When I was in 7th grade, my friend, John, and I sat together in the back of science class. We were an odd combination to be friends. John was the biggest jock in the class. I prefered rock and roll and hanging with the girls.
Anxiously, John told me that he liked Ellen. He felt way out of his depth. He was great on the softball field, but clueless about women. Ignoring the far less compelling lesson the teacher was trying to impart in the front of the classroom on igneous rocks, he asked me what to do.
I asked him a few questions about how he felt and what he was thinking. He poured out his heart to me. He told me that he really liked her, but was worried she didn’t like him. When he was around her he felt awkward, and couldn’t think of the right words to say. He wanted to ask her out, but didn’t want her to get the wrong idea.
I asked him if he had said any of what he told me to Ellen.
He stopped, thought for a minute, and said, “No.”
I asked him why not. He couldn’t come up with an answer. At 12, it made sense that he’d simply never thought of it. I suggested that he did have the words. All he had to do was tell her how he felt.
Then he said he was afraid. John. This guy who was twice my size and could tackle anyone on the football field was afraid of a little girl. I can’t pretend that this didn’t please me a little bit back then. I leaned over conspiratorially, looking both ways to make sure no one would hear.
“John,” I said, “Let me tell you what I’ve learned from hangin’ with the girls. They’re afraid, too! They want to talk to you, but they’re too chicken!”
“Really?!” John was surprised and thrilled.
“Sure. Take a chance. What’s the worst that can happen?”
He did, and it worked like a charm. John came back to me a pleased customer. Ellen liked him, too! She was thrilled that he approached her, and was more than happy to go out with him. I had found the magic formula, both for relationships, and my eventual career. I am a couples counselor and relationship expert.
Now I sit with people from 11 to 80, and I frequently find myself in the same scenario. A man or woman pours out their heart to me about their partner, spouse, or potential boyfriend.
After I listen to all they have to say, I ask that same question, “Have you said this to them?”
Inevitably, they hesitate, and say, “No.”
Just like with John, I ask why not. If the answer isn’t that they simply haven’t thought of it, it is usually because they are afraid. When I ask them what they are afraid of, it turns out that they are terrified that they will either get the response they don’t want, or the response they do want!
Then I ask them how they feel about not asking for what they need or want.
They sheepishly say, “I know I should speak my truth. Why won’t I?”
I tell them that’s not a feeling but a judgment and a prediction about the future, and ask again how they feel about not expressing themselves. Then they reveal that they do not feel very happy.
I explain to them that they basically have two choices. They can either be miserable, depressed, and never get what they want, or they can be afraid. If they don’t speak they’ll be the former, if they dare to reveal themselves, they are sure to feel the latter.
I’m sure that sounds like a pretty grim choice, but that’s all we shrinks have to sell: if you don’t want to have a stuck and miserable life, you need to be afraid.
Of course, as my young friend John proved, if you are willing to be afraid, then you have a chance at happiness. Then you might actually get what you want.
And amazingly, when people speak from their hearts, directly to the person who needs to hear it, whatever the outcome, it always feels better for having said it.
My clients will say that is easy for me to say. Then I tell them that I told my wife on our second date that I wasn’t interested in chit-chat, but only wanted to go out with someone who was willing to be real. How crazy was that? She could’ve said I was a nut and thrown me out, and she would have been justified. Instead, it excited her. She rose to the challenge. We were married less than a year later, and we’re still together today. Was my move risky? Sure. But I wanted to find out the truth, fast. Was she the kind of person that I wanted to spend my life with? Who has time to waste?
So what is the magic formula to a great relationship?
We shrinks are always saying that the secret to love and success is being able to listen. That’s true. Everyone wants, and needs, to be heard, so if you want to make someone feel good, listen to them.
But to have the great relationship that you dream of, you also need to learn how to talk.
I’m amazed to discover how many couples I work with never have real conversations. It upsets me how often people are given the advice, especially in the building stages of a relationship, not to reveal their wishes, desires, needs, and reactions to what is going on with the other person.
My answer to that advice is, wrong!
The formula for a successful relationship is very simple: talk. Instead of telling your therapist or your friend, tell them. (You can practice with your therapist, first.)
If you don’t reveal yourself, who is the person having a relationship with, anyway? And if you don’t get in the habit of real talk, your relationship is sure to stagnate and eventually decay.
There is nothing as brave and as exciting as being real with someone else. It gets relationships going in the first place, turns them into something deep, and keeps them vital, exciting, and sexy for a lifetime.
I’ve got 40 years of evidence to back up my theory. Give it a try. Open your heart. Reveal yourself. Talk. It’s magic.