Nancy Dreyfus remembers the moment vividly. It was about 20 years ago, and the Wynnewood, Pa., psychotherapist was trying to referee a squabble between a hypercritical wife and her emotionally battered husband.
The wife attacked relentlessly, faulting her husband at one point for an "asinine" business decision. He responded by becoming more mute and withdrawn.
Reminded of her own parents' hostile exchanges, Dreyfus felt suddenly powerless. At her wits' end, she scribbled on a scrap of paper, "Talk to me like I'm someone you love!"
She handed the paper to the man and whispered, "Hold it up to her."
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He did so, and instantly his wife softened. The tone of the conversation changed, and soon the couple was discussing matters like friends.
Dreyfus was impressed by the power of written words to heal a relationship rupture. She compiled a bunch of such messages, copied them at Kinko's, and bound them with a ring, handing them out to clients to help them manage their conflicts.
These "flash cards for real life" were a hit. In 1993, she published them in book form. Now, she's peddling a revised and expanded version, bearing the poignant title that started it all, "Talk to Me Like I'm Someone You Love" (Tarcher/Penguin, $16.95).
The book offers 101 flash cards, ranging from the simple and succinct ("You are being a bully") to the more complex and wordy ("I'm in knots. I'm afraid to tell you my truth, and it's a horrible feeling that I have to humor you").
The cards are grouped under nine headings ("Shifting Gears," "Feeling Vulnerable," "Apologizing," etc.), and each is accompanied by explanatory "field notes," giving examples of the card in action.
Dreyfus calls the book "a first-aid kit for swiftly generating goodwill and restoring intimacy in exchanges that have gone off course."
"Couples who are happiest have repair mechanisms," Dreyfus said recently in her home office. "They may argue a lot, but they have some strand of warmth and connection. The problem is not conflict; it's conflict without warmth. It's not what you're arguing about; it's whether or not you're hearing each other and connecting."
It's how you say it
Dreyfus, 60, believes that life is hard, that the universe can be benevolent, that childhood needs and wounds play out inevitably in adulthood, that we all yearn for connection, that we are never upset for the reason we think, and that what matters in our interpersonal clashes is not so much the content as the context.
"This," Dreyfus writes, "is the real arena — how the two of you are treating each other in the moment."
In other words, it's not so much what you say as how you say it, which is a major virtue of the flash cards. In printed form, the words are "purer," Dreyfus says, than the same words spoken, especially in times of strife. They are free of "toxic tonals," the infection of inflection, hints of insincerity, sarcasm, exasperation.
Merely displaying a flash card suggests a willingness to forsake pride for a bridge. "It's an act of kindness, an act of giving and receiving," Dreyfus says. "And as corny as it sounds, giving and receiving are the building blocks of love."
Bruce and Annie Kirkpatrick of Wynnewood, both 44, are Dreyfus clients who are enthusiastic about the flash cards. They began using them three years ago and keep the book in the kitchen, within easy reach. They have read and reread the messages often and committed many to memory. They have found them useful as well in parenting their two children.
Bruce refers to the cards as "crutches," "helpful aids," and "a tool kit full of simple eloquence that puts things to right."
"When you're in the heat of an argument, it's like having a more powerful vocabulary," says Bruce, a real estate broker. "It gives scale and perspective to something that seems like a big ugly issue. Using her tools reduces it and takes a lot of the bluster and B.S. out of the moment."
Adds Annie: "We both melt into this little truth, and the argument defuses into humor. Sometimes it reminds me that my tonals are too strong. It creates a timeout so I can pull back into myself and regroup."
'For the clued-in and the clueless'
Regrouping, an effective strategy, is often employed by the emotionally astute. Dreyfus admits that in her experience, women often fit that bill more than men. But she insists that the book is not aimed at one gender and that both women and men can benefit.
"The book is for the clued-in and the clueless," Dreyfus says, "and we're all clueless when we get triggered. It's wonderful for men for whom this is all new." While women generally are better than men at intimacy, "when it comes to going deeper, we're as wounded as men."
Dreyfus began her writing career as a prizewinning featurers writer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in the early '70s.
While reporting a story about transcendental meditation, she tried it and experienced herself as "a relatively relaxed person," a novel and delicious state that provoked an epiphany. She quit journalism to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology at Hahnemann.
"I realized that telling people about all the anger, fear, and misery in the world only creates more anger, fear, and misery," Dreyfus says of the decision to leave newspapers. "I decided I could do more for world peace by helping people deal with the grievances they have with the person they woke up with this morning."
She still considers herself a crusader, but she expresses the urge today through couples therapy.
"Until we learn to make peace under our own roofs, there will be no peace in the world," Dreyfus says. "Imagine a world where annoyances are short-lived, disagreements don't become wars, people take responsibility as easily as they screw up, and conflict is assumed to be only the first step toward intimacy."