Gerlinde Spencer wrote this article 10 years ago, but it is equally relevant now. The insights, the sharing of experience, and the usefulness of the accompanying exercise for promoting couple dialogue are just as important and helpful today, though presented in a new medium. As the launch of a redesigned Better Marriages Australia website provides additional ways for our organisation to help married couples to enrich and grow their relationships in the digital generation, it is appropriate to re-publish this original article, on being real with our partners. – The Web Editor
Recently I read the story of the “The Velveteen Rabbit”* to our great-granddaughter at bedtime and that set me to musing about the importance and the dan- gers of “being real” with each other in marriage. (For readers who have yet to discover this treasure of a book, the Velveteen Rabbit who wants to become real, meets the old Skin Horse among his new owner’s toys and learns the secret of how you become real from him. Becoming real, as the rabbit discovers, takes time. It involves being loved constantly over a long period in all sorts of circumstances, becoming quite shabby in the process and “sometimes it hurts”.)
When newlyweds start their life together they are a bit like the brand new toy rabbit with its lovely spotted velveteen coat.
Never having come across a spotted rabbit I have come to think of these spots on the brand new coat as representing the image we had of ourselves at the time we married. We wanted to impress each other with our looks, our abilities and our capacity to cope with love and life. It was “best foot forward” while the romantic glow lasted. And while some of that was very real, the glow hid a lot of who we were, as well as what we needed from each other and what we expected of each other. We had a lot of living together to do before we even started to know each other, let alone truly to love each other despite (and because) of what we now knew.
So what about the importance and the dangers of getting to know each other more truly as we move through the years together?
In a nutshell, for any relationship to have life, to be satisfying, to be worthwhile the two parties need to share enough of their thoughts and feelings to make it work. That is true in all important relationships but especially in marriage.
In fact, there is great danger in staying safe, in not being real with the person you are married to. For one thing, there is the danger of getting bored with your partner and with marriage itself. Too often the love which was so good in the early days gradually fades and turns to resentment if we avoid getting to know each other at a deeper level. There is also the danger of failing to deal with our differences and gradually withdrawing from each other to avoid the pain of conflict and repeated misunderstanding.
More importantly, we will eventually feel cheated. Because most of us enter marriage with the hope that at long last we have found someone who is willing to understand and accept us, someone who will keep on loving us despite our shortcomings and our past. We also want someone who will reveal themselves to us, who will risk being honest, risk being “real” and trust us to keep loving them as they do this.
So why do we avoid what could be good for us and our life together?
There are a number of reasons. At the most primitive level, we are afraid. “If You Really Knew Me Would You Still Love Me?”# is still the burning question, especially as there are a number of things in me I don’t like or approve of. “Can I risk acknowledging these? Will you turn away or tell me I shouldn’t be like I am? Will you expect me to change some of the things I despair of changing, some of the things I don’t want to change? Will you expect me to be like you?” Altogether, “being real” seems too risky and may spoil the relationship we have now.
Another reason for avoidance is a chronic shortage of time. One of the entry points to the kind of conversation which will expand our knowledge and appreciation of each other is when we have had a disagreement. I say, “have had” because in the middle of a disagreement or a fight we are too busy defending our turf and not in the mood to listen to our partner. Too often we say “sorry” and make up without really understanding what went wrong. Or we use up precious time in trying to work out “who was wrong” which isn’t always helpful. Mostly we just want to be close again and to get on with all the things we need to do, so the opportunity for learning is lost.
To move from being at loggerheads with each other to discovering new things about your partner or yourself takes time. It also takes a commitment to taking (and making) the time to talk and to listen to each other in a loving and supportive way. It means being prepared to turn off the TV when one partner says, “I’d like to learn more about what happened the other day. I’d like to know more what was happening to you and I would like to talk about what was going on for me if you are in a place to listen.” Or responding positively to, “We’ll have a long drive on our own on Friday, how would you feel about using some of that time to talk about how we are handling the kids (or our money or our sex life, or my having to be away from home so much).”
Which brings us to a further reason for avoiding deeper sharing and that is: we are not sure we have the skills to do it. We are afraid we will simply replay the old fight once we get started, we will hurt each other again and feel worse instead of better.
The good news is: If your intention is to learn what is real for your partner,all you need to do is stick with some really effective listening, reflecting the essence of what he or she says for long enough for some new insights or information to emerge. Swap roles when your partner feels truly understood. If you have run out of time for your turn, make a date to continue the dialogue and commit to keeping it.
Another question is, how much to share. We all have a need for some privacy so where do we set the boundaries?
Do we have to have long D & Ms to get to know each other at a deeper level? Do we have to be brutally honest in order to be real? Here we need to check our goals for the relationship and to judge what and how we reveal ourselves to each other against these. If our aim is to have a richer experience of each other, to enjoy gradually getting to know each other more fully, any excess in sharing or confronting will be counterproductive. In the end how much we say and how confronting we are will be determined by the needs of the couple.
And then there is the question of style. Some people love to delve into their past and share both sad and happy memories, to talk about the people and the circumstances of their growing up. For other people, this is a difficult thing to do. If they share their thoughts it is more in the areas of knowledge that interest them or the things they would like to do. Fortunately, most of us do some of both kinds of talking but if you and your partner are very different you may have some learning to do.
Where your partner’s preferred style is not your own, each of you will benefit from getting to know some of your partner’s vocabulary and area of interest. The easiest way to get started is, of course, reflective listening using your partner’s language. You will be amazed at the results once you have made the effort. The fact that you may feel phony in the beginning will give way to doing it more naturally as you go on and the reward of getting on a shared wavelength where both of you feel understood and valued will make the effort worthwhile.
If we have the privilege of many years together we will never get bored with each other or with our life together when we support each other in this process of becoming more “real”. As the Skin Horse said to the Velveteen Rabbit, “…but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
There is a Marriage Enrichment Couple exercise which Gerlinde wrote, that you and your partner are welcome to use to help share your thoughts and feelings with each other. It is available for download in the Resources section of this website.
*Margery Williams 1922, reprints still available. This book is still available from bookshops including those online such as the Book Depository.
# John Powell Why am I afraid to tell you who I am 1972