Seven Last Words

Posted on September 7, 2019


There is a famous orchestral work from the 18th century by Joseph Haydn entitled The Seven Last Words of Christ.  It was written for a Good Friday service in 1787 and continues to be performed on Good Friday.

The title has sometimes been appropriated to highlight resistance to change in the local congregation.  The “seven last words of the church” most often quoted are “We’ve never done it that way before” or “We tried that and it didn’t work.”  Churches are systems.  Systems are designed to maintain homeostasis which inherently makes them resistant to change.

Marriages are systems.  Those systems tend to maintain homeostasis even if what they are doing really isn’t working.  The initial attempts at change are usually thwarted by the system trying avoid change.  Leading to the famous seven last words, “We tried that and it didn’t work.”

In therapy, one of the interventions I often use is to “double” for each of the partners.  Essentially, I come along side of you and translate what I believe you are saying in such a way that your partner can hear it from you.  How I do it isn’t really rocket science.  I acknowledge your partner’s point and feelings, then I restate what you were saying, removing the criticism, and expressing the underlying emotions and needs.  Having done that, I turn back to you to check if I got it right (anything that wasn’t quite right or that I left out?).  Usually the response is, “Yes, that’s it.”  Sometimes the response is, “Yes, that’s what I just said.”

At that point, I check in with your partner to see how he or she is receiving what you (we?) just said.  This generally has landed quite a bit differently and the response is different from what has been happening at home.  Through this process, a really distressed couple is able to have a productive conversation wherein they both feel heard.

But as I always say, my job is to work my way out of a job with every couple.  When you can do for yourselves what I do for you in session, you don’t need me anymore.  This is not that complex, but it may not be easy when you are upset.  It is always good to practice in times of non-conflict.

Why did it work when I said it?

First, tone.  My startup was soft.  My tone conveyed that I was speaking from my heart.  Tone is one of the ways we communicate contempt in a marriage.  Contempt is extremely damaging.  If, based upon the tone, “you idiot” would fit neatly onto the end of what was just said, it will assuredly not be received well.

Second, the acknowledgement of your partner’s point and feelings.  Much of the time when we are in an argument, we are so focused on getting our point across that we don’t acknowledge the other’s position.  If your partner says something to you and you launch into your rebuttal, your partner feels not heard and not validated.  This also frequently leads to arguments that run in a loop.  Until I feel like you heard it, I am going to keep repeating what I was saying in the hopes that you hear it.  Additionally, if your partner says something and you immediately proceed to start telling him or her how they got it wrong, it is likely to come across as defensiveness.  Defensiveness is also damaging to relationships.  It leads to disconnection rather than connection.

Third, no criticism.  I keep the focus on the issue at hand and not on what is wrong with your mate.  Whatever you are trying to convey will be much harder for your partner to hear if there is criticism involved.  By taking out the criticism, there is more opportunity for your partner to hear your heart and what is important to you.

Fourth, the underlying emotion and needs.  Heretofore, the reason you feel strongly about this has been assumed rather than stated.  This is an opportunity for your partner to understand what it is like to be you and to respond to that with love and caring.  It changes your partner’s perception of you from someone who is always angry with me, to someone who has their own pains for which they are seeking nurture and comfort.

While we are on the subject of the emotional experience, anger, annoyance, and frustration are often the emotions that first get stated.  These are generally reactive emotions.  They will tend to push your partner away rather than draw your partner to you.  Underneath them are usually some more core emotional experiences such as pain, sadness, fear, and loneliness.  Particularly for men, we are taught not to acknowledge fear so we often can’t even identify it in ourselves.  But if you reflect on what is happening in your body in the middle of these fights, you will probably find that your heart rate and blood pressure are going up and your body is getting pumped full of adrenaline and cortisol (a stress hormone).  That’s a fight or flight response.  Further, if your “go to” response when in an argument is control or escape, that is generally a coping strategy for feeling unsafe.

Don’t count on success the first time you try this.  It is going to be a bit of a shock to the system.  You will need some perseverance.  Also like any new skill, you will need to practice it to get good at it.  The seven last words, “We tried that and it didn’t work,” don’t have to be the seven last words of your marriage.