It’s another day in the life of Jack and Jill – that devoted young couple whose (mostly) tranquil married life does have its hiccups from time to time.
What’s threatening to upset the apple cart today?
In How to Build Relationships That Stick, I stressed that no human communication occurs in a vacuum. Put another way, what we say (or don’t say) to a person we are communicating with and how we say it, and how far what we actually say corresponds to what we intend to say, and in the end, how successful we are in getting our message across – all these are influenced by far more than what we are thinking and what we are feeling here and now.
The fact is that our entire life experience – everything that has happened from the time we were born to the present moment – affect all our personal interactions, and the ways we respond to inevitable interpersonal conflict, in more ways than we realize. “Life experience” includes our upbringing and education, our attitudes, prejudices and inhibitions, and the coping strategies we develop over the years to handle crises and adjust to new situations.
And of crucial importance, once we have moved out into the wide world and have formed intimate relationships, is the environment in which we grew up as children.
One evening after supper, Jack is relaxing on the sofa with the evening newspaper. Jill is doing some sewing at the table nearby. “Hey, Jill”, pipes up Jack, breaking the silence of the last twenty minutes. “Don’t know why my throat is so dry tonight. Could you fix me a cup of tea?”
Jill’s eyebrows shoot up. “What’s up with you?” she snaps. “Suddenly forgotten where the kitchen is?” Shw points a mocking finger in the desired direction. “Poor boy! Well, it’s over there!”
“And you’ve forgotten how to talk,” mumbles Jack under his breath. Smouldering with a mixture of bewilderment and resentment, he forces himself to get up and ambles across the room towards the kitchen. For now, he has successfully supressed the urge to give back as good as he gets. But since the bitter poison has been pushed deeper inside himself rather than expelled, who know what will happen tomorrow?
So what do you make of this sad altercation? Without doubt, if this little exchange could have taken solely in the present, in the here and now, both husband and wife, committed as each one is to the needs of the other, would have been happy and all would been well. But unfortunately and almost inevitably, Jack’s innocent request and Jill’s unexpected response brought “ghosts” of the not too distant past to the forefront of the consciousness.
Now, Jack is the last person to want to take advantage of his lovely wife. However, he fondly remembers how in the home of his childhood his mother would bring his father tea, whether he asked for it or not. This was a way of showing her respect and affection for his father. On the other hand, his recollection of certain other aspects of life in his former home was not so positive, as we shall see.
The relationship between Jill’s own father and mother was quite different from that of Jack’s parents. As Jill saw it, her father treated her mother as a servant, rather than as a beloved partner. Already as a young child, Jill had vowed that she would never allow herself to be part of such a relationship. When Jill reacted, out of character, with biting sarcasm to Jack’s harmless request, she was responding to her father, not her husband!
Jack, for his part, might have found it easier to recognize where Jill was coming from, had not her bitter outburst rang another bell, so to speak, in the recesses of his consciousness. As a boy had felt that his parents were overly critical, blaming him for events beyond his control. Bearing that in mind, it would not have been surprising had Jack blown his top on the spot.
Bottom line: When our interpersonal communication gets inexplicably tangled and our emotions get hopelessy out of control, consider how how our life experiences and environment of our youth may have impacted on the situation. Advice on how best to heal the wounds in an upcoming post.
Azriel Winnett is the author of the highly acclaimed, eye-opening book How to Build Relationships That Stick. An enhanced edition is now available as a paperback.