Couples therapy: My husband is slumped at the edge of the sofa, sulking. I sit in the center cushion, upright and animated, ranting about why he needs to get rid of his bike.
The therapist tells me to be quiet, but in a couples-therapist way: “Let’s give him a chance to talk about the bike.” He says he needs to keep the bike in the kitchen, where it will stay until he formulates a daily riding schedule.
I listen. But not really. Mostly I plan my arguments about why what he is saying is irrelevant and why I am right: The plan is too detailed, he’ll never finish the plan, and because we live in a New York City shoebox, the bike is a waste of space.
We go through this routine for every topic: He cannot figure out every single detail, so he cannot plan; I have no patience for details, and I always have a plan. When we decided to have a child, he wanted to overcome every hurdle first — from finding an apartment with a playroom to setting up a college fund. I told him we had to move forward, hurdles and all. At every session he ends up very quiet in the corner of the sofa, and we accomplish nothing.
Our therapist tried a lot of tactics to get us to communicate. I took notice when she observed that the problems I have in talking to my husband are probably the same types of problems I have in talking to people at work. This made sense to me immediately because I always say that I love my husband but would never want to work with someone like him.
He’s a slow, methodical thinker, and I generally do not have patience for them at work. But the therapist points out that I chose such a person for a husband. “You must have had a reason,” she says. And it’s true. In my heart of hearts, I know that a slow, methodical thinker is the perfect counterpoint for me. At home, my husband is the one who takes the time to find out that our first-choice apartment has rats, and our second-choice apartment — which we live in now — has a secret cubbyhole for keeping cookies warm. In my work, the detailed thinker is the perfectionist who compensates for my disinterest in details.
But knowing something doesn’t mean I’m willing to change. Just like when I claim to be listening to my husband, I seem as though I’m listening to people during work but in reality, I’m more interested in my own ideas than those of the person talking. I talk over and past them. I am dismissive and unresponsive. “How do you keep people from strangling you?” my husband asks, when he’s particularly annoyed and probably considering strangling me himself.
So back to the bike. I tell myself that if I’m patient, he’ll come up with a great plan that will make keeping the bike in the apartment a good idea. That if I can just learn to control myself in the context of the bike, the therapist, and the annoyed husband, then I will do much better in my career. It is clear to me that I deal with my husband in the same way as I deal with people at work. And my career will be stronger if I can become a stronger marriage partner, because the communication skills are the same.
So every time I get frustrated in couples therapy, or I think that it’s a waste of money, I remind myself that communication skills know no boundaries. I can tell myself that I’m a good communicator at work, but the best feedback I can get is at home. If you want to know what your weak points are at work, ask your significant other — that person knows.