Want to know what marriage is really like? Let me paint you a picture.
We’re in the kitchen, when Greg opens the fridge and does a double take.
“Why is there so much food in the fridge? Do we have people coming round, or something?”
He knows the answer already. I’ve mentioned it at least twice, once when we were talking business last weekend and again as we played with the kids at the park.
“Yup. Annie and Susie are coming to stay at the weekend”
His response, let’s say, is not what I expect.
“Well. That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
Ever experienced something similar with your other half? A time when it felt like they’d totally ignored something you’d clearly told them at least once?
Did you fly off the handle, accuse them of ignoring you, or seethe inwardly at the fact that for the hundredth time the thing you’ve told them has taken second place to sports fixtures, historical trivia, or whatever else they deem to matter more than your words?
Marriage, or indeed any loving partnership, is a wonderful and deeply beautiful thing. But beyond the wedding photos, special dinners and mushy moments (I’m not knocking them for a second) are the thousands, millions perhaps, of interactions just like the one Greg and I had in our kitchen that day.
Opportunities to connect – or withdraw.
To confront – or surrender.
How about you? When was the last time you had a communication breakdown with your partner? Think back to it now, because today I want to share a really helpful reframe that helped give me a different perspective on these kinds of interactions, and what they mean to me.
The difference in how we think
I am a big fan of anything that brings us a greater understanding of what makes us tick, and more capacity to empathise with other people’s behaviour.
That’s why I’ve found it so helpful to learn about the science of how our brains can work in vastly different ways.
So, let’s dig into what’s really going on in the interaction I described.
Ignoring… or interruption?
So in the example above, the scenario was pretty clear from my perspective. I’d told Greg numerous times about the plans for the weekend, and he’d chosen to ignore me, right?
Previously, I would certainly have taken it personally. After all, I know that when it comes to certain other facts – historical dates, the price of gold, all kinds of random (and from my perspective pretty irrelevant) trivia – are lodged in his brain indelibly. And yet when it comes to important information about guests in our house, apparently it just wasn’t important enough to hold on to.
What changed that tendency to take things personally was when I learned about the modal tendency some people – including Greg – have wired right into their brains.
No idea what I’m talking about? Read on.
The ‘modal’ model
What I learned after looking at some really fascinating research is that some people’s brains, especially when they’re in instinctive or ‘animal’ states tend to be much more “modal” than others.
That is to say, they tend to be focused on one task or problem, with anything not directly related to solving that problem being filtered out as having less significance.
In other words, when I mentioned our upcoming guests in the context of a business meeting, Greg was focused on the specific challenge we were discussing in that moment. He wasn’t ignoring me – he simply wasn’t registering its relevance outside of that context.
The same thing happened when we were having family time with the kids. Playground time meant playground time for Greg – not time to plan ahead, think about guests, or wonder what the fridge would look like when he opened it on Friday morning.
The strengths of modal thinking
Now, when I discovered my husband hadn’t heard a word I’d said I could have easily jumped straight into anger. But the more I learn about the way other people’s brains work, the more I appreciate the strengths that way of thinking can bring.
Narrow, deep focus allows problems to be solved all the way through to completion. The focus is on finding the solution to that one priority – which makes for incredibly efficient, focused resolution to even complex problems.
It’s a fantastic way to combat stress, because wider worries and awareness of things which aren’t directly relevant is swiftly filtered out by the modal brain. Greg definitely hadn’t been worrying about how we’d be taking care of our guests when they arrived, after all.
When we start to recognize that the ability to think modally is a distinctive thing, we can not only have compassion. We can start to admire it. That way of thinking is a real gift – it allows them to be completely present, immersed and ‘in flow’ in what they’re doing.
What’s more, it gives us clues as to how to make future interactions more positive.
How to interact with a modal thinker
Male or female, partner or boss, when you’re interacting with someone whose brain works in this modal way there are 3 key things to bear in mind.
1. Firstly, be aware of this tendency.
If your partner is a one-task-at-a-time kind of guy, it might be worth doing what Greg and I do and allocating specific slots in the week to talk about things you need to. We have 3 meetings: one for business, one for life admin, and one for finances. If you’re not running a business you probably need less, but the principle is the same: by allocating a time to talk about the topics you need to cover, you’ll avoid the spontaneous interruptions that modal thinkers find so challenging.
2. If you need to interrupt, do so thoughtfully.
Just as with my toddler, if it’s appropriate then touch can be a great way to signal that a change in topic is needed. Ask permission: is it OK if I interrupt you for a minute? And wait until you get a clear “yes” before launching into what you’re saying. A non-committal “uh-huh” or silence probably indicates you don’t yet have their full attention.
3. Ask them what they need
You might suspect your partner is a modal thinker, but nothing beats having a conversation to find out their perspective. I don’t mean launching into a “I’ve diagnosed you with this problem I read about on the internet” next time you have a disagreement, tempting as that might sound. But you could try asking your partner “How does it feel when you’re interrupted from something you’re doing?” or suggesting you agree a way to deal with logistics when it comes to your home.
What marriage is really like
So, to return to my original question – what’s marriage really like? For us at least, it’s a journey of learning.
Of noticing what causes emotions to run high, and getting curious about why that might be.
It might be to do with brain chemistry, personal triggers, or something that’s totally unique to you. Either way, it’s worth exploring what you can learn about each other and instead of taking the patterns personally, asking what they can teach you to appreciate in your partner. Choosing to understand, admire and celebrate our differences only deepens our connection with each other.
How about you? Have you found a niggle or source of friction that you were able to investigate and turn into a strength? Let us know in the comments below.
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