Couples and families come to therapy. They come hoping for change. They come looking for a way out of stuckness. They come looking for hope and solutions. They come as an act of faith. They come as an act of courage. Or because the mate or the parent put them in a metaphorical headlock and dragged them there under protest. They come because, from the inside of great intimacy, you’re often too close to truth to see it. They come for another, trained set of eyes and ears. They come needing someone to ask new and better questions.
But always they come suffering. People complain they are neglected. Unloved. Disrespected. They point at each other and recount behaviors ranging from peevish to untenable and intolerable. In some cases, they recount egregious betrayals or injustices.
I lock and load. I saddle up. I listen intently. Acutely. And then I say back to folks what I’ve heard. I question what I’ve heard. I sometimes doubt, out loud, what I’ve heard. I notice understatements and overstatements. I help people articulate and ‘own’ what’s going on, what they really are saying, feeling, wanting and needing.
When it works, there is a new clarity. People hear themselves more deeply and certainly more honestly. And they hear each other in a new way, or sometimes for the first time.
And now they negotiate respect. In turn, each makes a claim regarding behavior that must change. Things the other will do more. Or do less. Or never forget to do. Or categorically stop doing and never do again. It’s put up or shut up time. And the respondents say “Uh-huh … okay … I understand … I’ll try,” or sometimes they just nod. And that’s where I weigh in.
I give them a script. I ask them if they would be willing to make eye contact with the mate, parent or child, and to repeat these specific words: “I can make that commitment.”
Ever hear the ol’ saying “Actions speak louder than words”? It’s not true. On a good day it is a gross overstatement. If you mean “Words without constancy of action are meaningless words,” then I’m there. I agree. But louder than words? Nope.
It is only with words that we can make and enter a covenant. And it is only through covenants that love, intimacy, faithfulness and constancy can be realized, nurtured and sustained. I know this because I’ve lost count of the adult men and women who recount the actions of their father. He worked hard. Put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and paid for me to get an education. He came to my soccer games. He taught me to fish. And later, to drive. They tell the story of a father with a constancy of action.
And then they look sad, or even begin to cry. They begin to share an acute emptiness in the relationship. A painful distance. An inexplicably missing piece in an otherwise beautiful man. “He never said he loved me,” the patient will lament.
And I never respond by saying, “Don’t you know that actions speak louder than words? You are supposed to infer your father’s love from his constancy of action.” Nope, I move with empathy and encouragement. I acknowledge the absence of the words “I love you” as a real loss.
Until you can say “I love you,” there will be something about love that is withheld, incomplete or absent. In a courtroom, when the bailiff asks if we’ll promise to tell the truth, we say “I do.” At our wedding, when the preacher asks if we’ll take this man/woman to be our spouse forever, faithfully, no matter what, we say “I will.” If we behave badly, we say “I’m sorry. My behavior was wrong and hurtful. I hope you can forgive me.”
We don’t say “Actions speak louder than words. Just watch me and see what happens.”
Covenants are not inferred. They are forged. In words. The big ones and the little, daily ones. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Then act accordingly.
It’s not true that actions speak louder than words. What’s true is that a constancy of action makes words credible and meaningful. But, just as often, it is words that make faithful action possible. Words allow your mate and your family to receive the meaning of your actions – not merely the benefits.
Unless you can say it, there is something about it that isn’t yet entirely true.
(You may reach Steven Kalas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest who writes a regular column for this newspaper. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)