When we are in a long-term relationship we sometimes find that we are caught in conflicts that make us feel crazy. We don't understand what the other person is talking about and they don't seem to understand what it is we are trying to tell them. Often this is about the time couples give up on their partnership and call it quits. Why does this happen? How can we stop it?
It happens because we are animals. Yes, essentially we are human animals driven by instincts we don't have conscious awareness of, but that are driving our behavior nonetheless. It's not terribly complicated, though it's not all that easy to change. Understanding what drives us, why we react the way we do, and why our spouses are reacting the way they are helps us move through it to a (hopefully) happy resolution.
We can stop it, but it's sometimes really hard. To begin with, recognize that whatever it seems like the conflict is about is not what it's really about. I know it's hard to accept, but what you are really upset about is it not that he didn't call when he said he would or that she got upset with you for being late. That may be what triggered the discussion, but it is not the source of the upset.
When we feel we are being attacked or threatened in someway, we feel we are the Victim, and the offending person (our partner) is the Villain (perpetrator, bad guy, whatever) on an emotional level. We may know intellectually that this person is our lover, our spouse, our intimate partner, but we don't feel that way when we are feeling attacked or threatened. On an emotional level, we are the Victim and they are the Villain. As long as we are emotionally in this place, our relationship is ultimately doomed.
Our instinct then, is to attack back in order to feel safe or that we are protecting ourselves. I call taking this the "Self-Protector" position. Of course, if we are "Rescuers" we might instead let our partner off the hook by saying, "Oh, it's okay. I'm sorry, I am getting upset over nothing," thereby placating our partner and avoiding a fight. The end result is the same. We haven't stopped feeling like a Victim and they are still the Villain in our heart.
So if fighting back or placating is not the answer, what is? How do we stop the craziness?
The answer is simple, but not easy. We take ownership of our part in whatever upset our partner, or of what is upsetting us, and then provide empathy and respect for our partner. This is what it looks like:
Sara: “John, you said you were going to be here at 8:00, and when you didn't get here or even call, I got worried. Then I felt hurt and like I don't matter to you. Can you tell me what was going on with you?”
John: “My being late was unavoidable. My boss called a last minute meeting because sales are down and it ran over, then I had to go by my mother’s to help her with her car and I lost track of time. To be honest, I knew you would be mad that I was late and I just couldn't deal with it right then. I was too stressed. I know it must have hurt, I really didn't mean to hurt you, but I can see that I did. I am sorry.”
Sara: (Crying) “You were afraid I would be mad? Of course I was mad. You let me down, but I can see that if you were stressed you wouldn't want to face it right then. I am sorry my anger makes it hard for you to talk to me. I'll work on that.”
Obviously, Sara and John are able to be really respectful, honest, and not reactive. It's really hard to not be reactive when we have been hurt, but taking the time to find out what is going on with our partner (using whatever words we can muster) allows us to step back and see them as a human being, with problems and issues of their own, and not merely our offender.
To do this we have to be able to do something called "Containment.” Containment is where we hold back on expressing our reactions to something before hearing the other person out. We listen thoroughly to what is really going on before we respond. This allows us to get the whole story and the feelings behind it before saying our piece. Containment is a skill that has to be learned consciously and requires attention and intention to accomplish, but it can be done, and it's so worth it.
The next time you are caught up in one of those crazy making discussions, try this. Shut up, contain your reactions, listen, and then start "mirroring" your partner and ask them to tell you more. Mirroring is when you say back to your partner what you are hearing them say. It's not parroting them word for word, but summarizing and re-phrasing what you have heard, then checking it out. "Did I get that right?" or "Is that right?" Ask for more: "Is there anything else?" "What else?" "What else can you tell me about it?" or "Is there more?" When they have said all they can say about it, see if you can find something in what they have said to empathize with, even if you don't agree with them, before you respond.
Most of the time, once you have fully heard your partner out, your reaction will be quite different than it was initially. Suddenly our defensiveness is down and we have a chance to respond to our partner with ownership of our part, empathy for what they are going through, and respect for who they are.