Musings

Marriage/Couple Counselling and the Art of Listening

Staying together in a primary relationship can require endurance. Moving through the difficulties that inevitably arise in it can demand resilience to bounce back from the hurtful words that may be spoken or behaviours that we may wish had never happened . It is this latter quality that provides the title and theme of a book by Melbourne family therapist, Moshe Lang, and his wife, Tesse Lang. The book, Resilience: Timeless Stories of a Family Therapist, has been something of a refuge for me over the past couple of weeks, where I would retreat most evenings after dinner to enter a world of conflict that was nevertheless held in the serene and caring awareness of its authors.

As a counsellor, when I read books or articles on counselling, I am usually looking for tips on how I might improve my practice or new ideas that will broaden my knowledge of the subject. Such reading has a strongly focused and practical intent. It was with this purpose that I bought and began to read the Langs’ book, but soon found that I wasn’t getting what I had bargained for. I was neither able to extract techniques I thought I might usefully employ in my own counselling nor could I grasp any theories about counselling that might help me better understand what happens in the consultation room. And yet…each evening, I would retire to my reading in pleasurable anticipation of something I had no words for.

To find a satisfactory explanation for the pleasure I repeatedly sought and got from this book, I returned to the introduction that was written by Moshe Lang. In it he explains why he and his wife have chosen to share his decades of counselling experience through the medium of stories, rather than in a more traditional and “scientific” presentation that focuses on evidence and theory. He says:

“Stories are usually anti-authoritarian…and thus tend to equalise people….Unlike academic discourse they circumvent logic, because there are generally no right or wrong stories, only good or bad ones. Since they evoke a multitude of responses, narrator and listeners realise there are many ways of understanding.”

What Lang is saying is that there is more than one way of seeing things, and those different ways are neither right nor wrong; they are simply different. If there is one recognition that is basic to working through relational conflict it is this, that no movement in a deadlock is possible unless each of the parties eventually come to understand the other’s point of view and where it comes from. A good story is not good because it is factually true. We can argue about the factual truth forever without agreement. We respond to a good story when we have the sense that it captures the deepest experience of the person telling it. We are moved. We understand where that person is coming from–even if we don’t agree with the conclusions they draw from their story. And we all long to be understood–especially by those close to us. Being allowed to tell our story and feeling heard by the other is often as much as we require or want from our partners.

What is highlighted here is the importance of listening. It is essential not only in the counselling space but in all relationships. Primary relationships are no exception. In a couple relationship, the need for committed listening is particularly great in part because we often expect from them all that we missed out on as children in our relationship with our parents and other care-givers. The result of not recognising these expectations in ourselves and in our partners can lead to frustration, anger and eventually despair. We may arrive at asking ourselves how the person we once passionately desired to share our whole life with has turned out to be the individual who causes us the most disappointment and grief. We find that searching for explanations why they are the way they are–or even why I am the way I am–is an activity of limited value. What, I believe, the Langs are saying with their stories is that story brings more than explanation and more than judgement. It brings understanding. It allows us to step into the life-story of another, to know him or her. Most of us, I am sure, have experienced that that kind of knowing allows for forgiveness. We get it, maybe for the first time ever, why our partner thinks, feels, acts the way he or she does. And forgiveness does not mean we necessarily put up with our partner’s behaviour. We may decide to leave, but leave or stay we do not carry with us a deep emotional wound that refuses to heal.

Listening to people we think we know well, like ourselves or our partners, can be difficult. It is easy to believe that we have heard it all already, that we have the whole story. What I find so striking about the Langs’ book, in addition to its depth of understanding, warmth and fluidity, is that on the front cover, both their names appear as co-authors, even though, strictly speaking, they are Moshe Lang’s stories of his experience. It is true that his wife, Tesse, wrote the stories down as he related them to her and co-edited them, but that doesn’t justify her position as co-author. My sense is that, consciously or unconsciously, the Langs recognised that the listener, as much as the teller, creates the story. Just think how differently we relate an incident to a keenly interested listener from the way we do to one who really would rather not be bothered. Confronted with the latter, we might never tell our story at all.

Moshe Lang writes:

By working out our personal stories, we shield ourselves from the potentially harmful effects of the false and distorted versions of events continually fed to us by family, society, religion and the media. We often have inadequate or cliched ideas about our problems, and stories can help us to unlock these by allowing new images to shed new light and energy.”

Our conversations about and within relationships need more story, our deeper stories. They need our deeper listening.

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