Offering What is Needed: Spaciousness, Silence, Or…

Friday, February 19

In our morning sharing, Pat opened with a “hard piece of sharing.” She got in touch with her younger self and saw her reactiveness in an emotionally painful situation that occurred on Thursday. She explained her disharmony and the circumstances giving rise to it.

I wanted to support her in this delicate sharing space. With this intention of support, I offered a number of “helpful” reflections, mirroring what I heard, as she shared. The result? Pat was silent after my comments, she was not able to engage me in the moment. I backed off to contemplate where Pat might be and what she might need from me, if anything.

This experience of her not needing my words but instead preferring simple wordless presence for a while reminded me of a recent time when my needs were different from her offering.  Pat and I had had a conflict over some “minor” issue a week or so before.  The results and needs were different, but the approach to resolving the communications issue seemed similar.

In this earlier incident I had been over-sensitive to Pat’s input on one of my pieces of writing. Her input on my writing evoked frustration, anger and fear in the psyche of my inner kid, whose writing when he was growing up was not encouraged by Mom. Rather than interest and encouragement for exploring and writing out my ideas, Mom often said nothing about the content of my writing but rather focused on correcting the grammar and spelling – the spelling had to be 100% correct, never mind the possibly rich ideas and content I was creating as a teenager. So this imprint on my young psyche over 50 years ago carried forward to this incident of receiving Pat’s criticism of my writing a week or so ago. I went on to share with Pat that I was in reaction to her input to me and that I felt “brutalized.” Yes, brutalized was the word that rolled off my lips, and I knew it was the correct descriptor of what I, that is, what my “young one,” was feeling. Both of us celebrated that I could name and share what I was feeling. Going on to explain why I was so sensitive was not as important but only a bonus.

Going on with the incident a week or two ago, after we shared my feeling brutalized, Pat, not really sure what to do, and certainly not having any intention of brutalizing me, suggested we simply sit down together on the couch and be in silence. I felt into that, and I realized that “sitting on the couch in silence” did not feel right. I said I could not do that and that I was still “stinging” from the experience of feeling brutalized. Again “stinging” was the correct descriptor, and sitting together in silence would not work for me. It would be like my inner kid still stinging from a belt spanking from Dad only to have him want me to sit quietly next to him on the couch afterwards. That would be crazy making for my young one.

It wasn’t clear what to do in that experience a week or so ago, but just being aware of where each of us was in it helped us get through it.

Now this Friday morning the situation was different. Pat did not feel brutalized by my words but more like she was being invaded by me. I could easily see that my reflections to Pat on her “hard piece of sharing” was not at all what she needed. In our conversation about what would support her I learned that what Pat really needed this morning as she shared her disharmony from Thursday was my simple spaciousness, that is, my simple presence and silence. 

So I was quiet for a time, and after things seemed settled and the time of her angst seemed past, I shared with Pat that I could see that in such situations my “words of reflection,” even though well-intended, become invasive to her young one who is just needing spaciousness, presence, and silence as she shares the pain of her disharmony. Pat responded that, yes, words were not necessary. She said that I should just watch what arises in her, and love that.

This offering spaciousness, this just being present with no words, seemed new for me. But Pat noted that, when I’m aware of a need for silence, I’m actually quite good at giving space, presence, and silence. It’s a matter of my being aware, that is, it’s a matter of my knowing when to engage and when to be in silence.

Pat also noted how great our couples counselors Sage and Anthony are in modeling for us what we need to do. They are good at just giving us space, lots and lots of space, in our sessions. Their default stance with us in our sessions is “silence and spaciousness.” And then when they do want to offer something near the end of the session, they gently ask, “Can I step in here? I do not want to interrupt where you are if it’s not the right time.” How gentle and respectful this feels. Yes, they model how we want to be with each other.

So the trick is to recognize when nothing but spaciousness, presence, and silence are needed by the other. But here our counselors once again have offered a gentle warning, “Don’t demand perfection of each other. Rather be spontaneous, let what arises arise without self-censoring, and then, if this ‘spontaneity’ turns into a misunderstanding or problem between you, ask yourselves, ‘Now what wants to happen next?’”  Knowing where to go after a disagreement is far better than going to great lengths to self-censor in order to prevent any and all disagreements from coming up. Plowing ahead spontaneously and then, as will be necessary, making amends, keeps the relationship alive rather than stamped down or flat-lined due to over-cautiousness.

This all sounds like “relationship 101,” but we are where we are, and are glad to have this opportunity to be able to grow from where we are, even this late in life.

Shared in love, Gary