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Friday, February 10, 2017

Will you Help me Learn How to Better Love you?

In working with couples for over four decades, I have rarely heard intimate partners ask each other what they could do or say that would make the other feel more loved. I’m much more likely to hear self-serving statements like: “Why don’t you just remember what makes me happy?” “No matter what I do for you, it’s just never enough.” “You just never get me, do you?” “Why is it always about you? Don’t you ever want to know what I want?” “Why do you keep hurting me this way? Don’t you even care?”

Why is it that people, who once cared deeply for one another, seem so intent on getting their own needs met, and no longer interested in how they can love their partners more successfully? Why do long-term committed couples, who once seemed to care about the other’s deeper feelings and thoughts, become partners who are content to know each other by old assumptions and observations?
If you are an intimate partner who hasn’t kept up to date on your significant other’s internal feelings and thoughts, you are not alone. Many people become lazy in long-term relationships and just adjust and adapt to things as they are, forgetting that successful relationships depend and thrive upon continual regeneration. People get too easily caught up in other life priorities, assuming that if something is important, it will somehow find its way to the surface.
If they have made a practice of avoiding searching for each other’s more vulnerable inner worlds, many intimate partners, instead, engage in repetitive, negative interactions that they seem unable to adequately resolve. In my working with them, it quickly becomes apparent that they are unable to do so because they have either never shared some of their deeper thoughts and feelings with their partners, or buried them because they created a threat to the relationship.
When I observe those kinds of limited or superficial interactions in their therapy sessions, Im reasonable certain they have done exactly that. Without either never have known each other’s deeper fears, traumas, and vulnerabilities, never have known them, or forgotten them, they are unable to go beyond what they have practiced. 
If they are willing to re-open a genuine exploration of what they may have missed in the past, suppressed, or are currently ignorant of, I can take them to a place of a more genuine connection and re-open their hearts to a deeper and more alive connection.
I’ve designed an exercise that will get them there. It’s called “How Can I Make You Feel Better Loved by Me?” It is in two parts. The first has each partner asking a series of two sets of unique questions designed to identify his or her past or current hidden fallibilities, wishes, vulnerabilities and genuine wishes. It gives the listening partner needed information he or she needs to restart, rehabilitate, and regenerate their love for the other.
The second part is when the partner who has written down the answers to those questions, shares them with his or her partner. The partner listening does not comment, but simply listens with compassion and interest, even if they are surprised, defensive, or emotionally moved.
If you are ready and willing to challenge your own relationship limitations, I invite you to try this exercise together.
How Can I Make You Feel Better Loved by Me?
One partner will ask the two sets of questions in order. The first set of questions uncovers words and actions that can help that partner feel more deeply known, safe, and cherished. The second set of questions brings forth any words or actions that may hurt, offend, or distance that partner. The partner being asked silently writes down the answers to both sets of questions, one at a time, but does not share those answers during this part of the exercise.
The listening partner does not comment or interrupt. He or she is there just to take the information, to listen with compassion, and to more deeply understand who that other person feels and thinks.
At the end of the first set of questions, the partner answering them then reads the answers aloud and the inquirer listens but does not comment.
The couple then sits quietly for a short while to let the new information sink in while keeping their hearts open to each other. Without any more exchange, the second set of questions is asked and the same procedure follows.
The couple decides who should go first and they then alternate the exercise.
Section One Questions – Words and phrases that soften and heal
Whether from childhood, media experiences, fantasies, or past relationships, every man and woman know some of the words, phrases, or behaviors that would melt their hearts. Though many of them may be easy to know and share, others may be harder to access, especially if they’ve been hidden by traumas from the past. Some may even be embarrassing to share, especially out loud or expressed for the first time. They answers will also be strongly influenced by voice intonation, body language, facial expressions, rhythm, timing, and touch.
If you are the first person to start answering the questions, you will respond by writing the answers down on paper after your partner asks you each of them. If there are specific past experiences that come up when you think of them, jot them down as well. When you share these with your partner later, they will help him or her understand you better.
If you are the listener, you will be simultaneously listening to what your partner is telling you from the past while imagining whether or not what he or she is sharing is taking place in your current relationship as well.
1)    Think of someone from your childhood with whom you felt safe and cherished. Can you remember the sound of that person’s voice, and the words he or she used that gave you those wonderful feelings?
2)    What kinds of words or touch help you the most when you are already feeling badly about something you’ve done?
3)    When you are feeling insecure or shaky about your own value, what phrases could I utter that helps you feel better about yourself?
4)     What is the best way I can respond when you are irritated or upset that would help quiet your distress?
5)    When you feel depressed or pulled in, what is the best way I could respond that would help you to feel better?
6)    When you are distressed but can’t understand why, what would be the best way for ne to respond?
7)    When you need something but are afraid to ask, how can I make that easier for you?
8)    What are the words, phrases, or behaviors that you see in others that would melt your heart were they to come from me instead? In what kinds of circumstances do they occur?
9)    If you are angry or hurt at me, what is the best way for me to help you to sort through your feelings and thoughts?
Section Two Questions – Words, Phrases, or Behaviors that hurt or distance
All of us have been hurt or betrayed in some way in our lives. Sometimes those experiences leave traumatic scars or trigger-quick negative responses that we may not even see coming. If we haven’t shared those with our partner, he or she can misunderstand the severity of a past experience, and may inadvertently respond incorrectly. Even though it might not, in any way, be appropriate to your current relationship, the person re-experiencing the trauma may feel as if it is again happening in the present.
Past traumas are not always easy to share, but if they are tap roots that could damage or destroy your current relationship, your partner can only help you if he or she knows what they are. Also, certain words, phrases, or actions are easy to misinterpret if the partners come from different backgrounds. When a partner is sharing a painful or embarrassing thought or feeling, he or she is often overly sensitive or vulnerable. If they are not interpreted correctly, they can be hurtful when not meant to be. That is why silent and compassionate responses are important.
Following are the questions that tap those potentially painful places. Again, if you are the speaker, write the answers down. Try to include any memories you have of when those experiences occurred and how they caused you distress.
Again, as the listener, you may become aware that you have inadvertently or unknowingly said or done some of the things your partner will share with you. Though that may be painful to hear and realize, do not tell your partner at this time.
1)    What are any traumatic experiences that have happened in your life that have left heartbreak scars, and the words and actions that accompanied them?
2)    What are some of the words or actions that I might say that can make you feel defensive or badly about yourself? 
3)    Were there any words or phrases that people called you in your childhood that labeled you in ways you felt misunderstood, mocked, or invalidated.
4)    What words or actions have undermined your self-love and self-confidence?
5)    Are there any words or actions that have been particularly offensive or painful to you?
6)    Where have you felt the most misunderstood and unfairly defined in our relationship and what would you have preferred?
7)    If there was anything I could change to make you feel more comfortable and more beloved in our relationship, what would that be?
8)    When I am angry, upset, or don’t like what you’re doing, what is the best way I can express my feelings to you without setting off your need to defend or counter-punch?
9)    What are the words and actions of mine that are the most consistently hurtful or dismissive of you?
* * * *
This exercise is not easy, but deeply moving for most people. In the process of sharing these experiences, vulnerabilities, and open desires, intimate partners become accountable to each other in a whole new way. They now have information that honestly tells them when their partners feel loved and when they feel damaged. Any future words or actions must then take those new learnings into account. In other words, neither partner can feign ignorance once they know what is true.
That new knowledge, of course, cannot guarantee that both partners will always be able to remember or act on it. But it helps them to take responsibility when they cannot, and to keep from blaming the other when they slip. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” becomes “I knew that might hurt, but I wasn’t yet able to keep from saying or doing it, and I’m so sorry.” Or, “I knew that saying something different would really help, but I was too upset myself to give that to you in that moment.” The answers might not feel good, but the interaction does not blame either partner.
It is so much easier for a couple to be on the same team when both are willing to work on these changes together. When they are successful in coming together, they become more confident in knowing how to accurately love each other in a whole new way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Five-Minute Couple's Emotional Conflict-Neutralizer


Anyone who has been in love knows that all intimate partners argue. No matter how lustful, exciting, and compatible a relationship is, its partners will eventually disagree about something.
If couples can resolve these conflicts successfully, they enhance their trust and faith in each other and in their relationship. Successful conflict resolution also maintains continuous discovery, one of the most crucial aspects of good relationships. When arguments recur and are not resolved, committed partners can be left with damaging scars that can ultimately threaten their love.
In the early weeks of love and lust, most partners often consciously or unconsciously avoid potential disagreements. Understandably, they prefer to bask in the deliciousness of assumed agreement in every area. When they do disagree, they try to make-up within the shortest possible time, keeping their separation to a minimum.
As most of us have experienced, those early super-compatible experiences must ultimately fall prey to life’s challenges. As new lovers realize that must eventually pay attention to other obligations besides absolute devotion to each other, their other needs will predictably emerge.
Some of them are obvious to anyone who has ever participated in a new love, like remembering to eat and getting enough sleep. But others are often not as clear up front. Issues like family obligations, financial commitments, vocational requirements, and social connections are often put aside in the throes of new love, but eventually must become integrated into the new relationship.
As new lover’s struggle to rebalance their priorities, they may both view them differently in what and how their resources should be distributed. After all, they have been automatically deferring to each other’s needs, most often giving them instant priority. When those commitments change over time, either partner may feel less important, and maybe become possessive or jealous. Where both lovers once felt content and confident in their right to the other’s time and attention, they may wonder now if that still exists.
These emerging conflicts can quickly take their toll. The frequency, duration, and intensity of the disputes can mount and making up can be more difficult or take longer. The couple’s once easy capacity to make up and go forward diminishes and they may find it harder to repair and heal their relationship. That cumulative damage can seriously mar their future together.
New lovers need to find ways to diffuse and resolve conflicts early in the relationship when their love is resilient. They need to practice the tools of successful conflict resolution so that it becomes second nature when more difficult disputes occur.
There are two steps that are crucial for positive outcomes after conflicts. The first is how the couple gets themselves to emotionally support each other before they attempt to resolve what is between them. They must both feel listened to and respected in order of any future negotiation to be effective.  
In my four decades of working with couples, I absolutely believe that the first step is by far the most important. If intimate partners approach a disagreement from a place of mutual validation and support, they are far more likely to stay friends through the process and find ways to resolve their differences such that both feel better about each other and the relationship.
To address the way couples help one another emotionally prepare for a conflict, I’ve created an exercise to help them. It’s called “The Five Minute Couple’s Emotional Conflict Neutralizer,” a simple and easy guide that can help new lovers get on the same team before they negotiate their disagreements.
Before you begin doing the actual exercise, each of you separately follow these three simple instructions:
One:
Separately, take some time to recall a few repeated conflicts from your past significant relationships. List those that have repeatedly occurred, independent of which partner you were with. Focus on those that have caused the relationship to fail over time. It will be most effective if you can be honest about your own contribution. You can choose a general area like jealousy, personal availability, feeling taken advantage of or controlled, or something more specific, like not getting enough sex.
Two:
Share those memories with your partner. Help him or her to explore them, including how you remember how you behaved when you were participating in them. Explore whether either of you are acting similarly in your current relationship.
Three:
Read the steps of the exercise together. You may want to put them on a card for reference as you practice. Though they might seem easy to understand, they take practice to become intuitive and automatic. When you have completed that preparation, you’ll move to the last part of the process, which is continuing to practice the exercise you’re your unique disagreements.
The Five-Minute Relationship Conflict-Neutralizer
Step One
Pick one of your repeated past relationship conflicts that has started to show up in your present relationship. If it was present in both yours and your partner’s past relationships, it may be even more useful.
Though you know you know that this is just an exercise, don’t be discouraged if you feel a building tension or fear of hurting or being hurt.  Even when both partners know they are just feigning an argument, they may still react as if it were actually happening.
If you feel that either of you are becoming more distressed, stop for a little while and help each other to center and breathe deeply. Remind yourselves that this is just an exercise and is going to eventually help you to stay more connected during any real future conflicts.
Step Two
Decide which of you needs to go first. Generally it works best if the partner with the most anxiety goes first. Whichever one chooses to start, keep your next five expressions to simple statements that you can express within a minute or so. Do not elaborate at this time:
The problem: “What is bothering me is _________.”
The fear: “What I’m afraid of is _______.”
The request: “What I need so much from you right now is _____.”
The emotional experience: “Why I am feeling this way is ______.”
The hopeful response: “What I hope will happen when I share this with you is _____.”
The listening partner must not invalidate, interrupt, deny, or try to convince you to feel anything other than what you feel or say. Instead, he or she, within the next couple of minutes, repeats to the best of memory, exactly what you have said. Acknowledgement does not require that the listener sees or feels the same, only that the statements are responded to with silent emotional support.
Then, reverse your roles. Let the other partner express his or her five statements to you, and offer the same support.
Step Three
Without any verbal response or reaction to what either of you has expressed, spend the next minute in quiet reflection, looking into each other’s eyes. Ask yourself, inside, if you understand better where the other is coming from. Try not to be defensive or to take things personally. This is simply the reality of your partner and must be validated as such even if you do not see things the same way.
After both of you have completed the exercise, calmly and willingly offer whatever thoughts or behaviors you can that might ease your partner’s distress. It may be only words of comfort or a partial solution to what has been expressed and needed, but it must be authentically offered. Your partner should then do the same for you. Receive those responses without finding fault or argument. That may not be easy, but it will give the exercise more meaning.
When you are finished, do not attempt to negotiate or resolve the dispute. Let it drop for the time being and, instead, do something together that reminds you of why you still love each other. Let the good connection take precedence over the disagreement for a while so you can come back to it when you are feeling connected and safe with each other.
The exercise itself is intended to increase bonding and understanding before you attempt to actually resolve the conflict itself. That intimate mutual support will do wonders when you begin actual negotiating.
Practicing
You’re now going to practice your own potential disputes before they actually happen. Using the exercise you’ve memorized, continue to work with the repeated conflicts each of you have identified from your past relationships that come to mind now, as well as those that may now be unique to your relationship. Repeat the exercise until you know you can do it, even under stress.
If you feel stuck or begin to be actually distressed during any of these new practice sessions, stop the exercise, tell each other how you are feeling, what memories you are evoking, and what triggers seemed to bring them about. You may need to support and comfort each other before continuing.
Many people find that practicing potentially negative disagreements ahead of time can identify issues they may have been unconsciously avoiding in their mutual desire to seem totally compatible. Those honest, early challenges are so much easier to deal with. The relationship is on solid ground and will give it the best chance of being more joyful than problematic.
Many of my patients have told me that mastering this exercise has affected every other relationship in their lives. They become more adept at recognizing and neutralizing potentially damaging conflicts before they can cause significant damage. My hope is that you will find the same confidence and comfort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Stay-in-Love Couples

In today’s dating world, most intimate relationships don’t make it into long-term commitments. For many different reasons, many initially loving partners can’t seem to get past the challenges that ultimately end their commitment to each other. Some give up early, not wanting to waste time on something that is already problematic. They just aren’t willing to put energy into a relationship that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Others, determined to make this one work, hold on to the bitter end, hoping that their continued efforts will eventually succeed.

Many of these frustrated relationship seekers come into therapy trying to understand what they might be doing wrong. They’ve made the best efforts they know, and yet, have not been able to make a relationship last. They know that some couples face the same odds, yet stay together. They want to know: “What do these people do differently that keeps their love alive?” “Are they just lucky people who have magically found the right person, or do they make relationships work no matter what?” “And if they do, what is their formula for success, and can I learn it?”
Are they different in some way from most couples? In my four decades of working with couples, I’d have to say, “Yes.” Although they face many of the same problems as other couples do, they approach solving them in unique ways that don’t damage their relationship. It is quite remarkable to watch them face situations that might unravel a typical relationship, and yet consistently come out caring more deeply about each other.   
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it seems timely to examine some of the ways these people relate to each other and how those behaviors keep their love so continuously fresh. This special celebratory day gives many new and committed partners new motivation to love each other more deeply.
Stay-in-love couples each have their own unique style, but they also have much in common in the way they relate. The six following examples are some of the most notable interactions. Hopefully, they can newly inspire others to find their own successful paths to deepening love.
How They Resolve Their Conflicts
Every couple argues. If they are honest and authentic, they accept the fact that they will never see eye-to-eye on everything. They know that differences of opinion can add interest and intrigue to their relationship as long as those disputes are worked through successfully.  They also know that unresolved and repeated conflicts can threaten and ultimately damage relationships, and making it so much harder for them to get back what they’ve lost.
In contrast, stay-in-love couples ache when their disagreements drive them apart. After a conflict, they strive to resolve the situation and to make up as soon as possible. Rather than needing to win, they want to understand why they disagreed and how they could have done it better. Judgement is not an issue; inquiry and learning are. Even when they are hurt or angry, themselves, they still want the other partner to feel heard and supported.
How They Refuse to Assign Blame
During a conflict, so many couples blame the other for whatever is going wrong between them. It’s hard for anyone to look at his or her responsibility in the middle of strong emotions. Perhaps to avoid guilt or feeling righteous, some people try to make the other person into the bad guy, hoping that will win the argument that way. Many people do cave in when they feel badly about themselves, and counter-accusations sometimes successfully win the argument.
The sadness in assigning blame is that it doesn’t work in the long run. There are always two sides to every story, and more than one way to see the truth. Every intimate partner aches to be heard and understood, even if there are conflicting realities. When intimate partners use blame to get their way, they are likely to push their partners into defensiveness, anger, or withdrawal, and risking their capacity to keep their love alive.
Stay-in-love couples know that their partner’s views must be respected and honored, especially if they are different from their own. They strive to understand them to find a truth that allows for both. That doesn’t mean they will always agree, but they know that every connection and every disconnection must be the responsibility of both. It is a “we do this to each other,” and never, “This is your fault because you’re obviously the problem here.” 
How They Respond to Requests for Connection
One of the most important parts of every quality relationship is when both partners authentically agree to honor the other’s feelings and thoughts, especially when they are trying to work through a difficult emotional issue.
So many long-term partners automatically treated each other like that when their relationship was new, but no longer do. As the relationship has matured, they may come to feel burdened or disrupted by continuous requests for connection, and not want to be immediately available anymore. In trying to dismiss their partner’s desires quickly, they may resort to trying to “fix” the situation without taking the time for deeper inquiry. Or perhaps a preoccupied partner will minimize the other partner’s feelings to try to neutralize them. An irritated partner may reply in a sarcastic manner, or even withdraw.
Stay-in-love partners do not ignore each other when either wants to connect for any reason. Even if they are distracted or preoccupied, both partners take the time to understand what the others need is at that time, and decide together how much energy and time how they should handle it. If that cannot happen at the time, both partners make an agreement as to when they will resolve it. They absolutely do not mock, minimize, or disregard the other’s desire to connect.
How they Parent Each Other
In every intimate love relationship there is always an underlying “crisscross” interaction between the symbolic parent in one partner and the symbolic child in the other. It is impossible to be open and vulnerable to another human being without those interactions happening from time to time.
People are not ever just the age they are in the current moment. They are a composite of all the ages they’ve ever been. If an adult partner has had heartbreak in childhood and a particular situation causes it to emerge in the present, his or her partner can help ease, and even heal, that past pain by acting as a nurturing symbolic parent.  
Those automatic responses are notable in the early stages of a love relationship. Intimate partners often refer to each other as if they were talking to young children. They call each other love names like, “Baby,” “sweetie-pie,” and “Pooh-bear,” and every couple knows what their unique tender words mean to both of them. It is a normal interaction that every couple does in their own way.
As relationships mature, many partners begin to feel less willing to give that kind of unconditional nurturing, and might not be as automatically available when the other slips into a younger place. No longer loved in that tender way, that needing-partner may feel abandoned or rejected. They may feel they now have to behave more carefully, having lost the confidence that anything they say or do will be automatically supported. The symbolic parent-child automatic safety that was a given at the beginning of the relationship is now in doubt.
Stay-in-love couples understand how important it is to never let those special “sweet spots” die. They know that each will sometimes need to feel that guaranteed comfort and safety, and are more than willing to “act as the good parent” when asked. They know that it is natural for anyone to feel insecure and young at times, and they want to be there for each other when that happens.  
How They Deal With Control
So many romantic relationships fail because one partner attempts to dominate the other, or fears being controlled by the other. So many people have childhood experiences where they felt unimportant and totally expected to submit to whatever was demanded of them. They often bring those trauma-memories into their adult relationships, fearful of being controlled again in that way.
Those fears can lead people to push for the other partner’s automatic compliance to allay that anxiety. Many intimate partners alternately pull a partner close and then push him or her away, fearing that intimacy and commitment will lead to entrapment and being controlled once again.
Stay-in-love partners know that the need to feel in control at times is natural for anyone. It allows a person to be fully respected as the stronger person in the relationship at that moment. The other partner has confidence in his or her own autonomy to not react defensively or take it personally. He or she doesn’t feel the need to either counter-control or to automatically submit. Comfort with the situation allows them to seek understanding as to what may be driving those behaviors instead. They also know that they will need to be the need-to-control partner at other times, and will receive the same understanding and respect.
These couples also know how quickly interactions can deteriorate if both want to be in control at the same time. When those situations arise, they work to stay centered and calm, agreeing to take turns listening to what each needs and feels. When they fully understand what both of their desires for control are about, they then decide how to best help each other get their underlying needs met.
How They Respond to Urgency
Newly-in-love couples are most often each other’s first priorities and respond immediately to their partners distress signals. As life’s requirements intervene and the couple resumes their normal obligations, those requests must be absorbed into other priorities. Even though they may realize that being the center of someone’s life naturally somewhat diminishes over time, many partners feel neglected when that happens. They may become more demanding or feel neglected, and begin to blur the line between truly important requests and less urgent ones, fearful that neither may be met.  
Stay-in-love couples are authentic, open, and self-reliant, but do urgently need one another at times. They trust that the other will never take advantage of that immediate availability, and when an urgent SOS call goes out, that other partner will rapidly respond without question or challenge. They trust that those requests are not expressed fraudulently or without concern for the other’s needs.
 *  *  *  *  *  *
Stay-in-love partners understand the sanctity of personal boundaries, and take pride in their own autonomy. They have learned that one of the most important qualities that any person can have is the ability to love again after loss. That drives them to practice forgiveness and humility when a conflict is over. Their mutual goals are to resolve and to reconnect, leaving distress behind as soon as possible.
They know that love must include always living in each other’s hearts, whether they are together in the same place or temporarily separate. They know that the future is unwritten and that they can be taken from each other at any time. The acceptance of that truth continuously reminds them that their relationship will only be as good as they are able to re-create it in each present moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Do You Hit Below the Belt When you Fight?

When intimate couples argue, they often challenge one another in punch and counter-punch attacks. As tempers rise and defenses emerge, both partners rapidly stop listening to each other and instead invalidate the other’s point of view while simultaneously trying to establish their own. After the battle ends, one or both will disconnect until the ritual for reuniting is activated, often without true resolution.

All intimate relationships have both the capacity to scar and to transcend. Scarring occurs when a couple continuously hurts one another without learning or resolving why and how they do that. Transformation happens when partners are able to get past their disagreements and learn to communicate in healthier ways as a result of those resolutions. If scarring lessens and transformation increases, a committed couple will not only protect their love, but will continue to increase its depth and importance. They can witness that their good times are significantly outweighing the bad, and their trust in each other increasing.
But when scarring continues and the relationship is “transformation-stagnant,” the relationship will ultimately decay, often beyond repair. The destruction happens more quickly if the hurled epithets are particularly hurtful, i.e., “below the belt” woundings. Those more insulting, core-damaging behaviors create deeper and more permanent scars. It is crucial for every couple to understand which words or phrases can badly damage, and the consequent damages that may result. For their love and trust to grow more deeply, they must commit to erasing those kinds of trust-breaking insults from their interactions, no matter how angry either may be.
From working with intimate partners for four decades, I’ve created an exercise to help committed couples identify their “below-the-belt” word, phrases, and behaviors and to recognize how they are likely to permanently endanger their relationship. The comfort that results from that commitment can significantly and positively increase the trust level of the relationship. When both partners know they are safe from these anguishing interactions, they begin to open up to one another in a whole new way.
Stopping “Below the Belt” Behaviors between Intimate Couples
Step One – Each partner Identifies and Recognizes His or Her Own Triggers
Not only do all couples have regular disagreements, but in the heat of battle, it’s too easy to blur the boundaries between acceptable and destructive comments. In order to know the difference, they must both know and stay conscious of the effects of their words. A common example of a reasonable response to a presumed attack might be something like “Please stop yelling at me. I get defensive and can’t hear what you’re trying to say.” An alternate and potentially destructive response would be a character assassination like, “You think that raising your voice makes you more powerful? No, it doesn’t. It just makes you a bully.” The first statement tells the other partner that he or she is being offensive in that moment. The last describes a negative personality characteristic and the expected defense is certain to escalate the battle.
Certain words or phrases are more negative than others, and are received differently by different people at different times and in different relationships. Some of those comments are just simply offensive in their own right, while others can evoke memories of deeper heartbreaks from previous relationships. Phrases associated with early trauma, for instance, can evoke more painful reactions than intended.
An angry partner may not realize the depth of pain their words create unless both partners have previously shared those vulnerable places. Many couples have told me that they’ve been so seriously upset when their partner touches upon a heartache from the past that revisits an old wound, yet they have never informed him or her what that trigger was. If you want to help your relationship leave those “below-the-belt” behaviors behind, you must be willing to open up to your new partner and give a head’s up to those unresolved situations from the past.
The first step in changing destructive communication habits is for you to identify those words and phrases from our own past that are examples of those deeper vulnerabilities. Start by thinking of people in your past who have hurt you and in what ways. What words or phrases have left painful scars? When you recall them, put them on a list. It might help for you to also jot down a little about the situation that produced them next to each item. Also write down on that list anything that you might already feel about yourself that makes you uncomfortable. If your partner unknowingly strikes out at you in one of those areas, it will hurt much more because it is your partner and you against you.
List all of these examples in as concise a way as you can. Do not be concerned at this time as to which are the most significant and which are not.
Step Two – Anticipating your Partner’s Responses
Once you have written down every word or phrase that could deeply wound you again were your partner to express it, put a number beside each of those that reflects the following. The numbers below is the way you believe your partner might respond to you with each item on your list:
Vulnerability Levels
1 – My partner will feel compassion and concern for my feelings
2 – My partner might feel that I should be less sensitive and more trusting
3 – My partner might dismiss my feelings
4 – My partner might mock me or make me feel worse about how I feel
5 – My partner could use one of these vulnerable confessions against me in the future
When you have finished, put all the statements that have a 1 by them in a separate list, those that have a 2 in the next list, and so on. You are creating separate categories to help you differentiate those experiences which might be safer to share first, and those which you need to withhold until you feel safer. It is important for both you and your partner to learn trust over time after the less vulnerable statements have been resolved.
Step Three – Sharing With Your Partner
Ask your partner to join you in this exercise. When each of you has completed the first two steps, you are ready to begin the sharing process. Start with only those words or phrases that fall within the first category that you have listed under the number 1. These vulnerable confessions are both awkward and anxiety-producing for anyone. Commit to receiving them in a respectful and honoring manner.
Each of you should alternate sharing only one thing from your first list. Tell your partner which word or phrase is difficult for you, and share any background that would help him or her understand your strong response. It is important for each listener not to judge, invalidate, or defend his or her reason for using that word or phrase. It is also helpful for each partner to write down what is shared for reference later.
Step Four – Signals for Practice
Agree on benign signals to gently let the other partner know if he or she is inadvertently forgetting or breaking your agreement once a fight begins. The signals should be simple and recognizable. Just holding a hand to your heart or crossing your arms may be enough.
When you begin to agree and the words and phrases from your first list seem to have disappeared from your conflicts, you are both ready to do the same from your next, more vulnerable list, those that have the number 2 after them. As you move through each more vulnerable set of items and experiences, you will find that caring for each other through each new level will make the next easier to resolve.
You may have to help each other often as you first begin with these exercises. When painful words or phrases have been used for a long time, many partners become so allergic to them that their responses are trigger-quick, extremely dismissive, and untrusting. Give one another a break and more chances to make mistakes. As long as your hearts are in the right place, you will eventually build trust and more openness.
* * * * * * *
Once you and your partner have been able to share all five levels of vulnerability and now have a conscious awareness of what each means to the other, you will no longer want to justify your words or actions even when you are legitimately and understandably angry. You’ll feel automatically deeply remorseful when you realize how much you’ve hurt the other, and those feelings will help you get back on track again.
When couples achieve this level of awareness and understanding, they find that many other areas of their relationship automatically become more satisfying. The trust they have achieved through letting each other “in” at this level becomes the foundation of future willingness to risk more openness and emotional intimacy between you. Your partner “has your back,” and a much deeper trust will surely follow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 
Do You Hit Below the Belt When you Fight?
When intimate couples argue, they often challenge one another in punch and counter-punch attacks. As tempers rise and defenses emerge, both partners rapidly stop listening to each other and instead invalidate the other’s point of view while simultaneously trying to establish their own. After the battle ends, one or both will disconnect until the ritual for reuniting is activated, often without true resolution.
All intimate relationships have both the capacity to scar and to transcend. Scarring occurs when a couple continuously hurts one another without learning or resolving why and how they do that. Transformation happens when partners are able to get past their disagreements and learn to communicate in healthier ways as a result of those resolutions. If scarring lessens and transformation increases, a committed couple will not only protect their love, but will continue to increase its depth and importance. They can witness that their good times are significantly outweighing the bad, and their trust in each other increasing.
But when scarring continues and the relationship is “transformation-stagnant,” the relationship will ultimately decay, often beyond repair. The destruction happens more quickly if the hurled epithets are particularly hurtful, i.e., “below the belt” woundings. Those more insulting, core-damaging behaviors create deeper and more permanent scars. It is crucial for every couple to understand which words or phrases can badly damage, and the consequent damages that may result. For their love and trust to grow more deeply, they must commit to erasing those kinds of trust-breaking insults from their interactions, no matter how angry either may be.
From working with intimate partners for four decades, I’ve created an exercise to help committed couples identify their “below-the-belt” word, phrases, and behaviors and to recognize how they are likely to permanently endanger their relationship. The comfort that results from that commitment can significantly and positively increase the trust level of the relationship. When both partners know they are safe from these anguishing interactions, they begin to open up to one another in a whole new way.
Stopping “Below the Belt” Behaviors between Intimate Couples
Step One – Each partner Identifies and Recognizes His or Her Own Triggers
Not only do all couples have regular disagreements, but in the heat of battle, it’s too easy to blur the boundaries between acceptable and destructive comments. In order to know the difference, they must both know and stay conscious of the effects of their words. A common example of a reasonable response to a presumed attack might be something like “Please stop yelling at me. I get defensive and can’t hear what you’re trying to say.” An alternate and potentially destructive response would be a character assassination like, “You think that raising your voice makes you more powerful? No, it doesn’t. It just makes you a bully.” The first statement tells the other partner that he or she is being offensive in that moment. The last describes a negative personality characteristic and the expected defense is certain to escalate the battle.
Certain words or phrases are more negative than others, and are received differently by different people at different times and in different relationships. Some of those comments are just simply offensive in their own right, while others can evoke memories of deeper heartbreaks from previous relationships. Phrases associated with early trauma, for instance, can evoke more painful reactions than intended.
An angry partner may not realize the depth of pain their words create unless both partners have previously shared those vulnerable places. Many couples have told me that they’ve been so seriously upset when their partner touches upon a heartache from the past that revisits an old wound, yet they have never informed him or her what that trigger was. If you want to help your relationship leave those “below-the-belt” behaviors behind, you must be willing to open up to your new partner and give a head’s up to those unresolved situations from the past.
The first step in changing destructive communication habits is for you to identify those words and phrases from our own past that are examples of those deeper vulnerabilities. Start by thinking of people in your past who have hurt you and in what ways. What words or phrases have left painful scars? When you recall them, put them on a list. It might help for you to also jot down a little about the situation that produced them next to each item. Also write down on that list anything that you might already feel about yourself that makes you uncomfortable. If your partner unknowingly strikes out at you in one of those areas, it will hurt much more because it is your partner and you against you.
List all of these examples in as concise a way as you can. Do not be concerned at this time as to which are the most significant and which are not.
Step Two – Anticipating your Partner’s Responses
Once you have written down every word or phrase that could deeply wound you again were your partner to express it, put a number beside each of those that reflects the following. The numbers below is the way you believe your partner might respond to you with each item on your list:
Vulnerability Levels
1 – My partner will feel compassion and concern for my feelings
2 – My partner might feel that I should be less sensitive and more trusting
3 – My partner might dismiss my feelings
4 – My partner might mock me or make me feel worse about how I feel
5 – My partner could use one of these vulnerable confessions against me in the future
When you have finished, put all the statements that have a 1 by them in a separate list, those that have a 2 in the next list, and so on. You are creating separate categories to help you differentiate those experiences which might be safer to share first, and those which you need to withhold until you feel safer. It is important for both you and your partner to learn trust over time after the less vulnerable statements have been resolved.
Step Three – Sharing With Your Partner
Ask your partner to join you in this exercise. When each of you has completed the first two steps, you are ready to begin the sharing process. Start with only those words or phrases that fall within the first category that you have listed under the number 1. These vulnerable confessions are both awkward and anxiety-producing for anyone. Commit to receiving them in a respectful and honoring manner.
Each of you should alternate sharing only one thing from your first list. Tell your partner which word or phrase is difficult for you, and share any background that would help him or her understand your strong response. It is important for each listener not to judge, invalidate, or defend his or her reason for using that word or phrase. It is also helpful for each partner to write down what is shared for reference later.
Step Four – Signals for Practice
Agree on benign signals to gently let the other partner know if he or she is inadvertently forgetting or breaking your agreement once a fight begins. The signals should be simple and recognizable. Just holding a hand to your heart or crossing your arms may be enough.
When you begin to agree and the words and phrases from your first list seem to have disappeared from your conflicts, you are both ready to do the same from your next, more vulnerable list, those that have the number 2 after them. As you move through each more vulnerable set of items and experiences, you will find that caring for each other through each new level will make the next easier to resolve.
You may have to help each other often as you first begin with these exercises. When painful words or phrases have been used for a long time, many partners become so allergic to them that their responses are trigger-quick, extremely dismissive, and untrusting. Give one another a break and more chances to make mistakes. As long as your hearts are in the right place, you will eventually build trust and more openness.
* * * * * * *
Once you and your partner have been able to share all five levels of vulnerability and now have a conscious awareness of what each means to the other, you will no longer want to justify your words or actions even when you are legitimately and understandably angry. You’ll feel automatically deeply remorseful when you realize how much you’ve hurt the other, and those feelings will help you get back on track again.
When couples achieve this level of awareness and understanding, they find that many other areas of their relationship automatically become more satisfying. The trust they have achieved through letting each other “in” at this level becomes the foundation of future willingness to risk more openness and emotional intimacy between you. Your partner “has your back,” and a much deeper trust will surely follow.