroom) knew from our first moments together that neither of us had any idea how to communicate. We didn’t know how to listen and we didn’t know how to tell each other how we felt. Actually, I don’t think we ourselves knew how we felt. Beyond angry, that is. And usually there’s a lot of other feelings simmering below anger (like fear, hurt, shame etc.) Our specialities were blaming and defending. And our go-to fighting style could be described as I’m-gonna-break-up-with-you-you-fuck-because-you’re-a-total-fucking-asshole. Miraculously, we both knew that our problem wasn’t that we’d found the wrong person, but rather that we just needed help. A lot of help. (For details, you can read my first book.)
We were sitting on Neutral P’s sofa rehashing a fight—the topic I believe was our route home from the airport or something equally as mundane and inconsequential—when Neutral P. stopped our squabbling to propose an exercise.
First, she wanted John to recount his version of the story. My job was to listen. I could not interrupt. I had to hear him out. And so off John went…
Listening to his perspective and feelings proved to be excruciatingly difficult. Every ten seconds I felt an anxious surge of rage in my body. ”That’s not what happened!” I wanted to say. “You’re wrong!” I wanted to let him know that if he only knew how things had really happened or what I’d really meant then he’d never have felt the way he’d felt and was still feeling about it.
But I couldn’t. I had to listen.
Then, as soon as he was finished I had to tell him what I’d heard him say, from start to finish. Neutral P. recommended I begin thusly: “If I understand what you were saying correctly…”
Now was his turn to listen to me tell him what I ‘d heard him say.
When I was done, he then got his chance to tell me where I’d mistunderstood him.
Then I’d have to say back to him what I’d heard him say.
This went on and on and on, until he felt 100% satisfied that I understood his point of view.
The most amazing thing happened when I finally was able to tell him what I’d heard him say accurately: I agreed with him. I understood where he was coming from. My rage had somehow melted into empathy.
And then it was my turn.
It’s a good thing we had a double session. Imagine, almost two hours devoted to a five minute story!
At first this whole process of breaking down what each of us was saying and making sure the other person felt truly understood was clumsy, awkward, frustrating, plodding and painful. But we got better and better and better at it. Ten years later, we’re not masters or anything but we’re maybe purple belts. Brown or even black on a good day. But the best news is that I get it. John doesn’t want me to fix problems for him. He just wants to be heard. A little empathy goes a long fucking way.
That brings me to our second Tuesday night Echo Parenting class. (For my revelation after our first class see the previous post.) The big take away for me was what our teacher Brian called “making books.” After a week of trying it, I can tell you that it works as well for my kids as “If I understand what you’re saying correctly…” has worked for me and John. But much, much faster!
Here’s how: If your child becomes “deregulated” as Brian calls it, meaning, s/he has a meltdown over something, you can reach for a couple of pieces of folder paper and a pen and make a book about it. A short simple book that will help your kid feel like you understand what she’s feeling. Ultimately that is what children, nay all humans, need more than anything. (Likely if my childhood was full of empathy books, John and I wouldn’t have found ourselves in double therapy sessions learning how to communicate. Imagine the money we would have saved!)
Here’s an example of how I made a book for our almost 3-year-old son Hudson this week.
When I walked into his classroom to pick him up, I saw him playing in the block room. I stood there watching, not wanting to interrupt. When he finally caught sight of me, he lit up and instantly took off for my arms. Unfortunately at that very moment, Ibbie, one of his teachers, who had her back to him, stepped in his way.
He was flat on the floor. And in tears. Then he stood up and started screaming at Ibbie, “You’re yucky. Go away.” He started swiping at her.
“I’m sad that happened to you Hudson. It was an accident, ” she said kneeling down. He was too enraged to give a shit if it was an accident or not. He was upset. Angry at her. Angry at life. He just screamed and cried and swiped.
“Would you like to make a book about it?” I asked. As we’d already had some success with it, he nodded yes. I scooped him up, managed to grab an orange pen on the table and some blue paper and sat down with him on the other side of the room where it was quiet.
“I’ll call it Hudson Fell at Boat Yard,” I told him as I wrote down the title.
I opened it up and using simple language and stick figure drawings, I told his story.
“Hudson was playing in the block room when he saw Mommy.” Picture of Hudson smiling at mom.
I drew Ibbie’s legs and Hudson crying:
Then I asked him, “Were you scared?” He nods while still crying softly. So on the next page I wrote down “He was scared.”
“Were you surprised?”
Another nod. So I added “surprised.”
“I want my beeebee [his blanket] on the sofa,” he said.
I grabbed it for him. New page.
“Then Hudson wanted his beebee and Mommy got it off the sofa. The beebee comforts him.”
I draw this too.
Then he stuffs his beebee behind some blocks and says, “Write Hudson hides his beebee.”
Which I do.
And then we read the book together. And then again. And then again. He was calm. He felt I understood what he’d gone through. He was ready to go.
Then we picked up his sister Jules. In the car he held the book tight.
When we got home, both kids saw Hudson’s birthday gift: the new bike and helmet he’d picked out online. He’s thrilled and Jules is in tears. For her birthday she only got a new bike. No helmet. She needs a helmet. RIGHT NOW!
While I agree she needs a helmet, I can’t get it for her that moment. She’s very very very upset about this. She wants to go to the store. She wants a pink one with white flowers to match her bike. She’s hysterical. Not Hudson! He’s galavanting around in his Evil Kneival-looking helmet. He’s thrilled. She’s devastated.
Me? I recommend we make a book about it!
And it works as well for her as it had for him.
Give it a try!