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Friday, December 14, 2018

How Blaming Can Destroy Intimacy


 
One of the most potent enemies of quality relationships is the use of blaming to win an argument. Yet, despite its predictable, poisonous effects, couples regularly blame one another during their disputes.
Free-for-all Blaming Patterns
In these damaging exchanges, both partners accuse one another with righteous passion to invalidate the other’s point of view. Who is “more right” and who is “more wrong” is bandied about until the argument eventually loses its intensity and some kind of grace period follows. These free-for-all battles most often end in some kind of reciprocal “draw.” Both partners walk away feeling righteous in their positions, but often also sad about hurting the other.
Because the partners in these conflict patterns often feel both right and wrong, they usually do not consider their disputes as cumulatively damaging, yet that often turns out to be a false assumption. With multiple repetitions of the same kinds of interactions, both partners lose confidence in any kind of true resolution and act out these patterns with little conscious awareness.
Over time, they become immune to their assignments of blame accountability,  and are unable to come up with any kind of spontaneous or innovative solutions that will keep these repetitive conflicts from recurring.
Staggered Blaming Patterns
This type of conflict pattern is more complicated and also more cumulatively dangerous. In these kinds of interactions, the same partner consistently plays the role of the blamer while the argument is happening, but once the dispute is over, is then blamed by the other for part he or she played during the conflict.
Within these disputes, the blamer indeed appears to hold all the cards, intent and successful in dismantling and erasing the other partner’s point of view. Then, when the air clears, the vanquished, seemingly accepting-of-blame partner gets even later by withholding intimacy, demanding consistent rehashing of the argument, attacking the other partner for needing to win at any cost, or martyring him or herself and holding the other partner responsible for the pain inflicted.
If not stopped, blaming of any kind is a dangerous sport that can cumulatively damage all involved. Nevertheless, many couples continue to participate in them regardless. When I observe these interactions in counseling sessions, I often ask questions like: “Why do you suppose you continue to be locked in to this destructive pattern of needing to demonstrate who the “bad guy” is?” “How do you think your conflicts would change if blame was never part of your conflicts again?”
Do you and your partner interact in blaming conflict patterns, whether they are free-for-all or staggered processes? Can you imagine eliminating blame from your arguments from now on?
To change these negative blaming patterns, you must both agree that you both want to learn how to stop them in any future arguments. It doesn’t matter which kind of blaming role you play. It is a zero-sum game.
The good news is that, in most relationships, blaming is easy to identify and erase. And most couples, once they understand its consistently negative effects, want to leave it behind.
If you and you partner are ready to stop this mutually sabotaging pattern, these are the steps to take:
1)    Explore where and how your blaming behavior patterns began.
2)    Become aware of the triggers that cause you to blame, or to fold in its presence.
3)    Share those triggers with your partners so that they can search for different ways to avoid them.
4)    Recognize and admit accountability when you actually do something that your partner feels is hurtful, even if you did not mean to cause any harm.
How Blaming Behavior Begins
The Partner Who Too Readily Accepts Blame
Before you can stop automatically feeling that you are at fault, you must realize how you learned to accept that as your fate and why you continue to do so in your current relationship.
Those who too readily accept blame are often triggered by a partner who treats them as though they do not have a right to alter the argument’s direction. They feel conflicted between how they “should” behave as a “good” person, and feeling defensive when told their thoughts or feelings are inappropriate. Because they have been emotionally sculpted as children to always behave appropriately, they are easily cowed by feeling they are not okay in the eyes of the other, even when they are in an adult-to-adult interaction.
Start at the beginning of your life when you first became aware of blame and how you were forced to accept being wrong in any challenging interaction. Did your caretakers immediately invalidate your defenses? Did they withdraw their love when you didn’t measure up to their expectations?
The threat of emotional abandonment terrifies children. When faced with that possible consequence, they often become automatic acceptors of blame, behaving in whatever they can to be in good graces again. They internalize the feelings that their caretakers were right to punish them.  
If you experienced these kinds of interactions when you were a child, and believed that you deserved them, you are likely, as an adult, to feel as if you deserve blame from your partner. Under attack, you may try to plead for your point of view, but, underneath, feel defeated from the beginning.
Waiting for the conflict to end, you may then reclaim your own worth by allowing yourself to feel the anger of being unfairly accused, and then look for ways to avenge that unfairness and retaliate.
The Partner Who is the Blamer
When criticized or challenged, blamers tend to immediately react in an accusatory way. Perhaps fearful of being blamed, they are urgently driven to make certain that they are never wrong.  They may use their physical stature to intimidate, their emotional power to dominate, or their intellectual delivery to invalidate.
The accepting-of-blame partner will often attempt to stop the blaming by either rapidly capitulating, defending, disconnecting, or promising to do better. Rather than stop the blaming, those postures most often actually increase it. Once the blaming pattern has started, there is very little the other partner can do until the process ends.
Go back to your origins as a child. Did you witness emotional or physical bullying of this kind when conflicts arose? Did you identify with the person who was cowering but never wanted to be like that person? Did you vow to emulate the more powerful person or identify more with the one who gave in?
When you are challenged in a conflict, do you feel that you must immediately dominate or you will lose? When your partner gives in to your need to end up on top, do you feel badly later for doing what you’ve done? Are you angry at your partner for not standing up for him or herself? 
Caveat: Assumed Gender differences
Many equate the most often “blamed” partner who is exhibiting self-defeating/repressed hostility behavior with female energy, and the self-righteous partner as having more male energy. Certainly, where there is an existing power difference that is blatant within a relationship, male energy is more competitive and hierarchical, while female energy is more directed to collaboration and harmony-seeking.
In most childhood environments, more adjustment, adaptation, and harmonious behavior is expected from young girls than from young boys in most families. Women who have been expected and/or rewarded to “give-in” as children have to work very hard to change those behaviors as they mature. Men who were given the right to fight harder and with less compassion as boys, need to work just as hard to learn humility and chivalry under attack.
In reality, I have seen both genders assuming this oft-labeled wrong person role in the relationship. Men in our society are not supposed to “give-in” to a fight, so the label may be more often assigned to that gender, but there are many women who fight-to-win and take no prisoners.
Triggers
Whether you more often play the role of the blamer or the blamed, you are being triggered to respond by internalized memories from your past. As stated above, whichever role you find yourself living out in your current relationship, ask yourself what your partner does that triggers you to respond the way you do. These behaviors can be emotional, physical, or intellectual.
This part of the healing process can be very problematic and must be entered into with the willingness of both partners to search for their own contribution to this dysfunctional pattern. When a couple has been practicing blaming behaviors for a long time, it is typical for each of them to defend their behaviors by blaming the other for causing them to behave that way.
Sometimes, the partners who too readily accept blame are fearful of sharing their triggers. They need to believe that their previously blaming partners won’t use them as ammunition in future conflicts. The blaming partners are typically not as worried, and thus more willing to tell their partners what causes them to become angry.
Once triggers are shared and accepted, the partners must work diligently to eliminate those automatic reactions of blame or guilt. Each relationship is unique, but intimate partners who truly want to change are eager to substitute non-triggering behaviors when they know they cause harm.
Humility and Accountability
Blame is, in and of itself, always is a damaging and hurtful behavior, no matter how it is expressed. There is only one way that both of the partners who are enmeshed in blaming behaviors can stop them. They must agree to replace them with reasonable and respectful requests in the moment and the willingness to accept what the other partner can offer, understanding fully that forced submission will never result in sustaining intimacy.
All couples fight, And, at times, it is inevitable that they wound one another. But leaving blame behind will significantly reduce those hurtful experiences.
You can begin the process of leaving blaming behavior behind if you and your partner can honor the following five agreements:
1)    If either partner does something that he or she knows breaks trust, invalidates the other’s integrity, defies agreements, undermines promised security, or knowingly hurts the other, that partner must be willing to be truly remorseful of those actions when the couple debriefs a conflict.
2)    Both partners will express genuine accountability and regret if they hurt the other.
3)    Instead of rehashing arguments, they will de-brief them by examining how they could have been more respectful and less threatening to the other during their prior conflict.
4)    When either partner is triggered, he or she will ask the other to stop the current dispute until that trigger is processed. They agree that an emotional cascade will sabotage any resolution and must be resolved before the conflict can proceed.
5)    The continuously remind each other that they cannot resolve any disagreement when they are on opposite sides of the team.
Most of the couples who have adopted these agreements have been very successful in eliminating their blaming behaviors. If you and your partner are willing to adopt them, you will be truly astonished at how rapidly your disagreements will transform. As a conflict-successful couple, you’ll be less likely to harm and more quickly to heal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Blaming Can Destroy Intimacy

One of the most potent enemies of quality relationships is the use of blaming to win an argument. Yet, despite its predictable, poisonous effects, couples regularly blame one another during their disputes.  

Free-for-all Blaming Patterns

In these damaging exchanges, both partners accuse one another with righteous passion to invalidate the other’s point of view. Who is “more right” and who is “more wrong” is bandied about until the argument eventually loses its intensity and some kind of grace period follows. These free-for-all battles most often end in some kind of reciprocal “draw.” Both partners walk away feeling righteous in their positions, but often also sad about hurting the other.

Because the partners in these conflict patterns often feel both right and wrong, they usually do not consider their disputes as cumulatively damaging, yet that often turns out to be a false assumption. With multiple repetitions of the same kinds of interactions, both partners lose confidence in any kind of true resolution and act out these patterns with little conscious awareness.

Over time, they become immune to their assignments of blame accountability,  and are unable to come up with any kind of spontaneous or innovative solutions that will keep these repetitive conflicts from recurring.

Staggered Blaming Patterns

This type of conflict pattern is more complicated and also more cumulatively dangerous. In these kinds of interactions, the same partner consistently plays the role of the blamer while the argument is happening, but once the dispute is over, is then blamed by the other for part he or she played during the conflict.

Within these disputes, the blamer indeed appears to hold all the cards, intent and successful in dismantling and erasing the other partner’s point of view. Then, when the air clears, the vanquished, seemingly accepting-of-blame partner gets even later by withholding intimacy, demanding consistent rehashing of the argument, attacking the other partner for needing to win at any cost, or martyring him or herself and holding the other partner responsible for the pain inflicted.

If not stopped, blaming of any kind is a dangerous sport that can cumulatively damage all involved. Nevertheless, many couples continue to participate in them regardless. When I observe these interactions in counseling sessions, I often ask questions like: “Why do you suppose you continue to be locked in to this destructive pattern of needing to demonstrate who the “bad guy” is?” “How do you think your conflicts would change if blame was never part of your conflicts again?”

Do you and your partner interact in blaming conflict patterns, whether they are free-for-all or staggered processes? Can you imagine eliminating blame from your arguments from now on?

To change these negative blaming patterns, you must both agree that you both want to learn how to stop them in any future arguments. It doesn’t matter which kind of blaming role you play. It is a zero-sum game.

The good news is that, in most relationships, blaming is easy to identify and erase. And most couples, once they understand its consistently negative effects, want to leave it behind.

If you and you partner are ready to stop this mutually sabotaging pattern, these are the steps to take:

1)    Explore where and how your blaming behavior patterns began.

2)    Become aware of the triggers that cause you to blame, or to fold in its presence.

3)    Share those triggers with your partners so that they can search for different ways to avoid them.

4)    Recognize and admit accountability when you actually do something that your partner feels is hurtful, even if you did not mean to cause any harm.

How Blaming Behavior Begins

The Partner Who Too Readily Accepts Blame

Before you can stop automatically feeling that you are at fault, you must realize how you learned to accept that as your fate and why you continue to do so in your current relationship.

Those who too readily accept blame are often triggered by a partner who treats them as though they do not have a right to alter the argument’s direction. They feel conflicted between how they “should” behave as a “good” person, and feeling defensive when told their thoughts or feelings are inappropriate. Because they have been emotionally sculpted as children to always behave appropriately, they are easily cowed by feeling they are not okay in the eyes of the other, even when they are in an adult-to-adult interaction.

Start at the beginning of your life when you first became aware of blame and how you were forced to accept being wrong in any challenging interaction. Did your caretakers immediately invalidate your defenses? Did they withdraw their love when you didn’t measure up to their expectations?

The threat of emotional abandonment terrifies children. When faced with that possible consequence, they often become automatic acceptors of blame, behaving in whatever they can to be in good graces again. They internalize the feelings that their caretakers were right to punish them.   

If you experienced these kinds of interactions when you were a child, and believed that you deserved them, you are likely, as an adult, to feel as if you deserve blame from your partner. Under attack, you may try to plead for your point of view, but, underneath, feel defeated from the beginning.

Waiting for the conflict to end, you may then reclaim your own worth by allowing yourself to feel the anger of being unfairly accused, and then look for ways to avenge that unfairness and retaliate.

The Partner Who is the Blamer

When criticized or challenged, blamers tend to immediately react in an accusatory way. Perhaps fearful of being blamed, they are urgently driven to make certain that they are never wrong.  They may use their physical stature to intimidate, their emotional power to dominate, or their intellectual delivery to invalidate.

The accepting-of-blame partner will often attempt to stop the blaming by either rapidly capitulating, defending, disconnecting, or promising to do better. Rather than stop the blaming, those postures most often actually increase it. Once the blaming pattern has started, there is very little the other partner can do until the process ends.

Go back to your origins as a child. Did you witness emotional or physical bullying of this kind when conflicts arose? Did you identify with the person who was cowering but never wanted to be like that person? Did you vow to emulate the more powerful person or identify more with the one who gave in?

When you are challenged in a conflict, do you feel that you must immediately dominate or you will lose? When your partner gives in to your need to end up on top, do you feel badly later for doing what you’ve done? Are you angry at your partner for not standing up for him or herself?    

Caveat: Assumed Gender differences

Many equate the most often “blamed” partner who is exhibiting self-defeating/repressed hostility behavior with female energy, and the self-righteous partner as having more male energy. Certainly, where there is an existing power difference that is blatant within a relationship, male energy is more competitive and hierarchical, while female energy is more directed to collaboration and harmony-seeking.

In most childhood environments, more adjustment, adaptation, and harmonious behavior is expected from young girls than from young boys in most families. Women who have been expected and/or rewarded to “give-in” as children have to work very hard to change those behaviors as they mature. Men who were given the right to fight harder and with less compassion as boys, need to work just as hard to learn humility and chivalry under attack

In reality, I have seen both genders assuming this oft-labeled wrong person role in the relationship. Men in our society are not supposed to “give-in” to a fight, so the label may be more often assigned to that gender, but there are many women who fight-to-win and take no prisoners.

Triggers

Whether you more often play the role of the blamer or the blamed, you are being triggered to respond by internalized memories from your past. As stated above, whichever role you find yourself living out in your current relationship, ask yourself what your partner does that triggers you to respond the way you do. These behaviors can be emotional, physical, or intellectual.

This part of the healing process can be very problematic and must be entered into with the willingness of both partners to search for their own contribution to this dysfunctional pattern. When a couple has been practicing blaming behaviors for a long time, it is typical for each of them to defend their behaviors by blaming the other for causing them to behave that way.

Sometimes, the partners who too readily accept blame are fearful of sharing their triggers. They need to believe that their previously blaming partners won’t use them as ammunition in future conflicts. The blaming partners are typically not as worried, and thus more willing to tell their partners what causes them to become angry.

Once triggers are shared and accepted, the partners must work diligently to eliminate those automatic reactions of blame or guilt. Each relationship is unique, but intimate partners who truly want to change are eager to substitute non-triggering behaviors when they know they cause harm.

Humility and Accountability

Blame is, in and of itself, always is a damaging and hurtful behavior, no matter how it is expressed. There is only one way that both of the partners who are enmeshed in blaming behaviors can stop them. They must agree to replace them with reasonable and respectful requests in the moment and the willingness to accept what the other partner can offer, understanding fully that forced submission will never result in sustaining intimacy.

All couples fight, And, at times, it is inevitable that they wound one another. But leaving blame behind will significantly reduce those hurtful experiences.

You can begin the process of leaving blaming behavior behind if you and your partner can honor the following five agreements:

1)    If either partner does something that he or she knows breaks trust, invalidates the other’s integrity, defies agreements, undermines promised security, or knowingly hurts the other, that partner must be willing to be truly remorseful of those actions when the couple debriefs a conflict.

2)    Both partners will express genuine accountability and regret if they hurt the other.

3)    Instead of rehashing arguments, they will de-brief them by examining how they could have been more respectful and less threatening to the other during their prior conflict.

4)    When either partner is triggered, he or she will ask the other to stop the current dispute until that trigger is processed. They agree that an emotional cascade will sabotage any resolution and must be resolved before the conflict can proceed.

5)    The continuously remind each other that they cannot resolve any disagreement when they are on opposite sides of the team.

Most of the couples who have adopted these agreements have been very successful in eliminating their blaming behaviors. If you and your partner are willing to adopt them, you will be truly astonished at how rapidly your disagreements will transform. As a conflict-successful couple, you’ll be less likely to harm and more quickly to heal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, November 30, 2018

I Love You but I Don’t Always Like You


If you have been in an intimate relationship for a period of time, this expression might feel familiar. I hear it regularly from many of the struggling couples I see in my practice. They are still in love, but they don’t like some of their partner’s behaviors and those reactions are increasing. They realize that the cumulative effects of those irritating behaviors are beginning to take precedence too often, and they want help to change them.
They tell me that, earlier in their relationship, the good parts of their relationship seemed to easily compensate for the negatives, but are beginning to outweigh the positives. The partners still feel fondness, passion, devotion, security, and closeness most of the time, but they are concerned that some of the things they say or do are irritating each other more often than they used to. They love each other but they don’t like many of the behaviors the other says and does.
When their love was new, they realize now that they often melded their feelings of “like” and “love,” because they seemed so similar when their initial passion overwhelmed them. Perhaps they didn’t want to look at any behaviors that might have challenged their initial rapture. Focusing on their mutual dreams, magnetic sexual connection, or social networks were much higher priorities.
Many couples I’ve worked with have told me the same thing. They simply didn’t realize that their loving feelings towards were eclipsing those behaviors that were subtly irritating. The “dislikes” that were accumulating were not on their radar. Over time, they became aware that negative behaviors and the reactions that accompanied them had been growing and their positive interactions were no longer compensating as well. They knew, at some level, that they were experiencing more irritations and were taking longer to heal from them, but they kept putting their awareness aside.
If either you or your partner is feeling too often more “un-likable to the other,” even if your love still feels mostly secure, you can avoid irreversible damage if you face what is going on. You need to be able to honestly tell each other what thoughts or actions in each other that may be causing those reactions and how you can change them. The sooner you can transform or erase those behaviors, the better chance you have to rescue your love from future damage.
In the following exercises, you and your partner will first strengthen your love foundation and then begin sharing your “dislikes” with each other. Because you are likely to face some distress when you do the latter, especially if you haven’t openly talked about them before, you’ll go through the exercises with that sensitivity to each other in mind. 
As you proceed, you may find yourselves altering the exercise examples to fit the uniqueness of your own relationship. However you decide to connect in this new way, don’t rush the process. The exercises will be more effective if you take the time to do them slowly and with mutual devotion to the goal.
If either of you feel, at any time during the process, that your love foundation is wavering, you may decide to stop for a while and continue once you are emotionally reconnected. Take the time to recommit to the things you do love about each other before continuing. You won’t be able to resolve the issue at hand until you feel better.
The First Exercise:
What I Like About You
Write a letter to your partner that describes his or her positive personality characteristics, behaviors, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, opinions, quirks, mysteries, and physical attributes that you truly like. These can be things you’ve already stated in the past but also those that you’ve thought in your head but not shared before.
Be sure to add examples if you think they will give your comments more depth or understanding. Recount any experiences that include those with humor, passion, appreciation, and value. Whatever makes your partner better able to understand exactly what you mean will better enable him or her to experience exactly what you mean.
When you are done, wait for a time where there is no pressure and a gentle environment, and then read your “What I Like About You” list aloud to your partner. Make sure that you give him or her whatever length of time needed to allow a full response to each of your expressions.
If you’ve taken the time to do this exercise in depth, you will surely see positive signs of appreciation in your partner. It is not unusual for our partner, even when you’ve been together for a long time, to feel more secure in your love after hearing what you like about him or her.
Some partners choose to both do this exercise simultaneously. If you decide to follow suit, you might get even more out of the exercise if you exchange one “like” at a time, rather than reading the entire list first or second.
Before you take the next step, assure one another that you will listen without defensiveness, invalidation, or challenge when you do the second exercise. Listening to things your partner dislikes about you is not easy, even when you’ve agreed to listen.
The Second Exercise:
What I Don’t Like About You
Make sure you and your partner are ready and willing to begin the next exercise. Be certain that you both agree to stop and renew your caring feelings for each other if things begin to get out of hand, or either of you feels over-loaded. Remember, you can do only part of this at a time. It is crucial that you stay open and receptive to whatever your partner needs to tell you. The goal is to listen and then process what either of you needs to do to change the behaviors that are causing distress.
On this new list, you are going to tell him or her, or each other, the thoughts or actions that are beginning to wear on each of you and, if not identified and changed, could erode your capacity to recover from them.
The best way I have found for partners to communicate these potentially damaging behaviors is to separate them into the following four categories:
1)    Behaviors that May Be Simply Annoying
The items on this list are usually things that your partner does that are somewhat irritating in the moment, but soon lose their negative charge as you’re able to reconnect with each other in more positive ways. They don’t seem to “add up,” over time, so you don’t need to be too worried about them unless they begin to bother you more.
As you go through the following list, use the examples to help you add to, or change them for those that are unique to your relationship. Most couples respond to these kinds of simply annoying behaviors without disagreement and do not feel overly offended by them. They may even find them funny. But again, over time, those sort-of-okay reactions can turn more negative if the behaviors continue. Identifying them when they are easier to let go of can avoid more damaging results in the future
Typical examples of annoying behaviors:
Not replacing the toilet paper
Using your tooth brush without consent
Not remembering to inform you of your non-critical messages
Leaving stuff around
Nodding off watching TV
Forgetting to turn off the lights
2)    Behaviors That Begin to Feel More Aggravating
The following sample behaviors are more upsetting and may take longer for your reactions to them to subside. They may often be irritating you sooner than they used to and the effects are definitely harder to shake. If you or your partner are behaving in aggravating ways, you will find yourselves more reactive to those actions when they happen and your negative responses will be both stronger and last longer.
Typical examples of aggravating behaviors:
Leaving clothes on the floor
Continuously interrupting
Forgetting something important
Procrastinating
Impatience
Not being available when asked or needed
3)    Behaviors That are Beginning to Offend
Your partner’s expressions and actions are now really getting to you. You’re finding yourself anticipating them and getting worked up at the first sign that they may be about to happen. Your reactions are immediate, your responses a little terse, and the effects of those behaviors don’t easily go away. You feel an accumulation of distress and an aversion to being around your partner when he or she behaves these ways.
Typical examples of offensive behaviors:
Continuous nagging
Focusing on your mistakes
Constant negativity
Breaking promises
Doing things behind your back
Being chronically late
4)    Behaviors That Can Be Exasperating
These behaviors now “drive you crazy.” You’re beginning to feel allergic to them, even slightly nauseated when they occur. At the first moment you feel they are about to happen you are instantly irritated and combat-ready. You’ve probably told your partner many times that his or her ways of being are significantly upsetting you, but the noxious behaviors have not diminished and leave you frustrated, reactive, and disgusted.
If you or your partner get to this level of dislike, your positive feelings for each other will rapidly diminish and your love for each other will eventually be unable to compensate. You’ll know you are close when It is getting harder and harder to let go of your distressed state or move beyond what you are feeling. You know that your resilience is waning and that you feel more consistently upset.
Typical examples of Exasperating Behaviors:
Picking fights with you or others you care about
Consistent undermining
Doing the opposite of what you asked for
Over-controlling Invalidating your thoughts or feelings
Ignoring you
Unilaterally breaking agreements
Using mutual resources without your agreement
Remember to add or replace these examples as they apply to your own relationship. If you do need to re-label, please make certain that the initial categories begin with those that are minor and move up the scale to those that could be more cumulatively damaging.
It’s also important to realize that what seems a dislike to you may not be to your partner or vice versa. It doesn’t matter if the partner who is behaving in a harmful way doesn’t mean to cause distress. It is what the partner on the other end feels that counts.
Remember that when you share your dislike list with your partner, you take care to not interrupt defend, invalidate, or counter his or her thoughts or feelings. You will offer the same when it is your partner’s turn to share the lists with you. These exercises will help you to understand each other better and to rebalance your relationship towards more positive interactions.
Though neither of you can legislate the changes you want, you can make it clear to one another how important they are to you. It is up to each of you to care enough for the other to do whatever you can to eliminate what is causing distress.  
Please be patient with each other. Many couples, even when they embrace these exercises willingly and with the best of intentions, often take a little while to put new behavioral changes in place. It’s just human nature to have difficulty letting go of established patterns, but they will respond to practice.
Also note that your current “likes” and “dislikes” may change over the course of your relationship. Great relationship partners keep each other informed when new data comes in and renew their efforts to do whatever they can to ensure their love will remain intact.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Leaving Toxic Conflict Behind


 
Every couple has disagreements from time to time. They need to. Airing differences helps them to continuously recreate and reinvigorate their relationships by the way the rediscover each other.
But, in the four decades that I have counseled intimate partners, I’ve too often witnessed a different kind of interpersonal interaction that can drive a relationship into emotional bankruptcy. These kinds of conflicts are toxic, and only serve to create growing gaps of mistrust and alienation. If they are allowed to continue, they will eventually create enough emotional poison to destroy any relationship.  
When intimate partners play out these emotionally poison-filled conflicts in my presence, I encourage them to immediately identify what they are doing and to stop them. Even though they realize they are in trouble, it’s not always easy for them to back away from the conflict. Often, they have often been interacting that way for so long that they find it very difficult to change their behavior. They tell me that they never intend for their arguments to become toxic and they will try hard in the future to stop them from happening again.
For the most part, I have not found that to be what actually happens. I have watched too many couples, no matter how well-intended, to continue to beat each other up in these negative free-for-alls. I can see that they might be reaching a point of no-return. If they are unable or unwilling to recognize the cumulative effects of their toxic conflict, their relationship may be on its way out.
I deeply believe that it is crucial for intimate partners to recognize the difference between a healthy conflict and a toxic one as early in the relationship as they can.
If you are a couple whose disagreements regularly deteriorate into toxic conflicts, you can change those patterns by committing to the following three goals:
1)    Understand the difference between relationship-enhancing disagreements and those that can slowly destroy the quality of your connection.
2)    Recognize when you are slipping into toxic conflicts and replace those interactions with healthy conflict behaviors.
3)    Promise each other you will both keep any toxic conflicts from resurfacing in the future.  
Productive Conflict
If you resolve your disagreements with mutual respect and openness to the other’s points of view, you have attained one of the core positive behaviors of successful relationship partners. That doesn’t mean that every argument you have will result in harmony and intact feelings. But when you fight in a healthy way, you will at least know that you are doing everything you can to make your conflicts productive and learn from them to improve your handling of future disagreements.
When I witness people disagreeing in a healthy way, I see them both with a true desire for a resolution that leaves both partners feeling heard, understood, and represented. There is no winner and there is no loser, only the desire on the part of both partners to learn from their disagreements and integrate their experiences to ensure that future conflicts in that area will be less likely.
If you feel more connected, inspired, and hopeful after a conflict, you are on the right track.  The following five guidelines will help you determine what you are doing right and what you may have to change to meet that goal. I’ll capitalize key words to help you remember each one:
1)    Always INQUIRE FIRST before judging, invalidating, or defending. Ask your partner how he or she came to the conclusions offered. Also ask about important the topic is and what needs may accompany it.  
2)    Be careful to AVOID ASSUMPTIONS without checking out whether or not you are accurate. If you don’t make sure your partner means what he or she means before you respond, you might counter-assume incorrectly and start a whirlpool of overlapping misunderstandings. Take whatever time you need up front to make sure both of you know what each of you truly means and what you need.
3)    Talk over and agree to mutually accepted GROUND RULES and promise each other you will abide by them unless otherwise renegotiated. Healthy conflicts are always grounded in pre-accepted and mutually trusted promises of what is off limits, what can be explored, and why. Neither of you should be out to win at the expense of the other. Instead, search for a new kind of truth in which both of you can find solace and hope.
4)    Attend to each other’s EMOTIONAL DEFAULTS. If, at any time, your conflict begins to hit a nerve in either one of you, you must put the conflict totally aside until you heal the traumatic reactions between you. It is highly unlikely that the topic you’re are disagreeing about will have any chance of resolution if either of you is emotionally faltering.
5)    Keep your conflicts ON TARGET. It is very easy and all too common during an argument for one or both of you to continue either piling on new issues, bringing up the past, or using other people’s opinions to boost your position. Try to stay with the issue at hand and avoid adding on new grievances. Those kinds of damaging behaviors will drive your conflict out of bounds.
Toxic Conflicts
These kinds of disagreements can rapidly escalate into toxicity as once-friends become current enemies. As partners slip into poisonous conflicts, they can rapidly become volatile to win at any cost. They will harangue, insult, demean, invalidate, blame, and challenge the other’s right to speak, often within the first few minutes, because they are conflict-ready and perched for attack.
As the pace and rhythm of a toxic conflict increases, the now-attacking battlers raise their voices, display menacing facial expressions and physically threatening postures. Very soon, neither partner is listening to the other, both talking at the same time as they defend and invalidate one another. Within a short of time, they will be triggered as past relationships emerge and mesh into the current interaction.  
Some of these conflicts can become physically abusive or destructive of property. These escalating poisonous expressions often leave unhealable scars in both partners, and in anyone else who may be witnessing the interactions.
 Quickly Identifying the Moment When a Toxic Conflict Begins
It is crucial for all couples to recognize the signs of toxic conflict as it begins, and stop it however they can. If I am present when it happens, I ask both partners to stop the interaction ask themselves and each other the following questions:
1)    Look inward and ask yourselves what behaviors in the other are you responding so strongly to?
2)    How are those triggers making you feel cornered or threatened enough to see your partner as the enemy?
3)    Who from the past could you also be talking to, without realizing it?
4)    What are you feeling inside as a result?
All toxic conflicts will sacrifice your future relationship if you continue them in the present. If you lose sight of what damage you may be doing to each other, you may not be able recover. If you can, think instead about looking at the long-term effects of your toxic behaviors and whether or not winning in the moment is worth it.
Practicing Productive Conflict Resolution Skills
Intimate partners who are committed to each other and to their relationship can work to make their conflicts productive and mutually enhancing. They realize that:
1)    Their disagreements are both predictable and necessary for reinvigorating their relationships.
2)    That they have come into each other’s lives to see things from a different perspective and do so by challenging each other’s realities when they see or feel differently.
3)    That their productive conflicts can teach them more about themselves.
4)    That their relationship will grow deeper and more productive as a result of courageous and compassionate challenge.
There are countless resources available that teach communication and conflict resolution skills. Many couples that I have seen have explored those skills but confess to me that they have not been able to put them into effect when they need them.
The problem is that many of these helpful directions so not place enough emphasis on how hard it is for couples to stay calm and committed to new behavior in the midst of their negative encounters.
There are many reasons why this happens, but the most impactful is how each partner has either witnessed or been the victim of painful and abusive toxic interactions in their childhoods. Because they were helpless to stop them, they may have coped at the time by burying the situations deep within their minds and hearts. As a result, throughout their lives, they’ve tried to behave in better ways with their adult partners but don’t realize how easily those unresolved early scars can be activated when their partners emotional and physical behaviors overlap or resemble these past, hidden experiences.
The couples I have worked with who are the most successful in overcoming their toxic conflicts have willingly explored these early experiences and shared them with their partners. Words, facial expressions, body language, voice intonations, rhythm and touch all come into play. Not wanting to inadvertently trigger these painful past experiences, both partners memorize any way they might be innocently re-enacting those events, and do whatever they can to avoid those dangerous memories.
After they have entered and valued one another’s inner worlds, their next step is to recognize in themselves and in their partners the emotional and physical reactions that signal when a blind reactivity could be forming. At those times, whatever they are arguing about must immediately become insignificant until they are reconnected in their trust and safety.
Keeping Toxic Conflict at Bay in the Future
When couples practice supporting each other by not allowing past traumas to create toxicity in the present, they realize that they must be each other’s hypervigilant protectors for the rest of their relationship. With compassion and total willingness, they pledge to recognize unconscious reactivity in each other as it begins to form, and to help that partner realize why he or she is starting to get defensive and self-protective. They also agree to be immediately receptive when their partner points out that the same may be happening to them.
* * *
Past relationship toxicities are ever present in all of us. They can sometimes be deep-seated and well-hidden beneath layers of rationalization. Or, at other times, just mindless, repeated patterns that must be identified before being amenable to change. But whatever drives them to emerge, they are likely to do so if both partners are not ever-vigilant to prevent them. The good news is they are easier to resolve and more quickly erased each time relationship partners practice new ways of dealing with them.
One of the most significant reasons for all couples to leave toxic conflict behind is to stop from its ability to silently and destructively transfer to the next generation. Intimate partners who are willing to do that can give a gift to the next generation by not saddling them with the same heartaches. When they see that they have stopped others from adopting those relationship-destructive behaviors, they are able to re-enforce their own commitment to erase them from their own partnership.