This weekend I had the opportunity to begin my Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills (PAIRS) program, or to be more specific, the PAIRS relationship mastery program, taught by Ellen and Chuck Purcell in Reston, Virginia. Circumstances arose where one of the attendees needed a partner, and I knew Ellen and Chuck, so they kindly offered me the chance to join them.
The course is taught over an entire weekend once per month, from November through May. This weekend’s courses went from 7:30 pm to 10 pm on Friday, and from 10 am to 6 pm on Saturday and Sunday. Before the weekend, I thought that was an inordinate amount of time learning about how to talk to others. Now that I have attended one weekend, I have realized that I was at the level of learning where “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” Despite years of experience as a psychiatrist, I discovered that I had woefully neglected an entire territory of emotional literacy—the art of communication in intimate relationships.
Although I can’t divulge the specific lessons given in the PAIRS classes, I can share my reflections on the skills and insights I have learned. I will just highlight two below:
1) I learned how to complain. Well, to be more precise, I learned that I didn’t know how to complain. Typically, I preferred to start my complaints with, “I don’t like it when you…” Reasonable right? How else could the other person guess that I’m even complaining, if I didn’t start with those words?
Apparently, this was not the ideal way to complain, because the other person would get defensive if I phrased it like that. Indeed, sadly, I have found this to be the case. Having learned that complaining was not helpful to my relationships, I have tried to avoid the whole thing. But that left me stuck between a rock and a hard place. If I complained, I would usually hurt the other person’s feelings, but if I didn’t complain, my unresolved and unexpressed complaint would get in the way of a better relationship. After taking PAIRS, I learned how to express my complaint in a way that had a better chance of being received by the other person. Chuck and Ellen stressed that it was important for us to reach the other person’s heart, when we expressed a complaint, not just their head.
In class, we were taught to begin a complaint with, “I noticed…” How could that be a complaint? Well, it could lead to a complaint, if one noticed a behavior that one wanted to complain about. So clever, right? What I learned was that complaints could be the first step towards improving a relationship, if we expressed ourselves in a way that facilitated positive change, which would then strengthen our bonds with those we love.
I regret that my parents had not taken a PAIRS class, before I was born. Alas, they had been caught in a couple of wars and were too busy trying to survive. As a result, I had to create my own relationship alphabet that lacked many letters and limited my ability to express myself lovingly and authentically. Before my children get married, I think it would be helpful to offer them the opportunity to attend a PAIRS relationship mastery program with their fiancés. It would be a wonderful way to help them start a new generation of happy, thriving relationships.
2) I learned the importance of listening carefully, mirroring back what had been expressed, and asking for clarification if needed. As much as people may believe they can read another person’s expressions, body language, or actions/inactions, it is best not to do so. Instead, ask questions whenever one is unclear about something. Don’t just make assumptions about the other person, check with the other person to see if one’s interpretation has been accurate. During class, we worked on listening and repeating back what the other person had said. It was awkward, but it forced us to really listen. At the end of class, Chuck read a piece about the importance of listening, rather than trying to fix the problem.
After taking this class, I remembered, with embarrassment and regret, a rather bad communication faux pas that I made over a year ago. At the time, I had confided to a friend that I would never be able to retire, due to all the money I have spent on my children’s college expenses and not being able to put any money aside for my retirement. I may have said something like, “I’ll just have to work until I die of old age!”
To my surprise, my friend exclaimed, with child-like spontaneity, sincerity, and a splash of humor, “You can live with me! I will take care of you, even when you get old!”
To which I replied, “You, take care of me? You get sick more often than I do. How many colds have you had in the past year compared to me? Besides, you have more wrinkles than me.”
I am really sorry I said that. Well, what I said was true, but what I neglected to say and really felt inside was, “That is just about the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me. I can’t believe how loving and generous you are. Thank you for caring. But my heart is breaking at the thought of being needy, vulnerable and old, especially before you.” Pride kicked in big time, and I communicated poorly. To tell the truth, if our positions were switched, I would have felt the same way about my friend, whom I would tenderly care for, if given the opportunity—no matter how wrinkled, sick, or weak we might be one day.
I hope that, after my PAIRS classes, I will learn how to communicate authentically and to do so with loving skill. Relationships are too precious to ruin through an inept ability to properly communicate what the heart has the right to say.