PART Three in Series on Couples: Is Mary Yelling?  Sound Meters vs. Brain Wiring



When we fall in love we experience great delight in the experience of having found someone “just like me.” We compare our stories and find all the places where the pieces of our minds match. “Oh, I feel that way too!! Oh, I did that too!!” Discovering all these matching pieces makes us feel less alone, more understood, more seen. We revel in feeling enhanced and affirmed. This, we say to ourselves, is true love!

Sadly, this elated feeling of oneness that opens from finding a “perfect match” is doomed because, of course, none of us are perfect matches. All the experiences of our childhood and later years wire each of us in very unique ways. We feel differently about the very same experience because our memories and associations to this kind of experience have wired us differently. It is our differences which will soon bedevil the feeling of oneness, threaten the idea of true love. How we navigate these differences is the most important factor in whether the relationship will be compassionate, respectful and positive or filled with argument, criticism and disappointment.

If I had one magic wand to wave in my sessions with couples who are having marital “troubles” it would be the magic wand labelled “feelings are subjective not objective.” Before I found this wand in the early stages of my career, I spent far too much time trying to find the objective truth in an exchange. Oh! the blind alleys we wandered.

John says Mary has no right to yell at him for not emptying the dishwasher. Mary says she wasn’t yelling. (To be clear, there are some objective standards: all violence and emotional abuse is wrong and should be named and judged accordingly.) They want me to judge: was Mary yelling? Does she have a right to yell? Answering either of these questions from an objective view will set a standard of judgement for all behavior going forward that will narrowly define what emotions and behaviors are good and what emotions are bad. Instead of enhancing one’s sense of self, this pattern of judgement will create shame and shrink the space available for both Mary and John to grow and flourish.

In this simple exchange of John being upset about Mary’s yelling and Mary declaring she wasn’t yelling there is a novel’s worth of information about each person. Or at least two whole brains’ worth. John grew up in a house where no expression of anger was ever allowed. His parents had a chilly, not very close relationship. Both of his parents were raised in New England and of old Yankee stock. If John was angry at anyone he was sent to his room. He learned to value composure and self-reliance. Mary grew up in a home with an Italian mother and a Portuguese father. They argued and disagreed but got over it quickly and resolved their differences. She was valued by her parents as lively and strong-willed. She had five siblings and, because her mother worked, they all had to help out. Cooperation was valued over self-reliance.

The reader can, I am sure, begin to understand how different each person’s experience with “yelling” is. Acceptance and compassion for the Other’s experience of the event is the maneuver that will deepen this couple’s connection to each other. It will not be easy as John has identified with his parents’ experience of anger as “bad” and Mary’s brain has few experiences of someone raising their voice as scary or “bad”. In John’s brain, Mary is yelling. In Mary’s brain she’s a little annoyed. Sound meters aren’t the answer to this question. Empathy for each of their experiences is. A deepening understanding of the complexity of their minds and the subjectivity of their experiences are the devices needed to restore this couple’s connection, not sound meters.


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