Bringing John Paul II into Couples’ Communication by Dr. Emily Dowdell
One of the reasons I am excited to be a part of the RWPS team is our commitment to making the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II and his Theology of the Body more accessible. One area in which we do this is in marital therapy.
Couples experiencing marital distress are almost always struggling with a breakdown in communication. One or both parties feel misunderstood, and they often find themselves in a power struggle. When couples get locked into these cycles of interaction, they lose sight of their shared humanity, and the love they have for one another. Each person digs their heels into their own individual experiences and demands authority. Many times, the desire for power or authority comes from a deeper desire to be known, heard, and understood at the heart of which is a longing for closeness and a fear of rejection or abandonment. When working with couples who run into these struggles, I often provide this analogy:
Imagine you and your significant other are standing at the top of a long driveway at dusk. You can’t quite make out what’s happening at the bottom. You see two figures walking past the lamppost and share your observations with each other. One of you sees a couple on a nice evening stroll, the other fears someone is being stalked and in danger. The two of you argue about who is right, adamant about your observations and opinions. You stay at the top of the driveway and try to convince one another that you really know what’s going on down there. Yet, neither of you have enough information. If we strip away the power struggle, we might have a more balanced interaction. Instead of arguing about who is right, you might be curious about each other’s perceptions. When you seek to understand the other person’s perspective, you might learn that the one who feels fear was once assaulted from behind. The one who saw an evening stroll finds going for walks in the evening romantic. After learning about each other and why you see the world as you do, you might decide to get a little closer to find out what is really going on at the bottom of the driveway. As you get closer, you could discover that you were both wrong, and it was your neighbor and his son walking their dog.
In this event, there is an opportunity for the spouses to learn more about one another and their shared reality. One of the beautiful things about the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II is that he made space for subjective experience without denying objective truth. Some philosophies that aim to honor individual experience can go to an extreme and abandon the notion of an objective reality— we see this in the common phrase “follow your truth” and other mottos based in moral relativism. On the other hand, other philosophies are more rigid about following the rules and impose an objective framework that fails to take into account each person’s subjective experience. Pope St. John Paul II found a way to recognize the both—and. He affirmed the unique experiences that form our individual thoughts, beliefs, and opinions and asserted that we are interacting with an objective, shared reality. We have a moral obligation to pursue truth and to refrain from treating others as an object, yet we also must respect and honor each other’s subjectivity.
When we orient ourselves to the pursuit of objective truth — about ourselves and others — in a way that respects our subjective viewpoints, we can experience more harmonious relationships and experience more interior freedom and peace. As in the example above, instead of becoming entrenched in protecting one’s ego, defending oneself and one’s view as “correct” and alienating one’s significant other in the process, we can take a curious stance with oneself, one’s spouse, and the shared reality. In doing so, one might come to realize that, while one’s assumptions about reality were inaccurate, they were coming from a lived experience, thus not invalid. Becoming entrenched in one’s own view becomes problematic when one lacks insight into one’s perspective, presumes to have all the answers, cites assumptions as facts, and refuses to dialogue with oneself, others, and the world.
If I am approaching a conversation with my husband looking for a certain response — perhaps I am looking for support, validation, or encouragement — and he does not respond in the way I expected, this can indeed be quite disappointing. I might spiral into thoughts about what this means about our marriage or become angry because I feel entitled to the response I wanted. If instead, I have the awareness to recognize my need, see that I was treating my husband as a source of need-fulfillment, and instead seek to treat him as a person, this changes the dynamic. I can recognize my need, acknowledge my disappointment, and be curious about both of our reactions. I wish I was always able to “put my bags down” in conversations and focus on the good of the other, but sometimes it’s really hard.
If you or your spouse is struggling to communicate, becoming overwhelmed with strong emotions in conversation, and is unable to be curious — it may be a sign of woundedness and a source of difficulty in your life. There is likely a lot of pain and suffering there, which deeply needs compassion. We are here to help. By learning to understand yourself and your spouse more deeply, as well as healing underlying wounds that trip us up in our relationships, the RWPS team will walk with you as you seek the healing and growth in your capacity for love. It is also important to remain compassionate with yourself and your spouse through these struggles. We all struggle in our vocations and need the healing power of God’s grace and the support of others to live our vocations fully and faithfully. In our struggles, we find the prayer of St. Francis a helpful reminder of our calling to seek the good of the other: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”