Couples often repeat that catchy phrase in my office. Most people don’t know to call it “incongruence.” But in relationships (of all kinds) it’s a problem. It’s particularly a problem in marriages or in “significant other” relationships. Both partners are impacted, both the partner being incongruent, and the partner experiencing it. 

In this context, “incongruent” means that what one says and what one does are not the same.  

I had a perfect example this past week with a couple in my office. One was telling the other, “I really don’t mind if you go out after work for a few drinks with your colleagues.” But the entire time the words were coming out of his mouth, his head was shaking no!

In psychobabble terms, we often refer to this as “mixed messages.” But whatever you call it, it definitely presents challenges in relationships.

When someone is incongruent, one of two things is occurring:
1. They are being deceitful. (This is not often the case.)
2. More often, the person is conflicted internally, and may not even be aware of it.

Here are some of the symptoms that research shows are common in people who are incongruent:
• They often say they are not good at expressing themselves

• They are thin-skinned or wear their hearts on their sleeves

• They go into prolonged “funks”

• They have higher expectations of others than they do of themselves 

• They are masters of projection (accusing you of doing what they do themselves)

• They are quick to anger

• They are unwilling to accept feedback or make positive changes

• They work diligently to spin stories. (If I want this to happen, I must use this excuse; or break the news to them this way, for example. Yes! It is exhausting!)

The partner, friends and family of an incongruent person are often confused, or at times even feel “crazy.” For example, they may tell you that you are a very important person in their life, yet they may forget your birthday, go days without reaching out to you, or make major life decisions without even consulting you. Often, if you attempt to share your concerns with them, they have plenty of excuses and justifications, and likely will not change their behavior.

Clearly, being in a relationship with such a person is usually very difficult. Despite how it may sound, such individuals are usually not bad people. A rare small percentage are purposely deceptive. The great majority are not purposely lying, they are simply unaware that they are incongruent. The internal struggle for them is real.

New research is providing interesting information about how the incongruence is born. Quite often their childhood/adolescent experience was one that lacked nurturing. This lack is often the result of divorce, death of a parent, or too-busy parents. It also appears to occur more often in males. Since our culture tends to separate males from their feelings early on, this outcome is not surprising.

What can you do if you’re in relationship with the person who struggles with incongruence? Great question! Here are the top five things that I recommend:

  1. Remember that they are not bad people. They just don’t realize they are incongruent.
  2. Ask very clearly and specifically for what you want or need. I always recommend asking in a sentence that begins with “Would you be willing to….” Then describe very specifically what you would like. Stick to what you WANT.  Avoid the common tendency of mixing in what you don’t want just to express your frustration. If you mix in what you don’t want, you are less likely to receive what you are asking for.
  3. Avoid shaming them about their incongruence. (You said this… but you did that.) While shaming can be a natural response, it is upsetting and confusing to your partner. Shaming them is likely to cause them to simply withdraw.

4.  Express your appreciation and gratitude when what they say and do lines up. Tell them how refreshing that feels to you and how grateful you are for it.

5.  Remember that the process of change is no cakewalk for them either. Their minds are usually spinning, and they are always putting together what they should say or do next. Have compassion; be an encourager with your gratitude.

A number of years ago I worked with a couple where incongruence was truly destroying a family. The father had grown up in a family with a vicious mother who had a venomous tongue. The whole family, including her husband, submitted to every word she barked out. It was no wonder her son emerged as a severely incongruent young adult.

In my first session with them, the incongruent husband told me that counseling probably wouldn’t get them anywhere. He firmly stated that he wouldn’t do anything that any woman told him to do. The problem was quickly confirmed by his wife. She said that he never listened to her, and yet he repeatedly assured her that he listened to every word she said. To further his case, he said he gave her everything she could possibly ever want.

I chuckled. I reminded him that he had just told me that he would never do what a woman told him to do. I asked if he ever actually did anything she told him to do. (This could be called shaming, but keep in mind I am using this with them as a teachable moment. I am doing the talking, in a therapy session. His wife is not shaming him. This is a distinction with a difference.) There was a long, long pause. Then we all laughed!

Thus began the journey of working with his incongruency. Keep in mind that such changes in behavior are very difficult for any of us. He worked diligently at changing. In the months of sessions that followed, he would tell me of his practical actions to accomplish this difficult task. When he went to bed each night, he would lay there for hours recalling the things he had done and had not done and said and not said during that day. Then he would rehearse how, the next day, he would turn around any identified incongruent behaviors.

It was hard; difficulties persisted. He would wake up determined to be a better husband.  He would bring her coffee and tell her how much he loved her. Yet when she would call him once he got to work, he would often pick up the phone and say in a very angry voice, “What the hell do you want?”  Jekyll and Hyde.

The necessary work was not exclusively his to do.  I began to work with her on the five pointers above. It took her a while to believe he wasn’t just a bad person.  But she persisted in her practice of not shaming. She persisted in asking specifically for what she wanted.  She persisted in acknowledging his successes and expressing gratitude. At first it was difficult because she was in emotional bankruptcy, and it felt like too little too late. But I encouraged her to stay with it, to do her best to appreciate each small success, and to express her gratitude one success at a time.

The persistence they both practiced eventually succeeded in a vastly improved marriage. As things improved, and I was only seeing them occasionally, we would review the journey. Over the course of these sessions, he spoke of his work with his all-male team at work. He taught them what had taken him years to learn. He was surprised to learn that he only needed a few sentences to get them to understand: JUST SAY WHAT YOU MEAN AND MEAN WHAT YOU SAY. AND THEN TELL YOUR MOUTH AND YOUR MIND TO ACT ACCORDINGLY! He would then add the punchline… “Always remember … it won’t hurt you at all to do what a woman tells you to do!” In the session when he first revealed to his wife and me this last bit of wisdom, we all laughed hysterically.

What about you? Are your actions congruent with your words? If not, you will find great peace when you bring them into line!