Many relationship partners come into counseling embattled in this way. The level of disrespect and disregard displayed during their fighting shows how far they have slipped into dangerous waters. If they consistently express these adversarial and uncaring needs to win the argument at any cost, their chances of saving their relationship will significantly decrease.
Most of these couples did not treat each other like this when their love was new. They somehow understood then that crossing certain lines of respect for one another during a fight could be too dangerous. They made sure that their responses to each other during conflict did not cross the lines of decency.
Over time, sadly, those original commitments can lessen. As couples lose them, they can become repeatedly embattled and lose the ability to feel safe with each other when either is angry. They no longer believe that vulnerability or openness is safe during an altercation. Winning has clearly become more important that preserving their love in those moments. When their love was new, they could argue and care at the same time. Now, once they begin to disagree, they become instant adversaries.
By the time they go for professional help, many of them have exhausted their own capacity to pull themselves out of these negative spirals. No longer able to maintain caring and support for each other once an argument begins, they are cast astray in a turbulent sea of unresolvable distress.
I have witnessed so many of these negative conflict spirals when couples first come to see me. They are heart-breaking to observe. Yet, even in the midst of what appears to be dooming adversarial interactions, I often see fleeting moments of how these same people must have been with one another when their love was new. Sadly, now so intent on winning their arguments, they seem unable to notice them anymore.
When they become aggressive, I ask them to stop their conflict for just a moment and to focus on each other’s underlying feelings of vulnerability. I may even ask them to look into each other’s eyes and silently hold hands for a few minutes. Almost invariably, they cannot continue their attacks and begin to soften towards each other. I ask them if this is the way they were during conflicts when they were newly in love.
As they share the differences between then and now, I ask them if they can recall those early interactions when they are in conflict in the present, to help them neutralize the damaging aspects of their disagreement. Initially, understandably, they wonder how they can do that when their conflicts have become so mutually aggressive and painful. I assure them that it is totally possible with enough commitment and practice.
The way I illustrate the process is to first provide five common conflict reactions that many couples regularly experience, and ask them to describe the way they currently respond when either of them reacts that way. Then, I ask them how they might have responded to those same exact behaviors when their love was new. When they recall those more caring responses and keep them in mind when they begin to disagree, they are often both surprised and encouraged at how rapidly that simple concept can change the nature of their conflicts.
Following are those five common conflict responses and reactions that are familiar to most established couples. After each one, there is an example of a possible, more loving response and how using it might have changed the outcome. As you read through them, you might want to replace these examples with those of your own relationship history.
Five Common Conflict Responses and the Neutralizing Effects of Loving Recall
1) When Your Partner Turns Away
When couples disagree and no longer hear the other, one partner sometimes stops and turns his or her body away. If you experience your partner doing that, but you continue to challenge or blame, he or she will eventually either discontinue interacting with you, or come back heated and ready to retaliate.
When your partner turns away from you during an argument, ask yourself if you would typically continue to attack. Instead, try to remember a time when you loved him or her so deeply that your first response would have been concern instead? Were you able at one time to put yourself aside and let your partner know how much you wanted him or her to stay connected, rather than needing to press your point?
Would you have said something more like this in the past?
“You just turned away from me. Are you feeling overwhelmed by what I’m saying or how I’m coming across? I don’t want you to disconnect. I’d rather have you here in the room with me, than give up. Please tell me what just happened that made you stop and I promise I’ll be still and let you share how you feel.”
Would that behavior now make your partner feel cared for and re-invited into safety and intimacy?
2) When your partner seems hurt
Most hurt comes from feeling unfairly or dis-compassionately attacked. A partner who senses a cold and uncaring challenge might feel defeated, powerless, or may even experience grief.
The expressions of hurt can range from silence and withdrawal to reactive anger that attempts to hide the upset. However, the facial expression and body language of hurt are unmistakable. If your partner seems stunned, wounded, or begins to cry, do you stop and deal with that vulnerability, or does it make you more defensive and angry? Do you see expressions of hurt as attempts to manipulate you?
But, when your love was new, would you have seen it that in the same way? Would you have noticed that moment where your partner reacted as if hit in the gut and you were able to instantly put your own needs aside and offered compassion instead?
In the past, when your love was new, would you have said something more like this?
“You look like I just really hurt you. I know I was coming on strong and wanted to make my point, but I didn’t want what I said to cause you this kind of pain. I felt cornered and scared of losing, myself, but that was no reason to go after you like that. I just wanted you to hear me, but not to hurt you. Do you need to tell me what you’re feeling?”
When you’ve done something like this in your past, was your partner more likely to feel loved and allow him or herself to be vulnerable again?
3) When your partner begins to lose control
If you are not consumed by your own distress, you can easily pick up the signs that your partner is losing control and becoming more rapidly upset. He or she will not seem rational anymore and may begin bringing up multiple additional issues, physically flail, or becoming louder in a desperate attempt to feel sane.
More women than men begin to cry when losing control. More men than women escalate and raise their voices. But, both are entering into behaviors that are outside their normal ways of being.
Do you remember a time in the past when your partner began to spin out of control during an argument? Would you have been able then to stop your own agenda to make your concern for his or her increasing distress more important? Would you have recognized the signs of that escalating pain and done whatever you could have to help your partner calm down?
When your love was new, might you have said something like this?
“Hey, I’m doing something that is obviously really upsetting you and making you feel like I’m out to get you. Let me stop what I’m doing and help you calm down. I want you to feel safe right now and it doesn’t matter what I need to say. It can wait until you are more okay. I was probably coming across like your enemy. I’m sorry. I just want you to feel better.”
If you were able to do that, did your partner feel grateful when you did?
4) When your partner becomes oppositional
You’re in an argument and your partner flips your position against you, tells you you’re crazy, or totally invalidates your reasoning. He or she is cornered and trying desperately to throw you off guard. The remarks are exaggerated or irrational, and feel urgent and desperate to gain traction.
Your understandable response is usually to counter-defend by challenging both the statements and your partner’s right to say them. The more you fight back, the more he or she escalates the interaction.
Can you recall an earlier time in your relationship when you didn’t need to immediately erase your partner’s thoughts or feelings and tried patience and inquiry first? You wanted to make sure he or she felt understood and listened to, even if you didn’t see things the same way.
When you were deeply in love, you might have sounded more like this:
“Hey, sweetheart, you’re invalidating everything I’m saying. Do you feel like I’m not listening? There’s plenty of time here for you to say whatever you need to before I answer. We don’t have to feel exactly the same way about everything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect your point of view. Let me stay quiet for a while and just hear you out. Would that help?”
If you responded like this in the past, did your partner relax and appreciate your willingness to back off in the moment?
5) When your partner’s anger begins to escalate
It is all too common for fighting partners to up their anger index when they either feel attacked or need to win. When your partner starts yelling at you in threatening tones, he or she may be unable to stay connected to what you have to say, or even to see any other way.
Anger is a “puffer fish” phenomenon. It is the way people make themselves feel bigger and more powerful, and hides any underlying vulnerability that might be exposed if they were to suppress their angry reactions.
When your partner’s anger sharply increases, do you normally then move into a more adversarial position, protecting yourself at the expense of your partner?
When you felt safer and more beloved, were you able to diminish your partner’s anger by a more compassionate response?
If you could, you might have sounded something like this:
“Whoa, babe, you are getting really worked up. Am I saying things in a way that makes you want to push me away? Tell me what’s under that anger if you can. Are you just frustrated with me or scared that I’ll hurt you? I’m sorry if I did or said anything that got you going like this. I’m sure that your feelings are understandable, but I could hear you better if you said them without being angry.”
If you were able to respond something like that, was your partner able to settle down and share his or her deeper feelings?
* * * *
Most couples have an emotional altar place upon which they recommit regularly to their love for each other and the relationship. That place of sacredness ensures that they will stay within emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual bounds intended to maintain trust and security.
As all intimate relationships mature, many partners forget those initial commitments and allow their conflict interactions to deteriorate from those initial agreements. The way couples fight is the most obvious sign of that lost reverence. If they can, once again, remember how to treat each other with love and compassion during their disagreements, the love they once knew will return.