As a therapist I often have couples come into my office for couples counseling, furious at each other and bristling with resentment. During the course of couple’s therapy they often discover that their fury was the result of a misunderstood meaning they gave to something their partner said or did.
My favorite example of this is of a lesbian couple who came in angry at each other over arguments about sharing clothing. The older of the two women was a working class woman from a small family with one sister and no other siblings. The younger was a working class woman with 7 siblings. All was well until they moved in together when the younger women promptly began borrowing her partner’s shirts, socks and underwear without asking. When her partner asked her to stop she became confused and hurt, but still continued to periodically borrow her partner’s things when she ran out of things to wear.
This argument sounds ridiculous and easily solved. Either buy more underwear or do your laundry more often and by all means stop using your partner’s clothing as your own. Or conversely, stop being so selfish, just share your clothing. Neither of these solutions had been tried and the disproportionate level of hurt and anger in my office led me to believe something deeper was going on. My curiosity was piqued.
When I asked the older women what it meant to her that her partner was taking her clothing without asking, she replied, “Well obviously it means she doesn’t respect me or my things!” When I asked the younger women what it meant to her that her partner was refusing to share her wardrobe she replied, “Well obviously she doesn’t care about me and doesn’t want to share her things or her life with me.” Each of the women was shocked by the meaning their partner had given to her behavior.
I was mystified and became even more curious. I asked how clothing had been handled in their respective families growing up. The younger woman, who had 5 sisters, reported that items like underwear, tee shirts and socks were put in a common drawer in the “girl’s” bureau and shared. This insured that everyone had clothing even when their over worked mother of 8 didn’t get to the laundry.
The older women, who had one sibling, a sister, reported that she had shared a room with her pesky younger sibling who was always taking her things, breaking her toys and ruining her cloths. To the younger women sharing clothing meant “we are all in this together as a family. I want you to have what you need and you want me to have what I need.” Yet, to the older women it meant you are inconsiderate of me and don’t care about my things or my feelings. Although each partner’s conclusion was understandable individually, it was not the correct interpretation of their partner’s meaning.
In a marriage and or an intimate relationship, it is important to ask yourself and your partner, what meaning he or she assigns to a given behavior. In this case the older woman was shocked that her partner thought she was unwilling to make family with her. The younger woman was appalled that her partner didn’t understand or see the deep respect and admiration she felt for her. In continuing sessions they were able to create their own shared family culture and the problem was resolved.
Curiosity is an extremely important trait in any long term couple’s relationship. We have to remember that there is an entire universe going on inside the mind of our beloved. It is a universe full of oddities and meanings that are alien to us. This is the great mysterious gift that is given and received by members of couples. It is the gift of becoming known by and knowing another human being intimately. It lessens the great loneliness of our human existence and is an engaging and captivating experience when viewed properly.
If you and your partner are baffled and hurt by each other’s behavior and cant’ seem to resolve issues, call and make an appointment to see me at Denver Sex Therapy. Let’s explore and create shared meaning in your relationship.