As a therapist, I often ask clients what things “mean” to them. People assign various meanings to the same exact event—so it’s important to get to the bottom of it and learn where they’re coming from.
Nowhere is this more clear than in couples counseling.
But what is it really about?
Recently, a client shared that his wife became furious when he asked her if the chicken they had at home was boneless or not. To him it was a simple question with very little meaning attached.
To his wife, it was a much different story. “He knows I only keep boneless chicken in the house. That’s why I got so angry,” she said as if that explained everything.
He protested that this wasn’t a dumb question—that there was a good possibility there could be other chicken in the house.
This argument started to take off again in my office, but I finally interrupted and told them this clearly was not about the chicken.
“What else could it possibly be about then?” they asked in near bewilderment.
Take a deeper look
I asked the wife what it meant to her that her husband asked her about the chicken. She was confused about the question so I asked her again. It can be hard to look deeper when it can so easily seem like it really is about chicken.
After reflecting awhile longer, she reached the source of her frustration, “It’s like he doesn’t even know me if he could ask a question like that. I only eat boneless chicken.”
Once an individual comes up with the meaning, it’s important for me to keep them there—to help explore their meanings and have the other partner hear those meanings, too.
It turns out the “He doesn’t know me” was a common theme behind most of their fights, along with similar themes like, “He only thinks of himself” and “I’m not important to him.”
Once the husband understood the meaning his wife ascribed to his seemingly mundane questions or actions, he was instantly able to empathize with her. He wasn’t able to do that earlier, when all he felt was her anger over what he thought was an innocent question about chicken.
If they had a better connection, he could get away with asking questions like these. But because the couple is already distressed, his wife is less tolerant of any hint of one of those themes coming up.
When we don’t stop to ask our partner what our question, comment, or behavior means to them, then what we see on the surface (usually anger or withdrawal) becomes the focus of the argument and not what’s going on emotionally for each other underneath it all.
Get to the bottom of it
The next time your partner is mad at you or withdrawing from you or engaging in some other behavior that doesn’t make sense to you, try asking a variation of the following:
- “What did it mean to you that I…asked about the chicken?”
- “What happened for you when I told you…[add yours here]?”
- “Help me understand what it means to you that I…[add yours here].”
Use it as an opportunity to connect more with your partner and understand where they’re coming from. It’s a simple thing you can do to help improve your relationship.