Have you ever confided in your friends, “Why do I have so much trouble communicating with my partner?” or “Why do I end up saying things that hurt my partner, when I would never say such things to anyone else? What happened to that wonderful connection in the beginning and how can I get it back?”
Many people experience regret after a difficult argument, believing they have succeeded in eroding trust in the one person with whom they want closeness.
Alan E. Fruzzetti Phd has written a book entitled The High Conflict Couple, A Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy and Validation that I often use as a reference with couples. This is a book full of hope for all couples. It is useful for couples experiencing even minor conflict, trying to deal with the normal stress of balancing busy lives. Although the book covers many facets of the process of handling conflict, I will focus this blog on the issue of handling emotions during conflict.
The title refers to Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT, a cognitive behavioral therapy developed by Marsha Linehan, Phd at the University of Washington. The focus of this therapy is on acceptance and validation as a first step in changing behavior, along with learning the skills of mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. Let’s be honest: it’s hard enough to use these skills on yourself when you are in a bad place, feeling anxious, negative or depressed. How, therefore, do you use them when you feel particularly negative about your partner?
The author points out that couples often end up feeling judgmental, distant and angry after an argument, and the last thought on their minds is to reach out to their partner with acceptance. When I see a couple in therapy, one or both has often forgotten that, at the point a conflict began, they wanted closeness and instead were left feeling angry. They are often aghast, saying, “You want me to agree with what my partner is saying?!” But acceptance doesn’t mean agreement; it means seeing that the situation is not a win/lose situation, it isn’t about right or wrong but just about difference. It is possible that there is room for both opinions, and it is possible to find a grain of truth on either side of an argument.
In addition, it can be extraordinarily difficult to admit one feels vulnerable, in need of attention and love from another person. We all hear how admirable it is to be self-sufficient and independent. It is therefore easier sometimes to be angry and self-righteous than to express what may seem like our embarrassing needs and wants, which perhaps exposes us to being humiliated or disappointed.
Fruzzetti and others talk about primary emotions that are universal, such as disappointment, fear and contentment. Secondary emotions (feelings about feelings) are described as reactions to primary reactions, and involve judgments, blame and critical thoughts. Judgments can be destructive to a relationship and tend to provoke the other person to do the same. Then we find ourselves in a cycle of escalating accusations that increases our judging. When you are feeling hurt, how easy it is to say to your partner, “You are the one with the problem, not me!”
So, what can you do? How can you build up your relationship instead of reacting to feelings and tearing it down?
One way out of the cycle of blaming is to catch yourself when you notice you are judging your partner or defending yourself. If you can calm yourself down, your criticism of your partner should calm down, too. Here are some steps to follow to achieve this:
- Stop and mentally “step to the side” of the emotional situation.
- Practice describing to yourself just the facts of your disagreement without evaluation.
- Practice deep breathing. Concentrate on your senses, tuning in to what you see or hear right in front of you.
- Take your own version of a “time out” until you feel your body calming down and your anger and hurt receding. Your mind will slow down as well as the judgmental thoughts you may be having about yourself or your partner.
DBT talks about this cycle as being caught in “our emotional mind.” When in your emotional mind, the actions you may choose can feel right or satisfying in the short run, but be disastrous in the long run. Remind yourself that the only way to have your way all the time is to be alone, and as appealing as that may be when you are upset, it may not be what you truly want. Deep down, most of us want someone who “has our back” and will be around when the chips are down.
Fruzzetti’s book has a chapter entitled “How To Stop Making Things Worse.” He suggests to think about how being critical will only make your relationship worse, despite how much you feel you have a “right” to be judgmental. He goes on to suggest that you focus on the consequences of continuing to fight and the ultimate futility of trying to pinpoint who is right, when so many arguments are about opinions and issues, not absolutes. Finally, he recommends that you should rehearse ending an argument gracefully. As an example of what not to do, I have a friend who used to say his spouse couldn’t take yes for an answer. When he agreed that he had made a mistake or had been insensitive, his partner kept making the point in another way in order to keep up the conflict. Sometimes, it seems emotionally safer to be “right” than to feel close, open-hearted, and vulnerable.
Above all, try to begin with yourself, to view your own imperfections with compassion and tolerance. Showing more compassion for yourself – seeing yourself as a person with complex, contradictory, and confusing thoughts and feelings – will enable you to see that in your partner and to react with more understanding and acceptance of your partner’s imperfections.
Ultimately, friendliness and compassion for yourself leads to understanding and closeness with your partner. And solving problems with negotiation and compromise, not conflict and extreme emotions, seems to soothe all our souls.