Note: This post is part of a series of true stories of clients who came to The Couples Center for marriage counseling. Identifying information has been changed to protect their privacy.
After a hard year dealing with a health issue, a woman and her partner, both in their late 40s, arrived at The Couples Center to address what she described as his “distance and disconnection” from her. At this point, she said, she even suspected him of cheating. He seemed surprised by her accusations, telling me that he’s remained loyal to her and, although the past year has been difficult for them, he loves her and has always been by her side. Distraught, they hoped marriage counseling could help them understand what was happening.
I was curious about the difference in their stories. As I worked with them, I observed their communication pattern—the woman was very talkative, while the man was mostly quiet. Physically, her body was usually turned toward his, while he sat facing me, eyes downcast. I decided to check that out with them. I pointed out the pattern, then invited them to experiment with it: I advised the woman to continue talking as usual and then, giving the man a cue, had him look directly at her for a few seconds. The woman stopped immediately, in the middle of her sentence. She looked at me in surprise and said, “Now he’s listening. I always wanted him to be present with me and to feel heard, and it never happened until now.” The man also looked surprised, realizing that the reason why she’d repeat herself so much to him was that she never felt heard. He asked me, “Is it possible that such a small thing is so significant in our relationship?”
The answer is yes. Our deep connection to and dependence on our partner makes us very sensitive to their body language. And this is no “small thing”—its messages are many times stronger than our words. But because the process is fast, automatic, and mostly unconscious, we can easily misinterpret it. In this case, she saw his lack of eye contact as a sign of his disinterest. But that wasn’t really the case…
We explored their pattern further. Her father had been loving, but worked long hours away from home. She and her three siblings were always fighting for his attention, and over time it became important for her to feel that the other person is listening—now, especially, her husband. For him, I invited him to walk around the room the way he usually does. Noticing that he was looking down, I asked him to try and raise his head slightly. He immediately felt more empowered, yet also more exposed. Through doing that we discovered that he’d been a shy kid and learned to get along by being an observer, hidden from sight. Now, he felt that he wanted to be more open to people and the world and was interested in changing this pattern—but he’d never made the connection to his body language.
Their willingness to communicate, experiment, and connect paid off. Just a few sessions later, they reported a significant shift in their relationship. He was paying more attention to his cues with her, and she felt that he was more engaged and interested in her. Thanks to marriage counseling, they’re well on their way to a more fulfilling, successful partnership. This is possible for you, too—and our counselors in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Palo Alto are here to help. If you’re looking for effective ways to turn your relationship around, contact us today.