Disagreements are inevitable in any relationship. We know this, and yet we can be spectacularly caught off guard by them over and over again. Despite their negative connotation, misunderstandings paradoxically can offer one of the greatest opportunities for closeness between two people (you knew I was going to say that, being a therapist and all). The question is, how do we get to that greater closeness faster, with the least bit of time being miserable together? The space where these clashes and disconnects are best resolved is in what I call the “aha middle”: where you say “aha!” realizing that there are no bad guys, no villains trying to hurt or reject or annoy you, recognizing anew that it’s just two people’s noblest intentions getting tangled up and painfully misconstrued until they can get sorted out. In the aha middle we realize that someone else’s why is as legitimate and noble as our own why. Even if you’ve figured out many, many times before that the person you’re upset with is not a villain, you may not retain this knowledge in the heat of an argument. Situations have a habit of making us lose touch with this crucial information—temporarily. Knowing to look for the aha middle, realizing that there are legitimate reasons behind every difference we encounter, we find it faster, begin to anticipate each other’s stories, tend to them, work around them. But it takes practice, even for a therapist who writes and teaches about this every day. Allow me to share one of my favorite stories of mismatched noble intentions, which my husband and I have come to call The Moosehook Epiphany.
Together on a cool summer day about thirty-something years into our marriage, we are strolling through a mountain town and come upon a gift shop. Browsing through the various frontier themed items—bear rugs, bear shaped beeswax candles, carved bear figurines, bear napkins, bear keychains, you get the idea—we come upon something different, some rough-hewn iron moose hooks. Instantly we both love them. They will be perfect for coats, for curtains—something— we think, whatever it is, we will figure it out. Do we get two? Three? No quarreling there. Easily our visions align. No need for those unsightly scenes that couples so often make in stores. We are not going to be that couple. Not today. We settle on the nice round number of three. Three moose hooks it will be. Content and suffused with a sense of incipient domestic satisfaction we leave the store and go on with our day.
All done, checked off the list, lovely. Well, not so fast, there’s a little hiccup. We realize at home that the delightful rough-hewn moose hooks did not come with the screws to mount them.
No worries. The following afternoon my husband takes a trip to the hardware store with the task of getting said screws and returns with a tiny, tiny little brown envelope which he sets contentedly on the counter. My heart surges. I didn’t need to open that tiny envelope to understand what had just happened. Its size spoke volumes. A disaster was unfolding in my mind. The ancient program normally reserved for fighting off lions, tigers, and bears—perhaps even moose—has flared. The threat, none other than a tiny envelope, has landed on my counter next to those oh so promising moosehooks.
Instantly, a collision of emotion and expectation ensues. The picture-perfect moosehook moment was rapidly deteriorating. Without words only images in milli-seconds—my face, his face, the tiny bag, the moose hooks, the counter, the screwdriver—our dreams seconds before delightfully intact now lay in ruins between us.
What started as such a joyful thing left both of us miserable. You might be saying at this point, get a grip, people. And, dear reader, you’d be so right. But don’t we all have those places where an Achilles’ heel sprouts up unexpectedly in the midst of a lovely weekend, when a close enough match to something that matters to us hurts, blows up and engulfs us in billowing doubt and isolation?
Though I am quite certain that most of you fully understand the details of this debacle and have starred in similar situations in your own lives, I will explain the predicament for those few of you who may be scratching your heads. To me, the task clearly required a large bag of screws. Twenty, thirty, forty, whichever quantity is recommended to survive the vicissitudes of mounting a moosehook. What are these vicissitudes you ask? Well, I am no expert, but that’s beside the point. Maybe some of the screws are defective. Maybe a screw would split from overzealous effort, or fall and roll inaccessibly through an uneven floorboard, down a heat vent, gone into the void which swallows up small objects and won’t give them back. My husband, the hardware deliverer, was stunned and flummoxed by my reaction. Seeing the distress on my face, he tried to reconcile this with what he imagined would be the greeting upon his return at minimum an appreciative kiss, for remembering this item on the errand list. In his mind the errand was a success, having approached the task pragmatically and well: Three hooks, two holes each, six screws.
Alas, it is always the little things. Resentful and upset, disappointed in each other, we had let each other down in a most poignant way. Mind you, much of this exchange had occurred at lightning-speed and without words. Easily we fit this experience into the tender and long-standing cracks of our respective emotional terrain. We heatedly exchange a few of the why would you evers? and how could you nots?
We could have kept going with the accusations and disappointments and frankly who among us hasn’t done that? But we didn’t. Right after spying threat, we spied resolution. Thirty plus years into our marriage, we know this was a case of mismatched expectations, not intentions to hurt each other. Realizing that we’d gotten our backs up (OK mostly me, I confess) and gotten into defensive mode against the person who is actually our greatest protector, we ask “What were you thinking?” Importantly, we ask that question with no irony, exclamation points, or hidden accusations: Really, we ask because we want to understand. Prefaces help so we say, “I know you probably didn’t mean it in that way, but…” In response, we slowly show our cards, reaching far back into our childhood inventory of meanings and into past relationships—inventories not yet catalogued or this situation would likely have been avoided in the first place.
We talk. We say, “here’s what this moment means to me.” We dispense with the “way it should have been.” Yes, we have three iron moose hooks to mount and our relationship must rise up to meet the challenge. One of us wants to buy just exactly enough screws for this project—that feels right, and the other wants plenty—and that feels right. In this “aha!” process my husband realizes how his pattern of buying just enough comes from his mother leaving her home country with just a suitcase—and survival meant being frugal, traveling light, taking only what you need. My parents grew up in the Depression, and you never knew when you’d have access to supplies, so you stocked up whenever possible—a whole box of screws meant security. Through these “aha!” revelations, we now we have something more important than hooks or screws: We are understood. The narrative gets renamed. The Moose Hook Fiasco becomes the Moose Hook Epiphany.
These stories matter, the stories of those we love the most: They are the reconnaissance missions to learn about one another. For us, the stories like the moose hooks and the immigrants with suitcases and the stockpiling for lean years—all come together in the volumes that our relationships speak, in the secret language that we make up out of our craziness, our sensitivities, our values, our foibles. What do small envelopes mean in our relationship? What does “enough” mean to each of us? We don’t even understand ourselves or our reasons why we do what we do until moments like this. When we pivot from our knee-jerk fear of differences, when we decline our first instinct to say who is right and who is wrong, we go up a level and come in for a softer landing. The fact is that we don’t want to let each other down, but we will. Over time, having a growing collection of aha middle stories to consult helps us say aha! sooner, recognizing the similarities between difficult moments—recognizing each other for who we really are— brings us to the truths that free us from fear and misinterpretation.
My husband and I vow that someday the infamous moose hooks (which we realize later are actually reindeer, but no matter) that haven’t moved far from the counter where they first landed may actually be mounted on the wall instead of being photographed, documented, painted, debated, and written about. Exactly when this will happen is another potentially rich misunderstanding for another day. In the meantime, it’s Valentine’s Day, a time replete with possibilities for love and also for mismatched expectations. So today and every day, let’s promise each other to seek out and tenderly steward sooner each other’s “aha middles;” look past the first villainous theories about each other which can instantly sprout up even in the hardiest of us and transform the mess of misunderstanding into the anthology of your lives, maybe even add colorful titles for easy reference. You may find yourselves saying: I’ll show you my aha middle, if you show me yours, and your relationship will be the better for it. Happy Love Day, all.
©2019 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. and Phillip Stern