Family & Relationships

What’s the one thing you’re not telling me?

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I’d been feeling fatigued and irritable for several weeks – unusual, for me.

Finally, my wife sat me down one morning, looked me in the eye and said: “You’re not yourself.  What’s the one thing you’re not telling me?”

It was a technique we’d invented early in our marriage, a way of cutting through mutual defenses against uncomfortable conversations.  Secrets, large and small, we might be harboring.  More often than not, things we were hiding, from each other or even from ourselves.

Minor things:  One of us spent too much money on something the other didn’t even want to buy.  Or committed to attend a dinner party with people the other disliked.  Hid the embarrassing fact of a setback at work. Lied about forgetting to feed the cat.

Minor things have a way of becoming bigger things – especially if we stuff down the feelings that come with confronting them.  In our earlier years, I had a chronic habit of using half-truths, omission or even “misdirection” – a term of art in current political parlance – to avoid conflict.

Eventually, Patty came up with an idea – if one of us was visibly troubled, the other could ask “the one thing” question; both the asking and the answering would be considered a safe zone, no place for blame or recriminations.  It became a code: “Share your burden or worry with me, we will talk it through, and deal with it together."

This technique – call it a tip, a trick or even a “truth hack” – is useful at any stage of a relationship – but particularly so in later years, when communication patterns have hardened.  It’s a great way to break through the fog that settles over two people who’ve known each other for a long time.

Most recently, we’d returned from an overseas trip that involved some tedious air travel.  I learned that a long-time friend had just suffered a fatal heart attack.  Another friend was battling cancer.  I was brooding on my own mortality, but it seemed self-centered to acknowledge it.  I was keeping it to myself.

“What’s the one thing you’re not telling me?” asked Patty.

“I feel so tired and sad,” I said.  “I’m worried I might have a serious disease.”

Patty was empathetic.  She asked some questions and then pointed out that I had sound reasons to feel fatigued (the travel) and sad (loss of a friend, worry about another).  As for disease, she suggested that I accelerate the scheduling of my annual physical exam.

“Whatever the case, it will be helpful.”

I did just that – and was relieved to pass with high marks. 

Soon, I was my old self.

And grateful for the power of that simple question: “What’s the one thing you’re not telling me?”

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