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“Anger makes you smaller while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you are.”
In previous columns in this series, I have attempted to lay out the bread crumbs necessary for us to find our way back to the relationship we always wanted and perhaps thought we had. Many of us occasionally or often feel lost as we attempt to “fix” our marriage or repair a broken or damaged relationship. Most of my clients who feel this way tell me that their partner just doesn’t understand them or they don’t seem to care or they are too selfish. Interestingly, when I talk to their partner, they often file the same complaints. How can this be? How can my truth about you be the same as your truth about me? How can I “know” it is your fault while you are equally certain I am to blame?
John Gottman, the author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work explains the first step toward solving this riddle is to calm down. Sounds easy, right? Just calm down and all will be well. The problem with this advice is that few of us are Zen masters. Our emotions sometimes seem to have a will of their own. We don’t want to be triggered but it happens anyway. But how does it happen exactly? Can we slow this process down and peer into the machinery of our emotions and find our first wrong turn?
Gottman tells us it starts with our inner script. Russ Harris, the author of ACT with love, calls them stories. We don’t experience external reality the same. We filter our perceptions according to our history, prejudices, beliefs, and values. We have an inner script by which we shape our experience and as a result, our private thoughts can “become cast in stone.” We can become so attached to our story, it can put us on a fast track to high emotion.
If we believe we are being attacked, for example, we can turn to our innocent victim script. If we feel hostile toward our attacker, we might react with a righteous indignation script. Regardless of which script we are reading from, chances are it will lead us to feel emotionally overloaded or flooded. Once either partner is fused with their negative script and flooded with intense emotion, “constructive discussion is impossible.”
Gottman’s research reveals that men “are more likely to feel physiologically overwhelmed sooner than women during a heated marital exchange.” Regardless of our gender, however, once our heart rate rises to ten percent above normal, it is a sure sign of over-arousal. Continuing to engage in the conflict at this point will usually cause more damage and create more anguish for both parties.
Taking a break or a time-out from further conversation is imperative. It takes about twenty minutes or more for most of us to calm down after an intense, emotional disagreement. During the break, it is important to review and rewrite the inner script or story to include our partner’s perspective. We are not backing off to reload. We are retreating to re-examine our inflammatory self-talk and to move toward non-defensive, soothing and more validating statements.
During this break, we can practice relaxation exercises, focus on deep slow breathing or engage in light exercise like walking or riding a bike. The key, of course, is to also use this time to mind our minds. We can perform a little surgery on our scripts and stories, looking for and removing personalization, defensiveness and contempt. In its place, we might practice empathy. What is our partner’s truth? What do we admire about them? What positive values might be driving our partner or spouse to take the position they are taking right now?
One useful technique during the time-out suggested by Harris is to remember LOVE which stands for letting go, opening up, valuing and engaging. Harris states, “When you let go of blame, judgment and criticism, it is much easier to open up, act on your values and engage in what you are doing.” He suggests we hold our stories lightly, which means we step back from them and realize there is more to our relationship than these self-justifying words of pain and woe.
As we open up to our feelings, we can perhaps observe them with interest and give them all the room they need. This is also a chance to make contact with our core values, especially caring, contribution and connection. Suddenly, we can see ourselves playing a constructive role in healing the relationship instead of simply fighting to win an argument and be “right.” We can prepare to engage with our partner by being fully present with them. Instead of living in our minds and believing its stories, we can enter into the common space we share with this person we love with genuine and sincere openness.
When we are calm and re-engaged with our partner and ready to resolve our conflict, our first statements could involve an apology. When we tell someone we are sorry, we not taking full responsibility for the entire conflict. We are however, acknowledging our partner’s pain and expressing genuine sorrow for this. We are also taking responsibility for the fact that what we have done or said was a trigger for this other person and led them to feel hurt.
It is crucial at this juncture that we express an understanding of what our partner is feeling and what they were seeking or wanting from us in the previous exchange. We all want to be valued, appreciated, heard and understood. It is basic to all human beings. Providing that for our partner is essential. It is also useful to praise and compliment one another and express admiration. This is difficult if we are still angry but it will go a long way toward helping us heal our relationship after a painful dispute. Of course, this won’t work if only one of us is practicing these methods. And yet someone has to step up and begin. Too often our relationships grow weaker and less nurturing as we both wait for the other to make the first move.
I sometimes suggest that my clients approach their partner with this statement: “I am having a problem and I need your help.” These words convey responsibility and ownership. I am not blaming my partner for the problem. I own it. It is my problem because I am experiencing it. And in asking for help, I again am not blaming. I am presenting myself as someone who needs assistance with something important.
Next I need to focus on the difficult emotions I am struggling with, usually anger, sadness or fear or variants of these such as resentment, frustration, despair, hopelessness, anxiety or dread. Finally, I need to connect these emotions to my partner’s behavior. “This is what I feel when you do or say this. I don’t want to feel this. I feel angry when it seems like you are not listening to me. It is my problem but I can’t solve it without you. Can you help me figure this out?” This approach is not defensive and will usually help our partner remain in an open, receptive and non-defensive posture.
In The Mindful Couple by Robyn Walser and Darrah Westrup, we are reminded that “vitality comes from loving, not just from being loved.” Too often, we become consumed with our hurt and pain, what we are not getting, or the deep needs that aren’t being met. When we can come off the stage of our life and sit in the audience and see our conflict from another perspective, we can gain insight into the role we are playing in keeping us stuck. It is never too late to heal. We have more power than we realize. The moment to act on love is always now. We are ready for you when you are.