Déjà vu (All Over Again)… or What Am I Missing Here?

Posted on May 1, 2017


And I feel like I’ve been here before.  And you know, it makes me wonder what’s going on down under.  David Crosby (Déjà Vu).

Do you remember 8 track tapes (or before that 4 track)?  Back in the 70’s, they used to make these audio tapes cartridges.  They sounded pretty good (for analog) but were not particularly durable as over time the tape would start to drag or the tape could get caught in the player and it was an awful mess trying to get it back together.[1]  Frugal man that I am, if my eight tracks got mangled, I would open them up and try to fix them.  If you opened up those bad boys, you would find that the tape was on an infinite loop in which the tape fed from the center of the spool and collected on the outside of the spool.  There was no need (or ability) to rewind.  The program would just repeat continually without stopping.

So something happens between you and your mate, and the result is a long discourse from your partner.  Not only is this a long lecture, but it seems to be stuck on repeat.  Or perhaps you are having the same argument you have had many times before.  In fact, you have had this conversation so many times before, you could know exactly what your partner is going to say before he or she says it.  It’s like Déjà Vu, and yes, you have been here before.  You may ask, “Why do we keep ending up back here?” or “How do I get this merry-go-round to stop?”

You may or may not be aware of this, but there is a reason why your partner keeps saying the same thing to you.  For ease of writing (and because it is usually the husband who is in this position of wondering what is going on here), I will use gender specific pronouns.  The reason for the repetition is because there is something she feels you have not yet understood that she is trying to communicate to you.  This is a situation where what you think is the issue is not the real issue.  I know you have the words memorized by now, but there is a piece that you are still missing.  That piece is usually what this means for her on an emotional level.

The key to a successful conclusion to this ride is empathy.  For empathy to be effective you need to 1) get what it is like to be her, 2) care what is like to be her, and 3) she needs to have a sense that you get and care what is like to be her.

Accomplishing the first aspect is comparatively simple, but not necessarily easy.  It requires that in the middle of the argument you set aside your own experience and consider hers.  Many times when I hear stories from men about arguments that are on infinite loop, I ask, “What do you suppose was going on for her?”  The most common response to this question is, “I don’t know.”  So here’s the thing.  When this is happening there is something she believes about what is happening in the relationship (e.g. I am not important to you), there is an emotional experience that goes with that (e.g. pain, fear, sadness), and there is a relational need that she has (e.g. to feel loved and valued).  I know that all you see from her at this point is anger and frustration but there really is more going on.

Next (and stay with me on this one), there is a context in which her experience makes perfect sense.  This does not mean that she is right and you are wrong.  This is not about finding the bad guy, but understanding.  Even if what she thought she heard is either not what you actually said or taken in a way other than you meant it, given what she just understood about the relationship, her reaction makes sense.  This brings us to the second aspect of empathy.  Given her past experience, what she just understood about the relationship, are you able to care about her pain or fear?  This is not about whether or not you did anything wrong.  This is about caring when the woman you love is hurt or sad or afraid or lonely.  You love her, right?  You don’t want her to be sad, right?  Okay.

Now we come to the third aspect of empathy.  She needs to have a felt sense that you get it and you care.  When we get to this part, tone of voice is going to matter a lot.  There is a fine line here in which if you get the tone wrong, it will come across as condescending.  The way you communicate empathy is by validating what she is feeling.  It does not matter if you get it wrong; she will correct you.  Make your best guess about what she is feeling and reflect that back (e.g. “so when you heard me say that, it felt like I was not treating you as important, and you were really hurt”).  Again, if that isn’t it, she will hand you the missing piece, and you can make another shot at reflecting the feeling.

There is a chance that even if you get this right, she might still escalate.  After all, she is accustom to you responding in a way that for her means you didn’t get it (and didn’t care).  We know this because the loop keeps repeating.  If that happens, I give you permission to blame me.  You can say, “Scott said that you were feeling like I wasn’t getting what this meant for you.  I wanted to make you feel understood by me.  How could I have done that better?”

If you still can’t get unstuck, it might be time to find a therapist.  The research indicates that there is an average of 7 years between the time one partner says, “we should get marriage counseling,” and the time the couple actually does.  That’s a long time to be stuck when help is available.

[1] Another problem with 8 track was that they had to divide the album into 4 programs of approximately equal length.  The result of this was 1) the playing order of the songs was changed to optimize the program length, 2) sometimes there would be a period of silence at the end of a track to preserve album continuity, or 3) (and this was the worst) a song might be split between two programs.  One of the worst offenders was on Cat Stevens’ Teaser and The Firecat on which Peace Train (the biggest hit on the album) was split between two tracks.