Heading into a relationship, we always bring 2 things along:
1. Our Deepest Hope
2. Our Worst Dread
Do you know what your deepest hope is? Do you know what you dread the most? Do you know your partner’s deepest hope and the thing he or she dreads the most? If not, you should. Most marriage or relationship conflict develops because we inadvertently bring about the very thing our partner fears or dreads.
Whether working clinically with couples in couples therapy or simply being part of a couple—good relating means being aware of this dynamic! The principles of hope and dread are in operation in every pairing. Tragically, when dread dominates as it does in the following example and as it did for the couple featured in Part I of this series, the relationship becomes at risk. And, indeed, when dread enters the clinical work, the therapeutic relationship is also at risk.
Does This Sound Familiar?
Sari began to feel sad when she was with her girlfriend, Melissa. For no reason apparent to her, she slipped into depression and lost her energy, vitality, and her desire to be engaged. Why, she wondered, when things seemed otherwise wonderful?
Sari was a Harvard educated marketing professional. She dreamed about taking her business to the next level. She worked doggedly for the chance to pitch a strategic sales proposal to a certain Fortune 100 company. The morning she was to deliver her pitch, she told Melissa she was so nervous she thought she was going to throw up. Melissa’s responded by saying “Listen, I just want you to know that I love you whatever happens. And if you get there and decide it’s too much and you want to turn around and come home, I’ll still love you.”
Sari felt herself plunging into that familiar depression. As she deflated like a flat tire, she wondered: what was wrong with herself? Wasn’t Melissa being kind? Weren’t her comments sweet? Generous? Why did Sari feel defeated, empty, undermined, and sad? Why did she want to push Melissa away?
Sari’s deepest hope was to receive encouragement in the form of a clear statement that people believed in her. Her deepest hope was to feel infused with the confidence and the faith that others had in her. For Sari, the best thing Melissa could have said to her would have been: “I have real confidence in you that you’ll do a fine job. And I’m so proud of you for going out there. Break a leg”!
We can see the subtle but real difference in the two responses. While both are caring statements, one was felt by Sari to be undermining and destabilizing and conveying Melissa’s lack of faith in Sari. And this was the reason for her sadness. Sari felt Melissa lacked confidence in her. In those comments, Sari heard Melissa’s lack of faith. Sari hoped for an empowering slap on the back and for a ringing endorsement of her efforts. Not getting this lead to her depression, sadness, and disconnection.
We always bring 2 things into our relationships: our hope and our dread. Whether your hope is for a loud, empowering slap on the back, or a gentle expression of unconditional love, we’re empowered and consolidated when we received the hoped-for response. We become deflated, angry, and feel misunderstood, as Sari did, when we don’t.
Ask yourself if your partner is attuned to your hopes. Ask whether your partner is attuned to the things you dread. If your answer is yes, you and your partner probably have a stable and loving foundation. You probably see less conflict than the couple poorly attuned to each other’s hopes and dreads. And, where there’s less attunement, there’s likely to be more conflict and less satisfaction.