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The Meaning of Things

One of the key challenges for couples, and in working with couples, is the idea of what things mean. Over time it has become a standard part of my couple therapy to address this as a theme. And as some of my client's will tell you, I often use the phrase "it means nothing".

In a world where everything is translated into relational and emotional terms, a balance is often also needed. And this balance is about acknowledging that everything that happens between a couple does not "mean" anything, does not always point to some dark or sinister intention, and does not necessarily "reveal" the truth. We sometimes need to stop making assumptions, and the subsequent conversation binds that start with someone having to defend against some meaning that is assigned.

In working with couples it is essential to identify patterns of behaviour, relating and communicating, and these are inseparable of patterns of meaning. But sometimes shit just happens. Sometimes somehow says a stupid thing or does something without thinking. Don't get me wrong, this is not some blanket "get out of jail free" card for seriously messing up. I am not talking about dismissing or minimising things that create relational injuries.

I am speaking of slowing down and not assigning meaning and intention, but first asking the question. Asking the other person for their experience, for their intentions, for what something means. The way something is presented, or lands, in a relationship is usually also where it goes wrong.

My wife has been quiet and less talkative. She seems to have been going out with her friends more. She has been spending more time on her own watching her series on Netflix. What does it mean? And what will happen if i let this build up in me, triggering all my insecurities, starting to build a whole picture of her preferring her friends, or not caring about me, or being insensitive....whatever the story or narrative is that I end up building. Whatever meanings I assign. And by the time I present her with this whole theory about her I am surprised when she is defensive and we end up in an argument.

Meanings and intentions. We almost always create them based on our own one-sided perspective. And a lot of couples engage in this endless exchange of being convinced they know what is happening inside the internal world of the other. It is a fantasy, and unfortunately it is easier to succumb to the fantasy if we believe we know the person better than themselves.

But it is utter nonsense. Ask the question. Stop making assumptions. Stop assuming that you know the other person. Because even if you are right, the actual conversation is very likely to go pear-shaped. Rather acknowledge without irritation or frustration that you have noticed this or that behaviour. rather be curious about what is going on with the other. Rather ask what they need from you.


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