Getting curious instead of furious


Quite often when I work with couples, and also other family dyads, I notice that people get themselves wound up and heated about common misunderstandings. Once the people involved allow themselves to calm down and talk about what was bothering them, they find out that they were misinterpreting each other, adding projections from their own past, or misunderstanding what the other person intended to say. A lot of the problems stem from not just what is said, but how things are said (e.g., in a sharp, aggressive tone of voice or with threatening or disrespectful gestures). This is where the interpretations and projections from the past go wild, usually. It’s very hard to stay centered and rational when you’re being flooded with emotional responses that have as much to do with an abusive past, as with what is happening now.

This is why I recommend first that people have a weekly check-in as a couple. Sit down without any distractions (social media, phones, television, computer, kids) and talk as calmly as you can about one thing you liked that your partner did, and one thing you didn’t like. Take turns (even use an egg timer to ensure that both get a chance to speak). Then reflect back what you heard your partner say. Be open and humble enough to be corrected. If you’re doing the correcting, don’t shame the person (e.g., “You’re so stupid, I can’t believe that’s what you thought I said!”). Instead, say, “No, that’s not what I intended to say; this is….” A book that is very helpful to couples (and any) communication is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, which helps people be responsible for their own emotional reactions and not blame and shame each other.

The second thing I recommend is that if you find yourself in an argument and you just can’t fathom where this person is coming from, take a moment, breathe deeply, and then tell them, “I don’t think I understand what you are saying/intending. Help me understand, please.” I know, easier said than done, right? But it can make a world of difference between having a horrible night fighting for hours, or helping the other person clarify what they want to communicate. Each of you has the right to be heard, understood and validated. Each of you has a unique perspective that is equally valid to the other’s. Don’t lose sight of that when you have disagreements. There may be a perfectly valid reason the person is saying or doing what they are right now; you just don’t have the magic decoder ring to understand it. Even when they explain it to you, it still may not make sense, but stick with it and you will have a better chance at “getting” your beloved’s point of view.

Third, I suggest that both partners keep in mind, “what is the end game?” Is it to be right and lord that over the other person like a kid in the school yard, or to remain happily together for a long time? Is what you are defending, or fighting about, important enough to risk alienating the other person and having bitterness and resentment between you? Is it something that you might laugh about later, saying “I can’t believe we fought about that! How silly!” I ask people who get angry to rate how important this matter you’re getting upset about is, on a scale of 1-10. If you can honestly say it’s above a five, ask yourself why that’s important to you. If it’s below a five, consider letting it go unless it’s emblematic of a greater sense of disrespect and pain in the relationship.

With Valentine’s Day coming up next month, I thought I might arm those of you in relationships with a few pointers to get through that holiday. It has its own set of expectations and cultural meanings that sometimes get in the way of really enjoying each other. If you think that your relationship is in trouble and could use more help, please call me at 661-233-6771.

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