I had been working with Mary (not her real name) as a client for several years. It was the loneliness in her marriage that initially brought her to see me. She was struggling in the relationship but also didn’t want to leave. She described how sharing anything with her husband, her real experience, took enormous effort and involved intense strategizing and emotional stress. She worried a lot about how to present her truth so that it would be understood and received by her partner—not rejected, attacked or minimized. As a result, she was starting to keep important experiences out of their relationship, only presenting what was factual or impersonal, which was then creating more isolation and intensifying her loneliness.
In my first session with Mary and her husband, it quickly became clear to me why she felt so isolated and disconnected from him. I saw within a few minutes how her husband’s way of responding to her was entirely out of sync with what she needed to feel understood, supported and loved. Regardless of what Mary shared, he began his response with the word “but,” telling her why she was mistaken and what she was doing wrong that made her feel the way she did. He then frequently followed up his criticisms with what he knew to be true about her experience, all based on his greater wisdom. I watched as he trampled on her truth again and again, and demonstrated his unwillingness to allow her to have the experience she was having, to just hear how it was for her without any “but.” What I witnessed is not uncommon however, and most of us have experienced Mary’s loneliness, frustration, and stress in trying to get what we need in similar kinds of relationships.
There are people who listen with and from the word “but,” with “but” always in between their ears and your heart. No matter what you present, they seem intent on proving you wrong or pointing out the holes in what you’re sharing. Perpetually in search of the fly in the ointment, they invalidate your experience and simultaneously demonstrate that they know more and better.
Like Mary’s husband, this kind of person relates from their head, their intellect, and not their heart. Their responses protect them from taking in or feeling your experience–feeling you–or, as it can sometimes seem, allowing you to even exist. Knowing more, being the expert, keeps them from having to try to understand or empathize with what you’re expressing. Their “but'” keeps them from having to venture outside their comfort zone, to be vulnerable or really listen or learn. They are quick to shut down your experience with dismissive phrases like “that’s just such and such” or “I get it already,” which are further attempts to stuff your experience into a box that they can control and dismiss.
When someone is relating to you in this style, the felt sense is that you are not being listened to—not being loved. It feels as if the other is not on your side, not curious about or interested to know you, not offering your experience the care and nourishment that it (and you) need to grow. The other’s mission is not to understand you or help you know yourself more deeply, but rather, to win the case against you and keep you under control.
There is no place for Mary’s experience with her husband, and so understandably, relating feels like a fight, with her on the defensive, trying to force a space in which her experience will be allowed to land.
Expressing yourself in this kind of communication environment takes enormous effort, fending off and through the other’s intellect and resistance, fighting to be heard and acknowledged, to not have your experience butchered, reduced, boxed, or denied. At the end of a conversation you feel exhausted, or as one woman expressed it, nailed into a coffin. Communication is an experience of loneliness and frustration—sadness and anger. Connection cannot happen because your experience is fundamentally not allowed into the dialogue.
The tendency, when in relationship with such people, is to shut down and stop sharing, and sometimes to stop feeling altogether, to go numb. And sometimes to fight back and try harder, construct new strategies to get your experience heard properly. But none of the options offer much lasting relief. So how can you be with the “but” heads in your life, some of whom are family or others you can’t avoid, in a way that keeps you feeling alive and well? How can you be in their company in a way that leaves you feeling good about ourselves?
The best way to stay well and on your own side in a such a relationship is by employing the skill of fierce awareness. While it is painful to have your experience constricted and rejected, you can stay grounded and feel good about yourself by staying vigilant in your seat as the witness, watching your own experience as the whole relational event unfolds. You relate with such a person carefully, mindfully, with great self-compassion. First, by simply noticing what’s happening inside you as you even approach a topic that matters to you. And then, paying fierce attention physically, mentally, and emotionally to what is arising as the other responds. You may notice a feeling of desperation or franticness rising up, a tightness in the belly or throat, a feeling of rage, dizziness, tears, numbness, or who knows what else. But regardless of what appears, you keep noticing that which is happening inside you, staying vigilant in your awareness—and most importantly, staying kind and compassionate with your own experience.
You may also become aware of a blaming or shaming, a criticism you inflict on yourself, that you should be able to express yourself in a way that’s understandable, should be able to get the other to reflect you properly, to want to know you, that you are somehow failing because you can’t get your truth across in a way that feels satisfying. Whatever arises, you keep listening and loving inside. Awareness and self-compassion are your protection from getting swallowed up and identified with your instinctive reactions. Awareness can also guide you as to when it’s time to exit the conversation and/or shift it somewhere else, which is another way that you can be self-loving and take care of yourself within such a relationship.
You cannot control another’s responses or the experiences that arise within you, but you can stay awake to what’s happening within you, can offer unwavering kindness towards yourself, and can determine for how long you will continue watching and working with an experience that doesn’t work for you. Indeed you can love yourself in any kind of company.