What Are You Saying 'Yes' To?

Last year I worked with a couple who were struggling to navigate some choppy waters in their relationship. I have permission from them both to share this part of their story. 

They met & then committed to each other very quickly, within 6 weeks of their first meeting. It was an unlikely pairing to begin with as they were from different cultures, different religions & didn't speak each other's mother tongue, they were able to find reasonable communication through a third language, English.

There were other issues underpinning what they came to me with, of course, but at first it seemed to be that he had lied about something, she was starting to lose trust in him as a result & this was upsetting him, deeply, as he didn't agree that he'd lied. 

Their relationship was strained, she was on the brink of leaving & I could see that he couldn't understand why & was withdrawing emotionally as a result, which of course was making it more likely that she would leave. I had my hands full with trying to unravel what was really going on, what had really happened & how to help them move forward in a way that was healthy for the relationship & for them both as individuals which isn't, of course, always the same thing.

The issue for her was that ''he lied'', the issue for him was that ''she didn't understand'' his culture, and the issue for me was that they weren't understanding
a) themselves as clearly as they could and
b) each other as clearly as they could,
& this was resulting in
c) a lack of shared meaning, understanding & solidarity between them, all of which are essential for healthy & happy intimate relationship, on top of it being a young relationship without much solid foundation underneath it.


She was adamant that she would never again date a smoker, she liked that he didn't smoke or drink & said he never had. She asked him specifically ''Do you smoke, have you ever smoked?'' and he said ''no''. This seemed clear with no need for further questions.
She asked if he had ever drank alcohol, he said ''no''. These were aspects of who he was that she liked, that she wanted in her man & that she felt represented something about his values, integrity & character. However, what they didn't discuss in this conversation about smoking & drinking was what they meant by the words ''ever''. I know, I know, semantics, but given that English was a second language for them both & that they came from vastly different cultures, these semantics, now, seemed to matter, a lot.

It emerged several months into the relationship that what he meant by ''no, I've never smoked'' was, and I paraphrase here, ''I don't smoke every day, I don't smoke regularly, I don't see myself as a smoker'' & words to that effect. This was after she saw him with a cigarette in his mouth. Shortly after that he said, ''I don't drink alcohol, but if I open a beer for someone else I take a sip, you know?'' To her, any smoking or drinking of alcohol counts as smoking or drinking, to him it only counts if it's regular & often.

She felt he'd lied, he felt he'd been truthful, it was clear to me that these two people had different imaginings, understandings & beliefs about what ''truth'' is. 

The same issue soon arose in other, much more important, areas of their life together, & it was clear to them both that they held different meanings of what ''truth'' was. This became a huge problem as she, now, no longer trusted him at all & when trust is gone in a relationship, particularly a young one that hasn't had time to weave it's way into our lives or build a solid foundation, it is almost impossible to get back. He knew, he could feel it in his body, that she didn't trust him & this made him withdraw, no good man wants to be with a woman who doesn't trust him, it feels hollow & shallow, & no good woman should be with a man she doesn't trust, this weakens her trust in herself which is the ultimate of betrayals.

What are the learnings here?
As a witness to some small pieces of their relationship it was clear to me that these two committed to each other too soon, they didn't know each other well enough to be able to say a full hearted ''yes'' to each other because they didn't know what they were saying ''yes'' to.

They made assumptions about what the other person meant by certain words, ideas & concepts, they didn't explain to each other the importance of certain things that would later become challenging in the relationship. They said ''yes'' to each other without having all the relevant information that mattered to them, but they thought they did, they assumed they did. In short, they gave consent to 'be' together but it wasn't informed consent. It wasn't consent informed by all the pieces of information that mattered to them both in terms of the person they wanted to spend their foreseeable future with.

How could this have been different?
It's not that hard, when you know how! the first & most fundamental step is to ''know thyself''. Know what it is you want & need in relationship, know your own patterns, know what trips you up & triggers old wounds. Stalk your own behaviour like a hungry wild animal, watch your own behaviours as if you were the keenest of psychologists, observe yourself without criticism. (OK, granted, that's hard!)

 Know how to recognise when you're seeing a projection of a person & not who they really are. When we see someone as a 'projection' we are seeing them through our own lens of who we want them to be, who we think they are & are not, maybe who we hope them to be or who they might remind us of, not who they truly are. Once we, with compassionate courage, can look at ourselves more clearly we can't help but see who & how we are in relationship more clearly too & once that is clearer the relationships we are in should also become clearer. The support of a suitably qualified & experienced counsellor or therapist can really help with this level of self inquiry.

The second part to 'how could this have been different' is in the level of conscious awareness we bring to the creation of relationship between two people, particularly the conversations we have in the early stages. What topics are important for you to explore? What terms & words do you use to talk about relationship that you both might have different understandings of? this includes the word relationship itself as even this is not a given in terms of what people mean when they use it.

What are the values that matter to you in relationship? talk about those, ask your partner, or prospective partner what their perspective is, see if you have a shared understanding of things like trust, sexual fidelity, emotional fidelity etc & if you don't have shared understandings of these terms how can  you, at least, understand each other more clearly? 

Again, a suitably qualified & experienced counsellor or therapist will be able to support you in this process & I highly recommend seeing a professional at this stage of a relationship if relationships have been tricky for you in the past. How we create our relationships, the foundations upon which they are built matter, potentially for a lifetime, & they matter even more if there is an intention to bring children into the relationship, don't you want that foundation to be as solid & as strong as possible?

(Coming soon - The Art of Intimacy online course will guide you through some of these steps)

What happened to these two?
Are you curious to know how things unfolded between them? Well, they tried to make it work, they tried everything that both of them thought they knew how to do but ultimately they parted ways as lovers & eventually, sadly, as friends too. She knew that their frameworks for how they viewed & conducted intimate relationships were just too different & couldn't be surmounted. He knew that he was unable to change some of the cultural contexts in which he had both come from & currently lived. Trust had been damaged beyond repair, rightly or wrongly, for them both & while they wanted to be together, to try to make it work, the relationship became unworkable. Remaining friends isn't possible at this time as it's too painful for them both & so a ''clean break'' is supportive for both, in this instance.

As the therapist in the situation the moral of the story is clear, crystal clear. Don't enter into intimate relationship, into commitment, whatever either of those words mean for you, without establishing a strong base of trust first.

Firstly, & most importantly this trust needs to be for yourself; trust in your own choices, trust in your own intuition, without this we can trust nothing else & either give it away where it's not deserved or hold it too tightly & allow no one into us, into intimacy with us. 

Secondly, trust in your partner while acknowledging what exactly it is we are trusting them with & having a conversation, a clear & open one with them, about what that means, about what we need & expect, also about what we can give.

Thirdly, trust in what is between you, trust in the relating itself, trust in that which moves continually between you both, that which is supported by the foundations you both bring to the relationship.

But what exactly does ''trust'' mean? Recently I asked a couple I'm currently working with what trust means to them & they both responded with answers that were quite different from each other, this was really useful learning for them both as they realised that they had been operating from different perspectives about trust & this was negatively effecting their relationship. We don't need to agree on what 'trust' is but we do need to know for ourselves what it is, what it feels like, what our partner means by it & what that then means for how we relate to each other.

The second part of the moral of the story is, yet again, not to make assumptions about what others mean or what they think, it's also about not doing people's thinking for them. This is one of the key underlying issues that couples come to me with - they may come with an issue about ''communication'' or ''sex'' or ''money'' but when we dig underneath the issue that's presenting we often find that assumptions have been made, that one person is looking at the other through their lens on the world & assuming that their partner is looking through the same lens when often they're not. 

Part of the reason we make assumptions about our partner or our relationship is because we want or hope that things will be a certain way & it upsets our imagining when reality is different to fantasy. We are in real relationships with real & flawed people, though, & we have the ability to make those relationships smoother & with less drama by being clearer with our partners about what we mean, not assuming they understand what we mean when we talk about certain concepts & values, particularly in the early days of the connection, & not assuming that we think we know what they mean either, because we are flawed real human beings too. This begins with the most fundamental of conversations & questions, such as ''what is 'relationship' to you?'', ''what is love?'', ''what do you mean by 'trust'?'' etc.

How can we break this pattern?
Again, it's not hard but it does take dedicated practice.
Instead of assuming you know what people mean by their use of certain words ask them to tell you, to explain the word, the idea, the concept to you & what it means to them rather than assuming you already know. Ask them what they think you mean by the words you use & if they are misunderstanding, correct them.

Instead of assuming someone else knows what you mean by your use of a particular word, ask them what they think you mean. Let's use trust again as an example. You're having a conversation with a new partner, the topic is trust, you say ''I do trust you'', how about adding to that, ''what do you think I mean by that?''. This gives you the opportunity to 
a) see if this person is interested in understanding you more deeply, often a 'red flag' if they're not
b) if you share an understanding of the word, value, concept
b) if you don't share an understanding of it how do you handle this difference? which is a great window into how conflict may be handled in your relationship in the future. 

Relating to other people can be a challenge, especially if you want it to be smooth, clear, clean, intimate & deeply satisfying. There are, however, some easy tools that can help us do exactly that. The only question is can we unlearn what we think we know, both about ourselves & others, in order to become more curious, both about ourselves & others, & open up to greater intimacy, again with ourselves & others!, in the process.

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