Do you wish you had insight about what problems everyone encounters in intimate relationships? Do you find yourself wishing it wasn’t so hard? Do you believe that if you were with the right partner these difficulties wouldn’t be happening? It’s a common, though not necessarily correct reaction, to fantasise that if we were with a different partner, the “right” partner, or if our partner changed according to our desires, our troubles would be over (Bader & Pearson, 1988).
Well, you’re not alone! We all find ourselves at times in disagreement, conflict or fighting with our intimate partner. This generates feelings of tension, dissatisfaction and hopelessness over what to do about our differences. These fights can be acted out (externalised) or they can occur inside us (internalised). But in both cases we have a voice going on in our heads with a running dialogue about our partner’s faults and/or on our own inadequacies. This is not a comfortable place to be.
The bad news is that conflict is inevitable in all relationships. Both “acting out” conflict and avoiding conflict destroys intimacy and leads to alienation. “Acting out” is having an impulsive or uncontrollable outburst. The good news is that there is a way out of this. You can learn to manage impulses and outbursts. Over the last forty years much research has been done on what makes relationships healthy and how to change negative patterns of behaviour between partners. Couple therapy has become a discipline in its own right and is now recognised as a specialty with a growing research base and an increasing number of specific therapeutic models. Here are some of the things the research shows which may help you see that you’re not alone and what you can do about the differences between you and your partner.
When something upsets us about our partners, none of us know what to do.
If we say something to our partner, this can lead to more negative feelings or fights. If we don’t say anything about it, it leads to a loss of connection and bad feelings between us – which lead to fights or tension anyway. This inevitably boils down to “We can say something and become alienated, or we can keep our mouths shut and become alienated” (Wile, 1993).
The Way Out
Before saying anything, understand that behind every complaint there is a genuine desire that needs expression. Don’t say anything until you take a responsible time-out, do some self-soothing (see bottom of time-out sheet) to calm yourself down and get clear on your desire. Then rehearse in your head asking your partner for what you desire, saying it in a non-blaming way, using a gentle voice and I-statements. Only after you’ve done this preparation should you approach your partner and say it in this non-blaming way. This increases the chances of them being receptive to you, but of course, there’s no guarantee.
We respond to life with ever-changing states of mind over which we have little control.
In relationships we have little control over the state of what’s happening in ourselves and between us and our partners. Moods come over us, we don’t choose them (Ekman, 2003), passions overtake us, thoughts come without our choice. This goes against the grain of what we like to believe about ourselves. In reality, research has shown that we’re emotional beings looking for rational reasons to explain what we do. This is not flattering to our egos. But we can learn to manage what’s happening in much better ways.
The Way Out
Even though we have little control over our partner, we can learn to influence them. We can also learn to get in touch with what we’re feeling and thinking, identify the underlying desires and learn to change our reactivity. We do this by paying attention and tuning in to our fleeting states of mind. This is how we learn that emotions contain information and that they’re trying to inform us about some important desires that we have not yet recognised or effectively communicated. Repeated practicing with mindful attention teaches us to respond rather than react to situations.
We forget that our capacity to respond, and our partner’s capacity to respond, comes and goes.
When we react in a knee-jerk way we lose our capacity to respond in a way that encourages our partner to collaborate. We lose our ability to communicate what we’re feeling (we blame ourselves or our partner instead) and we don’t use “I statements” (we use “you statements” instead). We react driven by the primitive parts of our nervous system which are hard-wired into us – the fight/flight/freeze (or appease) response. Porges (2011) calls this “appeasing” behaviour our “social engagement system” which allows expression of positive emotions and social communication. But he warns that our nervous system is also constantly assessing whether others are a risk to us which triggers defensive strategies of fight-or-flight or alternatively shutdown.
So, capacities come and go, influenced by our internal and external environment. For example, if we’re feeling loving inside of us, our non-verbal behaviour communicates that, and our partner picks this up. The opposite is also true. If we feel anger or fear we communicate that too. Between 60-90% of our communication is non-verbally transmitted via our gestures, smiles or frowns, tones of voice, pace of speech, how close/distant we stand to our partner etc.
The Way Out
Even though we can’t stop our knee jerk reactions, we can learn to manage them. We (and our partner) can’t choose to turn reactions off completely, but we can learn new emotional behaviours which help us adapt to our life circumstances. Create a self-soothing list of things you can do to calm down while taking a responsible time-out, so you can choose to come back to your partner with a considered response instead of a reaction.
When we can’t communicate our main feeling (which is most of the time) we generate symptoms.
Symptoms can range from small things like a flash of sadness, a lapse of concentration, a desire to withdraw to bigger things like sleep and appetite disturbances, excessive drinking, cutting our partner out of our awareness or angry outbursts. It is common for us to have fleeting emotions following after one another. We all can have two emotions which happen in rapid sequence over and over, or more rarely two emotions merging into a blend (Ekman, 2003). We can also have feelings about feelings, for example we can become afraid that we’re angry or glad that we’re sad. Because we’re not aware that all this is happening, we can’t express it adequately. So we experience vague, uncomfortable feelings which generate symptoms like feeling hopeless, thinking we’re with the wrong partner or blurting out hurtful words.
The Way Out
We’re constantly picking up and giving out verbal and non-verbal communication and are rarely aware that we’re doing it. Work on improving your own reactivity and give up expecting your partner to change. He or she is struggling just as much as you are with all these feelings, thoughts and behaviours. You’re normal and you can also learn new skills to change the ways you interact.
Not communicating our main feeling leads to alienation. Respectfully communicating our main feeling leads to intimacy.
When we can let our partner know in collaborative and respectful ways what we’re thinking and feeling, and we sense they understand, it leads to intimacy. We also can create intimacy when we communicate to our partner that we understand their feelings and thoughts, even though we may not agree with them. Emotional intimacy plays a huge role in stabilising love relationships which is why relationships are “people growing-machines” (Schnarch, 2009). Intimacy and sexual desire push us to develop what Schnarch calls our “Four Points of Balance” (2009).
The Way Out
Practice developing the Four Points of Balance, which are:
1) a more flexible yet solid self – where we learn to be clear about who we are and what we think, feel and desire, especially when our partner is pressuring us to change according to what they need.
2) a quiet mind and calm heart – developing the ability to self-soothe, calm down, manage our own anxieties and hurts instead of trying to change our partner.
3) grounded responding – managing to stay calm and managing our own over-reactions instead of trying to control our partner or withdrawing when they or we get upset.
4) meaningful endurance – learning to step up and face the issues in you and between you, as well as growing your ability to tolerate discomfort in the interests of growth.
Know that in a fight, neither we nor our partner can make our point clearly.
What makes a fight is that our point conflicts with our partner’s point. And most of us have not been taught how to fight well. This results in “dirty fighting” – we make it a personal attack on our partner’s being rather than focusing on the issue. A common issue is “how can we communicate better about our feelings”. For example, Anne wants her partner Bruce to agree (her point) that he should talk more about his feelings. Bruce won’t agree because his belief (his point) is that it’s better not talk about feelings because Anne gets upset when he does. Anne then tells Bruce he’ll probably never talk about his feelings anyway “because he’s just like his father” (personal attack/criticism). Bruce then defends himself by arguing that he’s not like his father and she always nags him about something (personal criticism). Anne then begins to defend herself, Bruce shuts down and they’ve both moved away from the issue, which doesn’t get addressed or resolved. Any new point Anne makes at this stage immediately draws out the opposite point from Bruce, because they’ve gone into a fight/flight/freeze response.
The Way Out
a) Are you in a state where you’re willing to fix the problem? If not, take a time-out before attempting to fix it.
b) Are you clear about the problem so you can attack that and not your partner? Write down what the problem is for you
c) can you see your partner’s point of view as well as your own? You don’t have to agree with their point of view, but it’s inevitable that we have different perspectives on everything. We have different bodies and nervous systems, have had different upbringing and experienced different things. These differences are what attracted you to each other in the first place! Now they annoy or worry you.
7. Know that in a fight you’ll insist that you’re not fighting but your partner is. And they’re doing the same.
In the example above Anne says “You’re being defensive”. Bruce says “No I’m not, you’re being critical”. Anne replies with “I’m not being critical; I’m just telling you how I feel”. You can see how Anne & Bruce aren’t fighting about the issue of how they can communicate better about feelings, but about whose fault it is they’re fighting and whose behaviour is to blame. That becomes a whole new issue which also won’t get resolved. Both of them are now stuck in what the Gottmans (2006) call the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling. Research says these behaviours predict relationship failure, if left unchecked.
The Way Out
Stop the Four Horsemen with their Antidotes. The Gottmans (2006) suggest you do this instead –
Stop Criticism – Complain without Blame. We all have complaints about our partner. That’s inevitable. Learn to express the desire beneath your complaint in respectful, clear, specific and immediate ways.
Stop Defensiveness – Take Responsibility. Practice the “softened start-up” by bringing up problems in a gentle, non-confrontational way. Acknowledge what your partner says about their feelings and thoughts before sharing your own. Look for the longing/desire beneath each other’s complaints.
Stop Contempt – Build a Culture of Appreciation. Make a conscious effort to notice what your partner does well. Catch them in the act of “getting it right” and tell each other every day what you appreciate about the other.
Stop Stonewalling – Do Physiological Self-Soothing. Take a responsible time-out. Compile a list of up to 20 things you can do to calm yourself down during your time-out. Examples are: make a cup of tea, have a bath/shower, go for a walk, play with the dog, do push-ups, listen to soothing music, play a video game, read a book, do some exercise etc. Keep this list on you, for example in your phone, so it’s with you at all times. Refer to your list during your time-out because we don’t remember what’s on it when we go into our fight/flight/freeze/appease response. Take action and do something from your list for a minimum of 20 minutes. That’s the minimum time it takes for your wise thinking to come back online.
Our thinking is largely about self-justification.
If we look underneath many of our moods, complaints, exchanges with our partner, disputes and symptoms we often find that we’re trying to justify blaming either ourselves or our partner. This is our unwise thinking/reactivity operating. Anne may begin by thinking something like “I’m too demanding, needy, screwed-up” but then she self-justifies with something like “I have a right to my feelings too. The problem isn’t me, it’s him.” Bruce might start by thinking “I don’t talk to Anne as much as I should. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, I’m too detached” which he turns into a self-justification something like “I’ve worked hard all day. I need some time to chill out. She’s the one with the problem.”
The Way Out
Recognise that your relationship is a system. That means when you do something, your partner responds or reacts. That response triggers a response in you, which triggers a response in them. This can be used in a positive way. The only instrument for change we possess is ourselves, how we act, what we choose to focus on. You improve your reactions and practice responses in relationship by making an experimental move like speaking more softly, recapping what your partner said, then see what your partner does with that. Adjust your behaviour based on their response. You’re connected to each other, so be willing to see what’s in front of you and willing to change what you’re doing that isn’t working.
Many of the problems described above come from feeling unentitled to feelings.
Over the course of any day we have many feelings, some we’re ashamed of. We then judge ourselves for being bad, lazy, immature, weak, crazy and so on. This makes us feel even worse. Wile (1993) gives us a list of some of the ineffective things we do with all this: we lose the ability to get our feelings across; we develop symptoms; we go into alienated states of mind; we experience a decreased sense of intimacy; we lose our capacities, especially our capacity to think wisely; we self-blame; we self-justify; we blame our partners; we fight or withdraw; we try to keep our mouth shut and then blurt stuff out when provoked. This is what normal relationships look like when under stress. These are normal, but not very skillful responses.
The Way Out
We all need to learn and practice skills to manage ourselves during times of conflict and stress. Wile (1993) says these skills fall under four principles which support healthy relationship dynamics:
- The “need-to-get-something-across” principle. Practice taking a time-out so you can figure out what you need to get across to your partner in any given moment. This will stop you generating symptoms which are unhelpful for you and the relationship.
- The “hidden-validity” principle. Focus on what is valid in your reaction. What are your reactions informing you about? This is useful information about your unmet desires.
- The “victim-and-joint-victims” principle. Recognise that you’re not “doing it to yourself” nor is your partner intentionally “doing it to you”. You’re both victims of being stuck in old cycles of reacting, feeling trapped and deprived because you don’t yet know how else to respond.
- The “platform” principle. Take a time-out so you can come to a more neutral, non-anxious, non-blaming, non-defensive stance from which to attempt to resolve the issues.
We all need help to learn new skills and to put them into practice in ways that help us and our relationship. Don’t underestimate the value of going to a qualified couples counsellor who is specifically trained in couples work. This is my field of study. My passion is to help people like you to break out of old destructive patterns and develop new ways of being in relationship.
You deserve the best trained relationship coaches if you’re planning to invest time and money in your relationship. If you’re not ready to book an appointment, call us on 0421 961 687 to book a FREE 10 minute phone consultation to discuss how we may be able to assist you.
Bader, E. & Pearson, P. T. (1988). In quest of the mythical mate: A developmental approach to diagnosis and treatment in couples therapy. Florence, KY: Brunner/Mazel.
Conflict Resolution Network (n.d). Fighting Fair: How you can both win. Retrieved from http://www.crnhq.org/templates/Original/pdf/poster.pdf
Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed: Understanding faces and feelings. London, England: Phoenix.
Gottman, J.M. & Schwartz Gottman, J. (2006). 10 lessons to transform your marriage. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Porges, S.S. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York, NY: Norton.
Schnarch, D. (2009). Intimacy and Desire. New York, NY: Beaufort Books.
Wile, D. B. (1993). After the fight: Using your disagreements to build a stronger relationship. New York., NY: The Guildford Press.