My heart sank when I heard the words, “I’m putting a stop to this relationship and should have done it a long time ago. Women who want love only get worse as relationships move forward, and I don’t have any need for love, or to see you get worse. I know you think you are better than me, so good luck on finding it.”
Although my heart sank and then went numb, my brain was whirling. What was going on in my brain?
He said: “I’m ending our relationship and should have done it a long time ago.”
I thought: “But this weekend you told me I was the best thing that ever happened to you. Were you lying?”
He said: “Women who want love only get worse as relationships move forward, and I don’t have any need for love, or to see you get worse.”
I thought: “But you demand that I adore you, and I do … I occasionally say I’d like to hear ‘I love you’ … and this is what I get? Get worse? You mean that I’d do more countless displays of love and kindness for you to show you I adore you? And sit at home alone because you don’t want me out with friends? While you travel all over and sing for women who beg for your autograph?”
He said, “I know you think you are better than me, so good luck on finding it.”
I thought: “Actually, you tell me I think I’m too good for you, and I tell you how blessed I am to have a relationship with you. You tell me you are keeping your options open because I’m not 100% of what you want. Good luck on finding it? Sounds like you think you are better than me … so you can just kiss my grits (no that wasn’t the word I had in mind) and ..”.
Thank God I didn’t say it out loud, because I’m sure it would not have been half that nice! And certainly would not have been TREK-y.
My heart was broken, not just by the words, but by the tone in which they were delivered. The tone was as if I had been told the reason no relationship was desired was because I was an ax murderer, and that I had been on knees groveling for love (as if wanting to be loved was a cardinal sin).
Sad to say, my story of years ago is quite the norm in the way many of us communicate with one another.
As a new graduate beginning a private practice, I considered all that I had learned about healthy communication. Yet rarely had I see it in practice. I wanted to learn it myself, and start an epidemic of great communication.
As I began to see couples, I reviewed the research, and developed an acronym to talk to them about healthy communication. The acronym was TREK. In the dictionary, TREK is defined as: “to travel or migrate, slowly or with great difficulty.” I knew that it would be a slow and difficult journey for couples to begin to communication in healthy ways that enriched their relationships.
Here is what I used TREK to describe:
As I would discuss the concept with my clients, I would say: “No TREK-y, no TALK-y! Challenging? Yes! Rewarding? Completely!
Let’s break it down:
- TRUTH – Under any circumstance, we can share the truth. The truth is not always easy to hear, and it’s not always easy to share. But even difficult truths can be shared using this concept. Sharing the truth with respect, empathy, and compassion is always in order. No matter what someone has done, no matter how much we’ve been hurt, no matter how angry we may be.
- RESPECT – Respect is defined as: “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.” We can respect someone’s feelings without agreeing with them. This is where we often get tripped up. If we disagree, we think disrespect and harsh confrontation is in order.
- EMPATHY – Empathy is defined as: “the act of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another.” Again, this does not mean agreeing with, but instead, being sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.
- KINDNESS – Kindness is defined as: “the act of being sympathetic or helpful.”
When I teach my couples this concept I placed them on a “no TREK-y /no talk-y” contract until their next appointment. I jokingly say that most people call the next day wanting an appointment ASAP. Because although it sounds doable sitting in my office, putting it into practice on a daily basis is more difficult than expected.
I believe it’s difficult for the following reasons:
1. We have fallen into a habit of communicating carelessly. Particularly with those closest to us. Those to whom we should be bringing our best. But often after a day long of being “politically correct“ in the workplace, we have worn ourselves out, let down all of our boundaries and better judgment, and “let it all hang out”.
2. It has become the social norm. Somehow we celebrate not “sugar coating” anything, or “telling it like it is“, or “if you can’t run with the big dogs, get off the porch!“ There was a time when we valued how we spoke to one another, in personal relationships, business relationships, or even passing relationships. Now it is quite common for me to see people “go off“ on check out clerks, or people checking receipts at retail store exits.
3. We believe the myth that since we are in a committed or exclusive relationship, it does not matter how we speak to one another. How we speak to one another is actually one of the greatest indicators of whether or not we have rich and fulfilling relationships… Or not!
It is usually helpful to people when I share some examples of “less than ideal” communication vs. “TREK-y” communication.
LESS THAN IDEAL: “You never pay attention to a word I say so I’m sure you didn’t pick up my laundry like I told you to.”
TREK-y: “ I know you’re under a lot of stress. I was wondering if you were able to pick up my laundry?“
LESS THAN IDEAL: “ I am sick and tired of the way you treat me so I am out of here!“
TREK-y: “I get frustrated with the way we treat one another, and I would really like it if we could work together to make improvements that make us both happy.“
LESS THAN IDEAL: “It wouldn’t kill you to get in here and help clean this mess up.”
TREK-y: “This is a pretty big mess and I’d really appreciate your help with it.”
The same holds true with your communication with your children.
LESS THAN IDEAL: “ I told you 20 times to pick your shoes up when you come in the front door. Pick them up right now before I ______!”
TREK-y: “I would really appreciate you picking up your shoes and putting them in your room when you come in the front door. You are a great little guy, and I know you can do that. However, if you choose to leave them there, there will be no online gaming tonight, or any other night that you need a reminder.” (With no “attitude” or harshness)!
People often ask me why it is so important that we speak to one another this way, stating the truth with respect, empathy, and kindness. There is a very specific reason that we have learned in our studies of neuropsychology.
At the base of our brain is a center that we often referred to as the mammalian brain. Its primary functions have to do with memory formation and emotion.
One of the things we know about this part of our brain is that it is very attuned to auditory input. How ever it does not have the ability to decipher time nor direction. Therefore, when you speak, it does not know whether you were speaking to your self or to someone else. Therefore, any negativity or vitriol that comes out of your mouth is as if you are speaking it to yourself. Your emotional reaction to what you are speaking to someone else is the same as if the other person was speaking the same thing to you.
Research clearly indicates that when we hear upsetting things, our brains release many stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. Excess “dumps“ of the stress hormones have very harmful health and mental health consequences.
It is the reason that arguing can easily become a downward spiral very quickly. (In my office it is normally referred to as “all hell breaking loose”!) Why? Because not only am I experiencing “dumps“ of stress hormones because of the harsh things you are saying, but I am compounding them with the harsh things I might say to you in response. The mammalian brain does not know the difference of when I am speaking those words to you or to me, and hears them as if I am speaking them to myself.
Research shows that the more arguments, and harsher speaking that a couple practices with one another, the less likely that the relationship will survive. Research indicates that couples who argue and speak harshly to one another also score very low on marital and relationship satisfaction surveys.
Clearly, TREK-y is good for your health, your mental health, the health of your relationship, your self esteem and self confidence, yet couples are often reticent to adopt it as a new communication standard. It is not unusual for me to hear things from couples like, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” (I simply tell them I don’t see any old dogs in the room!) Or the will complain: “but this will require so much work and effort!“ I always chuckle, when I hear comments like this, because they are absolutely correct. It does require work and intentionality.
I remind them … any worthy endeavor requires hard work and intentionality. But the rewards and the results are certainly worth the effort!
After my couple survives their first challenge of “no TREK-y, no talk-y“ for one week, I challenge them to continue it for another 30 days. The eye rolling and the moaning are often entertaining and comical, but normally they will agree to do so. I always look forward to the report at the end of the 30 days. 90% of the time, there is a significant increase in satisfaction of the relationship. But another consistent response I hear is how much better they feel as individuals. Not too surprising when you consider the effect that it has on our brains when we speak positively and respectfully. Because once again, just as with negative things, our brain does not know the difference when we speak positively … whether we are speaking it to the other person or to ourselves.
How about you? Are you willing to take on the 30-day challenge? Even if you are single or not in a relationship, “no TREK-y, no talk-y” can have a very positive effect on you! Give it a try!
People are always curious to know whether or not I practice what I preach. Although imperfectly, I do follow those things I teach. So … you might want to ask … how did I respond to the break up announcement with a sunken heart and whirling brain? Somehow I jolted myself into “no TREK-y, no talk-y” and made my best effort. I said, “Well … I didn’t see this coming. But I wish you well, and I will hold many memories we made in my heart. But if you find that 100%’er, I’d sure like to meet her. But I have a hunch she would have to be a blow up doll you and inflate when you need her and then deflate her and put her on a shelf.” Okay … so it wasn’t perfect. But we both laughed. Hopefully I have matured since that time. I have certainly found TREK-y talk has made my life and my relationships richer and more fulfilling!