When you and your partner fight, does it feel like either of you can’t control slipping into familiar patterns of conflict that have no resolution – and it’s only later that you’re able to see how you could have reacted differently? Except that, by then, it may feel like it’s TOO late? You’ve hurt, angered, or pushed each other away in ways you never meant to.
You’re not alone.
The most consistently painful interactions I observe in my work with couples are two people unabashedly yelling at each other in noisy and blatant enmity. And once they get going, these arguments only seem to end when one or both partners give up.
A painful separation often follows until the partner who most needs reconnection from isolation can’t stay separate anymore and reaches out. The underlying injuries may be buried, but will continue their damage, hidden and unseen – further weakening the love that you and your partner depend upon.
All couples develop an argument pattern. If they don’t step back and objectively observe what they’re doing, they are bound to continue them in the same way. To break your negative conflict interactions, you need an alternative set of behaviors you can do instead.
The next time you sense a dangerous disagreement brewing between the two of you, separate from each other and write the answer to these five questions. Then reconvene and share your answers with each other.
(Make sure to practice first – when you’re not upset with each other – on a recent or familiar argument, so that you can get the hang of it. When your partner shares his or her thoughts and feelings, do not argue or question. Each of your realities is sacred, even though you may not see things the same way. Half the battle is won when each partner feels heard and supported, even if his or her position is different.)
Perhaps you’ve just come home from work and are looking forward to some much needed quiet, but your partner needs to talk about something urgent to him. Because you are focused on your own need, you may react with irritation and impatience. Your partner may misunderstand and think you are arguing about the problem he is presenting. (Or, the underlying problem could be that you are often too tired to listen and your partner is getting worked up over that.)
Stopping to examine what you’re feeling and what you need that keeps you from unconsciously reacting to each other.
If you and your partner choose to think carefully about previous relationship interactions and heed the lessons you’ve learned, you’ll often see more options sooner that were hidden before. Perhaps you’ll realize that the timing is off for you to get what you need, or you might do better if you modify what you were going to say.
By thinking about the answer before you speak to your partner, you can also add the additional advantage of discovering whether your anticipations were correct.
It is not easy to identify and feel compassion for what your partner may be thinking if you are too preoccupied in setting up your own approach.
Temporarily let go of your own worldview and sincerely try to enter the mind and heart of the one you love. What do you think they need at this moment? What do you believe their internal resources are right now? How much energy do you believe they have to give or to help solve the problem?
Looking at the situation through the eyes of your partner does not have to erase your own desire – and it goes a long way to showing how much you care.
Try imagining that a video camera is recording your disagreement while it is happening, and that you are planning to show it to someone you respect and admire later. Think of that person as an impartial observer who will give you objective information about what he or sees. How might you change the way you interact? Would you be more careful to sound more caring, listen more deeply, or give your partner more respect?
When you are able to let some part of you stay outside your interaction, it may give you the ability to hold on to the way you’d like to be, despite the intensity of your emotions.
Who have been the people in your life that you have admired? How might they behave in the same situation? Would it be different from the way you are acting? Can you recall a time when you interacted in a conflict with your partner and felt good about yourself and the outcome? What did you like about how you and your partner handled yourselves?
Most partners in committed relationships intuitively know an ideal way that people should treat each other, especially when things are not going right.
You won’t always be able to reach your relationship ideals. Forgive yourself if you’re just feeling down and can’t always do the right thing. As long as you learn from your experiences and keep your values in sight, you’ll always have another chance to practice doing it better.
Also, forgive your partner if he can’t always give you what you need. There is not one person who hasn’t behaved in a way that felt embarrassing or too hard on his or her partner. But knowing who you would like to become and keeping that ideal in mind, even when you can’t fully embrace it, will bring it closer each time you remember.
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I’ll teach you more practical ways to shift from your habitual patterns of interactions to healthier forms of communication, so that you and your partner experience deeper and deeper levels of intimacy.