In my coaching, and in relationships of my own, I’ve observed that couples when arguing tend to get hung up on facts. When a client shares a fact with me about something their partner said or did, my first question to them is, “And what meaning do you give to that fact?”
Here are some examples of facts pretending to be the truth in the context of romantic relationships:
- Suzy Q: “He cancelled our couples therapy session. We had it scheduled for weeks in advance, and we had so many serious discussions together about how badly our relationship needs help. And he just cancelled it. I am so betrayed. Would you like to know his ridiculous reason for cancelling? To have a garage sale. I am supposed to believe that he needed to move our 2 hour therapy session to have an urgent garage sale? And how long does it take to call a lawyer or two? Here I am, doing everything I can to make our relationship work, I’ve cleared my own busy calendar, and he cancels couples therapy to free up his schedule to get stuff out of his storage unit. This was the icing on the cake, the straw that broke the camel’s back. He cancelled on me for a garage sale. I am done being the only one fighting for this relationship to work. I refuse to be alone in my relationship.”
Fact: Her partner cancelled the therapy session. He used that time to get his things out of a storage unit, have a garage sale, and consult with his lawyer about his employment situation.
The meaning assigned to the fact: He is not as committed to the relationship as I am; he doesn’t care as much as I care. To him, I am worth less than a garage sale; I am being rejected and betrayed.
- Mary J: “I was crying last Saturday on the bed, upset about the long week I had at work, among other things. He sat there for a while, didn’t say a word to me, and then left the room and shut the door. Never in my wildest dreams could I watch a loved one cry and not put my arm around them, hold them and be tender with them. I love him, but I can’t be with someone who is going to shun me when I am being myself, abandon me when I’m not perfectly happy all the time.”
Fact: While she was crying, her partner was in the room and he didn’t speak to her or touch her while she cried. Shortly after, he left the room.
The meaning assigned to the fact: My partner is cold and un-empathic; my partner abandoned me because I wasn’t happy enough; my partner shunned me when he left the room.
- Bob S.: “She had been encouraging me to quit smoking and I did it – I finally did it. And I remember before I quit, I told her how hard it would be…I know I told her how hard it would be because I remember how uncomfortable I felt sharing that with her! And I know she heard me say it, because she responded. And, what’s more, is that I know she understands how hard it is to quit smoking cigarettes because she’s quit before and she told me it’s the most difficult thing she’s ever done. Anyway, it’s been 1 week since I quit smoking. I’ve heard nothing from her about it. I couldn’t believe that by the end of week 1, she had not asked me even once how it was going for me, how I was feeling. So selfish. I don’t think she’s serious about our relationship. I think she’s just having her fun, which would be fine, but I only want a serious partnership at this time, not someone who is going to jerk me around and see how much she can talk me into, in order to have the upper hand in our relationship.
Fact: She asked him to stop smoking. When he quit, a week went by and she had not asked him how it was going.
The meaning assigned to the fact: She does not want (or she is not ready for) a serious relationship since she didn’t check in with me after quitting smoking; She’s just jerking me around and not serious about the relationship; because I told her how difficult it’d be to quit, and because she’s quit before herself, then by not asking how I was doing since I quit smoking means that she’s selfish.
Facts like the ones above are seductive, especially in romantic relationships. They are seductive because they are real, unable to be argued with! They indeed are the words that were really spoken, or actual events that transpired. Facts trick individuals into thinking they know the truth about a situation or their partner. But facts – when processed and filtered through human perception – get muddied and the Truth often gets lost.
By listening to what the partners had to say, we can gain a better understanding.
Suzy Q’s partner: I cancelled our couple’s session last week. I thought I was about to get fired from work – I finally blew the whistle and put in writing to HR some of the illegal goings-on at the office, and I honestly think next week could be my last week. I can’t focus in couple’s therapy knowing that I have a $400 storage unit bill that I won’t be able to afford, and I needed the time that weekend to talk to my lawyer, and get my affairs in order, and have a garage sale to downsize. She thinks a garage sale means more to me than our relationship – that is not true. I needed to cancel therapy this week, so that we could schedule for another week when I was less distracted. I told her this. I guess I withheld some of the details about how I was feeling because I don’t want to worry her about my employment situation. Plus, it’s a little embarrassing on some level that I might be unemployed. Anyway, Suzy left me. She broke up with me because I cancelled the couples’ therapy session. I have never felt so abandoned or betrayed. To leave a man when he’s worried about job security is inexcusable and unforgivable. She obviously never really loved me, and it’s probably more possible that she doesn’t know what love is at all.
Mary J.’s partner: Mary J was crying a lot this weekend. She was really upset. I could tell she was going through something and needed her space. I left the room so that she wouldn’t have to hold back. I like to be alone when I cry, so I wanted to respect that for Mary too. When she finished crying, she walked out of the bedroom and into the living room and barely spoke to me. She was clearly upset with me. I don’t think she said but 5 words to me the rest of the evening and wouldn’t even look at me in the face. It felt awful. I was so confused.
Bob S.’s partner: Bob confronted me this week, told me that my actions speak louder than words. When I asked him what he meant, he told me that I am jerking him around. He said that most of the time, he feels cared for by me, and then he said to me that it’s just a matter of time before “my true colors show.” He was referring to me not asking him how quitting smoking was going. The truth is, I just forgot to ask him. He was about to end things between us, and then I started to cry and we ultimately decided to stay together. But I was so confused. I wanted to ask HIM if HE even loves ME!? I wanted to tell HIM that HIS actions speak louder than words. I don’t like being threatened to get dumped. How could he break up with me over not asking him about his cigarettes? How am I supposed to know everything that he wants me to do – I am not a mind-reader. I made him breakfast in bed earlier this week, I helped him craft that important email to his team at work, and I laugh and smile all the time when I am with him. I hate when he tells me I’m not ready for a real relationship. I think he’s projecting himself onto ME!
It is not the fact, but rather the meaning given to the fact, that triggers and upset. Become masterful at distinguishing between the facts about what is really happening, and the meaning you assign the facts, and watch your relationship transform.