If my wife comes home and my gym bag is in the middle of the living room, she may have a thought something along the lines of, “That does not belong there. It’s in the way, I wish he wouldn’t keep putting it there.” That’s a perfectly acceptable thought to have, especially if she has told me before not to leave my gym bag there.
As a professor at Andrews University and as a therapist who owns a group counseling practice, communication is what I do. I spend a lot of time teaching people about healthy communication. If my wife comes home and my gym bag is in the middle of the living room, she may have a thought something along the lines of, “That does not belong there. It’s in the way, I wish he wouldn’t keep putting it there.” That’s a perfectly acceptable thought to have, especially if she has told me before not to leave my gym bag there. The problem is, though, the process does not stop there. Emotions come rushing into her brain. Emotions like frustration, anger, hurt (if she has told me before, then she may feel like I am ignoring her on purpose), irritation and maybe humiliation (if someone were to come over and see my stinky bag).
Given the thought above, and now the addition of five or six emotions to the mix, she now begins a process that I call, “having a conversation in her head.” She thinks things like, “I have told him I don’t like it when he does that. Why does he keep doing that? He must not care about me. He must not love me because if he did he wouldn’t do things to hurt me on purpose.” Notice how she has moved from one thought (or conversation) to another, all in her head, and all without my explanation or input.
Now comes the problem. What she then speaks to me is something along the lines of “You are such a slob! You are so selfish! You only think about yourself! I am not your slave!” This is a response to the conversation she has had in her head and the original thought of “that does not belong there. It’s in the way, I wish he wouldn’t keep putting it there” is gone. When I hear what she just said to me, it’s going to sound aggressive, like an attack, and I will get defensive. I will think something along the lines of “she thinks I am worthless, she is going to leave me, I will lose everything” and I counter with an attack of my own.
Notice, now we will be even further from her original curious thought of “Why is the bag in the living room? It does not belong there.” Had she shared the original thought without emotion, and without the added conversation she had in her head, the conversation would have proceeded differently and likely would have had a much more positive tone.
Important Note – This article is not intended to take the place of therapy, medical advice, or to diminish the effects of mental or personality disorders.
Dr. Brad Hinman, LPC, LMFT, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist; director, Hinman Counseling Services; assistant professor, Andrews University.