A traveler walked alone down a country road on a cloudy day, wearing an old cloak. The Sun and the North wind decided to have a contest to see who could remove it.
"This will be easy," the North wind said. He sent a powerful blast of cold air toward the traveler, who only pulled his cloak tighter. The North wind tried again and again, blowing so hard that birds were pushed from their paths, and leaves scattered from the trees. The shivering traveler hunched against the wind and held onto his cloak.
"Let me try," said the Sun, as he moved from behind the clouds. As he gently poured his warmth on the traveler, the traveler opened his coat and within minutes took it off. (Aesop)
When I first saw a couple I'll call Rachel and Jim, they were ready to divorce. Tension was high in the room as they talked.
"He doesn't listen," Rachel said, her voice filled with frustration. "He never listens. I try and try and I just can't get through. It's like he's locked away someplace and I don't have the key. What's the matter with him? What's the matter with me?"
Jim stared out the window. When I asked what it was like for him to hear this, he said, "I'm used to it. I never get it right and I get tired of trying. It's like she has a scorecard and I come up short every time. I can't do any more."
They were caught in a negative cycle, where each person's reaction helped keep it going. After I understood how each of them felt, I helped them see how they were stuck in that cycle. When Rachel felt frustrated, she was also lonely and wanted to feel close. But instead she complained.
When Jim heard her complaints, he shut down. Underneath he was lonely too. But he saw how arguments pushed them apart, and tried hard to keep things calm. His quiet made Rachel more frustrated, and Rachel's complaints made him more quiet. Underneath they both felt very alone.
Rachel was like the North wind. She wanted to talk, to feel connected, to spend time with him, to hold him. She tried to get him to take off the cloak of silence he wrapped around himself every night. Jim wanted to respond to Rachel, but the way she asked felt harsh, so he would retreat into silence and hold it tight around him.
As I helped Rachel understand the effect she had on Jim, she started to approach him with warmth instead - by talking about how lonely she felt, how much she wanted him to hold her sometimes. In turn I helped Jim understand how his quiet affected Rachel, and he was able to loosen his cloak a bit - by asking what she needed, by small gestures of affection, by making sure Rachel knew he cared.
Step by step, I helped each of them take new risks, to share in a new way. It wasn't perfect, especially at first. Sometimes Rachel reached out and Jim withdrew anyway. Sometimes Jim reached for Rachel and she snapped at him. But the more comfortable they felt, the more they were able to approach each other with caring.
There are two morals to this story. The first is perhaps more obvious: How you ask matters. Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman suggests that couples use a "soft start-up" when they discuss something tricky. A soft start-up is a way of asking that makes likely you will get a "yes!"
The second moral is perhaps more important: When something isn't working well between you and your partner, look deeper. Emotions, it seems, come in layers. The ones on the surface, like frustration and anger and stony silence, are like the prickles of a porcupine - they keep us safe. But the deeper, softer feelings, like loneliness and sadness, are ultimately the way to understanding and closeness. In a relationship, sharing these feelings brings the gentle warmth of connection.