[The following article is a modified transcription of a special session I gave to a couple who asked me to teach them the principles of good relating, and dealing with the problems in relating to each other. Feel free to print it out as it is 12 full pages. May it serve you well.]|
1. When you're both off center.
Question: "What do I do when my partner starts talking about a small topic, and then explodes with it. The argument grows and grows, no longer arguing about the first point. It becomes a contest of whos right, who's going to win."
The times that are hardest for a couple are when both people are down. By down, I mean sensitive, touchy, tired, achy, off balance, off center, getting sick, whatever. When both people are off center, thats when fights really escalate. Because if one person is centered and the other one isnt, and the first one overreacts, you just respond, Whats that about? And that shows you one of the solutions.
Each of us has to learn how to live as a centered being, to monitor when were getting off center, and to do whatever we need to do to get back on center. For me, for instance, taking walks at the Marina is one thing that really centers me. So if I do that 2 or 3 times a week Im pretty centered most the time. Whereas if its raining and I only do it one time a week, I start getting a little cranky and a little touchy.
The rule that when both people in a couple are off center the fights escalate, is a very good thing to remember. Because then if either of you realize, If were in an escalating fight we must both be off center, it puts it in a whole different context.
2. Learning the Book
Theres a book of each of us to learn about. Everyones book has two sections: 1. What messes the person up and 2. What makes the person clearer. You need to know what messes the other person up, and what you can invite the other person to do that makes them clearer. We need to know especially our own book: what messes me up, what makes me clearer. Of course it varies with time. Sometimes you can go to a party and have two drinks and it wont mess you up. Other times you might must be a little off to begin with and have just one drink and youre really messed up for a day or two.
3. The 10% Rule.
The 10% rule is very valuable to remember. Whenever we over-react to anything in the present, its because the reaction is being fed by underground streams from our past. Similar events (or events that our psyche sees as similar) trigger similar feelings. E.g. someone may yell at you in a certain way and someone may have picked on you similarly when you were 5 years old -- and all of a sudden the old unresolved emotion goes surging through you and youre now treating the person in front of you as though they are the one who hurt you when you were five. We seldom really fight with the person in front of us. Were fighting with our past.
4. Speaking from Yourself.
Its very hard to fight if you begin sentences with I. Its much easier to fight if you begin a sentence with you. You always do that! as opposed to Im feeling really attacked right now or Im feeling really vulnerable right now. Or Im feeling invalidated by what you said. Notice how far down into the sentence that you was. The trick is not to say I think youre an asshole. Thats a you statement. Im sorry but you cant masquerade it.
Really claim your feelings -- and not just mechanically say I first -- say, Im going through this right now, in reaction to or in relationship to something youre doing. But Im going through it. This is my button.
5. Feel free to admit you're wrong.
Most people think they have to defend themselves. Believe me when I say that I was way up there in the defensive sweepstakes. Then I realized, after years of self work, that the strongest position in the world is not defending yourself.
Its saying, Yeah, I acted like a jerk or Yeah, I shouldnt have done that or Yeah, that was a crappy thing to say. So if you can agree with the other persons statement and I dont mean falsely or inauthentically then the fight is over.
Lets say the other person says to you That was a really hurtful thing you said. Now if instead of counterattacking, you take a minute to pause and take a breath, and say, "Oh, I can see it had that effect on you. Gee, I didnt mean that then the other person feels seen. The minute either of you lays down your sword, the fight is over. It takes two to tangle, as they say.
6. It's important to be emotionally bare.
The feeling, Its safe to be emotionally bare with this person is an important one. Its amazing that people feel safer to be physically bare than to be emotionally bare, but thats really true. And to realize that if you speak from fear and if you speak from hurt, if you speak from sadness or grief, it will be so much more acceptable to (and felt by) the other person than your speaking from anger.
The reason why is that many of our wounds, our traumas from childhood (with significant exceptions, like a mother who was full of grief and committed suicide) have to do with anger as the emotion expressed by a parent. So the minute someone becomes angry at you, your psyche mocks them up as your parent. Whereas if someones sad and says That really hurt or That really scared me, thats a whole different ball game. It doesnt tend to overlay the parental messages as much. In some cases it might, but not as much. It doesnt usually make people feel as threatened.
I remember one time when I was angry at my ex-wife, she looked at my eyesbecause wed gotten pretty far along in our workand she said, Youre really hurting right now, arent you? and the anger was gone. Because she saw my pain -- and that was really all my soul wanted my anger vanished in thin air. And that wasnt her intent; she just saw who I was. And thats what everyone wants. When we feel that the other person doesnt see us, doesnt care, and doesnt like us, that is when we go ballistic, that we get freaked out.
7. After the Honeymoon by Daniel B. Wile.
Theres a wonderful book called After the Honeymoon by Daniel B. Wile. Even though the format is a little strange, the principles are phenomenal. He dispels a lot of clichés about relationships and shares incredible insights.
One of the clichés he dispels is, Dont expect to be healed by your partner. He says thats hogwash. Of course you should be healed by your partner. Who else is going to help you heal? I really firmly believe he's right. If one of you is hurt by something in life, if you can ask the other person to hold you while you go through your pain, what an incredible richness for both of you.
8. Tell your stories.
Tell each other your stories. Not things that you really dont want to share (never force anything.). But lets say that one of your parents was at times cold. To help your partner understand that, really flesh it out, help them understand the circumstances where Mom or Dad would get cold, and the impact it had on you. I dont mean just the momentary impact, but how it shaped the person you are today, the pervasive impact it had on you. Add what things your partner does that remind you of this.
9. Our differing maps of reality.
We each have maps of reality that can be very different from our partner's map. And one of the biggest mistakes every human being makes is to think that "my map is your map". It aint true! When we do that, we make terrible errors in judgment about the other person. So we need to learn each others maps.
I ask a lot of questions when Im working one-to-one with people because I dont presume that I know what someone means by a statement. I want them to flesh it out; I want them to explore it. I dont want to assume that my maps definition of abuse, for instance, is the same as the other persons. I had an abusive father. That could mean a whole lot of things. I had a father who was cold. Does that mean he was physically cold? Does that mean he was cold in your presence? Does that mean he was cold to Mom? What flavor of cold? Was is it a critical cold? A depressed cold? Theres so much to explore. If you are to successfully sail your ship off into the sunset . . . .
10. Marriage is incredibly healthful.
A research study found that the average person who lives as part of a couple into their old age lives 10 years longer than a single person. (Note: the study did not say the person was in a happy marriage, just a marriage). Theres no better indicator of how healthy it is to be in relationship. Thats the average; if its a good relationship who knows how many more years of life it adds.
11. Understanding our differences.
If you are to sail into the sunset together, then the more you understand each others territories, the easier it becomes. Early in my marriage, I'd get very threatened when my partner would get angry, for example start cursing at a driver who cut her off. And the reason I'd feel so threatened was that I was projecting that she would be angry for a long time, because when I get angry it takes me a while to cool down.
It turned out that for her it was like a storm that blew through and out, and she was fine afterwards. But it took me a while to really register the difference between her psyche and mine. I didnt have to be afraid of her anger because the shoe wouldnt drop an hour later. She wouldnt have a slow fuse burning and blow up at me later. In fact, she just discharged and she was fine. It took me a while to get that. We were wired differently.
12. John Gottman and "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse".
John Gottman is the foremost researcher on relationships in the world. He has had a Love Lab at the University of Washington where he and his students observed individual couples interacting with each other (through a one-way mirror) for 8 12 hours at a time, and tabulated their behaviors.
He became able to tell, after only one observational session, whether the couple would be together in three years (with 94% accuracy). Out of this research, he came up with the principle of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are the four patterns that destroy a relationship. Theyre paired, two and two. Two bad and two fatal to the relationship.
The first two are criticalness and defensiveness. One person is critical and the other is defensive. It usually takes this form: You should have polished your shoes. Why are you picking on me?
The deadlier ones are contempt and withdrawal. You did such a crappy job cleaning the carpet today, then the partner shuts down and withdraws. Gottman changed the name of the last pattern from withdrawal to stonewalling later on in his research. He noted that withdrawal doesnt mean just a numb state or a passive state. The person may be totally overwhelmed inside, and just cant handle the interaction. He introduced the idea of flooding, instead.
13. Flooding. A state of intense physiological arousal.
In flooding, hes talking about a physiological phenomenon. If a couple fight, the womans heart beat will return to normal much faster than the mans. (The only exception to that was exceptionally abused women, who had the same recovery time as a man.) When a fight is over, the woman will return to normal relatively quickly. And the mans physiology may be only half way there. The pulse rate may still be raised a bit and adrenaline may still be circulating. And the woman says, okay honey, lets do something now. And the mans not ready, whether its make love, or take a walk or do a post-mortem on the fight. Its important to understand that this is actually wired into the physiology. Its a genetic reality. This is not socialized. Understanding that can be useful information.
He says that by the time that one person in a couple gets into withdrawal -- where one person is contemptuous and the other person has stopped trying to communicate, thats when he could predict with accuracy that the couple wouldnt be together in three years. Because if he saw a really rooted pattern of contempt and withdrawal, the relationship was going to die.
14. Repair. Healing from fights.
It doesnt mean that there was nothing that could be done to enable a contempt/flooding based relationship to survive. Gottman next studied healthy couples.
He found that its not how much you fight that kills a relationship. Couples can be stable and the relationship healthy if one person is top dog and the other is under dog, if they are okay with it, or if they're really histrionic where theyre yelling at each other a lot -- (without contempt and withdrawal) or where they're more classically "lovey-dovey".
All of these can be stable, but the real key to health in their relationships was when they did hit an impasse, how they went about repairing.
15. Ways of Repairing.
When youre a young couple, people commonly repair by making love, and thats a valid repair if both people are ready for it, and its a way of reaffirming their energy. But that cant be the only way. Relationships need lots of ways.
For instance, some people can inject humor into their repair attempt (not ridicule, of course). Boy, honey, I was so way off, I was farther out than Saturn. Honey, sometimes I think Im the biggest bozo on the bus. Not to do it in a really self-deprecating way, but just sort of an acknowledgment in a humorous way. It adds light, and the other person is more likely to open their heart. If you had a fight that ended in a way that was humorous but acknowledging, wouldnt that warm you?
So, look at ways of repairing, look at what works. Find what repair methods work for your partner. Explore and learn. And don't rely on only one method, because your partner might not be up for that one.
16. Knowing and believing your partner understands you.
The question to ask yourself is: How would you know that they understand you?
You feel like they don't understand you when they argue the same point over and over again, but you need to understand that they keep repeating themselves because they also feel misunderstood. People keep on arguing until they get what they are looking for, a kind of acknowledgment of what they are trying to get across to you.
The fact that youre both looking for something different perpetuates the fight. You are both right. The one thing that will disarm a fight is for you to communicate to your partner that you understand them. Saying I understand is not enough. If it were enough, we wouldnt be talking about it.
It is more effective to same something like, I think I understand. Youre saying to me that [and then paraphrase what they said to the best of your understanding]", adding. "Do I have it correctly?"
By actually sharing the content of what you think you understand, your partner can really relax and go, My partner gets it. Because saying just I understand is not sufficient. Im not saying it shouldnt be sufficient, it just isnt.
It's a very good principle in general: to help someone get that you understand them. Let me demonstrate (as if speaking to one person in a couple). I think I understand what youre saying. I think there were some things in the conversation that were important for you to know that your partner heard. And that you werent getting the feedback from them that they heard and acknowledged the value of those particular points. What I did was I observed what was happening and I fed it back to them. That establishes rapport. It also helps me because if Im wrong in my paraphrase, I express to them what Im perceiving and they can correct me. It works, its very functional. Im saying people feel misunderstood or misheard or ignored.
17. Effect vs. Intention
(Note: this is a very important section. Please digest it thoroughly.)
People often say or do something and find that the effect on the partner is different than they intended.
Each person needs to notice the effect theyre having on the other person. We have to take responsibility for our effects, not just our intentions. We know our own intentions and when the other person reacts we think, Why are you reacting that way? Instead of saying, Wow, I have that effect on the other person, even though that wasnt my intention.
One of my friends had a very arrogant voice tone. Ill never forget the day he somehow managed to "part the curtains" and say, I appreciate you accepting me as a friend. I cant help coming across as arrogant. And then the curtains closed again. It was amazing he had the wherewithal to somehow do that.
We often spend so much time feeling insulted that someone misread our intentions that we ignore that we are responsible for the effect of our actions, regardless of our intent. Instead of saying, "That wasn't my intention", grow to the place of being able to say, "I'm sorry what I said or did had that effect upon you. Thank you for making me aware of it."
Were in relationship to shape each other. Were in relationship to polish each others behavior and prune each others behavior. Like shaping a beautiful tree, keeping the branches from going the wrong way.
So when you discover that an action or talk ends up having a harmful effect, for instance, to break things down logically in a time of emotional pain when your partner needs sympathy instead --, you realize, I dont want to hurt my partner and, therefore, I need to find other ways, other avenues of talking about things during the fight (other than a logical dissection) because that approach is not a strategy that works with the partner that I love.
18. People generally misread others intentions.
How do you not get in the intention-effect snarl? One way is for each of us to own that we human beings are often terrible at knowing each others intentions, especially if we're touchy or off center. We often attribute the wrong motives to people, and react inappropriately.
The only antidote is to reality test. There are two ways: examining your projections by yourself, and asking the other person about their intentions.
The first way might say, Oh, I have a habit of attributing this motive to that person and theyre not usually trying to be that way. Theyre not thinking that way. This is my projection. In other words, one way is to own our own projections.
As you learn about the habitual projections you have on your partner, you can say Wait a minute. Thats my projection. I dont want to go there, I dont want to attribute that to them because I have found out already thats not true. I often make that mistake. We each start looking at what our projections are, and learning not to trust them.
When you find yourself interpreting your partner's intention, you can also say, Wait a minute, Im messing with my own mind here. Im telling myself a big story about their intentions, and Im causing myself all this pain by doing that. I dont want to do that to myself. You can really wean yourself from that pattern. I know from my own experience.
The other way to reality test is to ask the person. Since were "all bozos on this bus" and none of us are good at knowing the other persons motive, it works fantastically well to say, You know, my friend, when you said such and such, what were you thinking? What was going on inside you? And theyll explain and youll go, Oh my gosh, that doesnt match at all with what my projection was. And believe them because you know that they are much more in touch with their intentions than you are. And boy does that straighten things out.
If the minute you made that statement you said to him, When you said that does it mean that you feel burdened by my parents? And you trusted he would tell you the truth and he said, No, that doesnt mean that at all, it means such and such there would be no problem. The beauty of curiosity, the beauty of saying to yourself, I dont know everything, and if Im thinking someones thinking a certain way and its not a thinking I want, let me ask them. Ive got nothing to lose. The worst thing that can happen is they confirm my fears and at least nine times out of ten they wont. So let me ask the other person, whats going on inside them. If they confirm your fears, thats where you started. You cant get any worse than where you started.
And if asked, dont tell the other person what it doesnt have to do with; tell them what it does have to do with.
19. Talk about how you feel.
It is more effective to talk about your feelings: The partys over. The house is a mess. Im feeling abandoned. I want the house to be clean. I dont want to do it all by myself. If you communicate primary emotions, boy will you be effective. If you say Please help me clean this up. thats so direct, isnt it? We as partners need to be clued in, we need cue cards.
20. What do we do when we're having two different arguments? (Mine and yours)
The solution to that is to say, Okay, who goes first? Which of the two arguments will we resolve first? Instead of both of you trying to resolve yours at the same time, which never works, say, Ok, flip a coin. Heads we deal with mine; tails we deal with yours. If youre at cross-purposes, youll untangle it by saying, Wait a minute. Theres two separate issues here. Lets deal with one and then well deal with the other.
If either of you can say to yourself, I want to understand their point more than I want to deliver mine, again there cant be a fight. Reach out.
There almost always are two separate arguments. Its really good to say, Wait a minute. This will go so much easier if we acknowledge each other, if we are willing to explore what the other person is really trying to get across and get understood, if we realize were not each others enemies and if we hold the context that this will resolve, we will love each other, this will pass, well even laugh about it and learn from it, and its not even so bad to fight and to straighten things out. It gives you a lot of learning material. Important note: Im not talking about slugging people or cheating on people or going below the belt or over the line. A healthy fight can clear the air and help both of you understand.
21. Express your primary emotions.
I use the word primary emotions: if you can express yourself in three word sentences, the fight will change tremendously. And the first two words in the sentence are, I feel and the third word has to be emotion. I feel sad. I feel angry. I feel threatened. I feel scared. I feel distant. I feel abandoned. If you keep it to real emotional words, that will change the whole interaction. If first you understand each others emotions, then dealing with the content will be so much easier. When you fight, youre often trying to resolve too much at once.
22. Communicate or emote.
One of my favorite quotes is, Do you want to communicate, or do you want to express emotions? Because often you cant do both. If you want to communicate, then go into your separate quarters, calm down, and then you come back and communicate.
If you want to express emotion, then stop using words and instead, like Tim Allen used to do in his comedy routine, go Grrrrhhh. [make sounds] Believe me thats a very good strategy. If you start fighting and if either of you just goes Grrrrrrrrrrr its going to change. All of a sudden youve gotten into a primal sound [the sound of gorilla]. It will change, youll laugh and the emotions will flow and it will be so much better. When you try to communicate and emote at the same time, it gets all snarled. Youve got two different processes going on simultaneously, and its hard to untangle them.
23. All it takes is one person to change the energy.
These are good strategies. All it takes is one person who has the presence of mind to say or do any of the things were discussing and the fight takes a different direction. Its like with my ex-wife looking at me and saying, Youre hurting. All of a sudden I was seen; game over; thats all I needed. The conflict vanished into thin air.
24. Realize when you're just off. And do what you need to do to restore.
Another time, we got into this little snarl, and I realized that for me it was just that I was off. She wanted to get into it and I knew I was off and that it would escalate, and that it was meaningless (just a function of my not feeling good at that moment).
I just needed to chill.
So I said to her, Look, if we keep talking, its not going to go to a good place. Let me cool off and regroup, and Ill come back in a few minutes, and well see what happens. And she said, You just dont want to deal with it. She wasnt happy about my leaving, but she let me go. So I went upstairs and rested, and let emotions move through me and returned to center, and came downstairs and said to her, Do we really have an issue?
And she looked and said, You know, we dont. And there wasnt any fight. So thats another wonderful thing. If we realize that nine times out of ten if were reacting to the other person its because were off center, because were not meeting some needs: were either too hot, too cold, too hungry, too tired, need exercise, something. If we realize were embodied, physiological beings, and if our bodies are off, if we ate too much sugar, whatever it is, and we do (whatever we need to do) to balance ourselves and then return to the person and the issue, its so much easier.
25. When the fighting is escalating.
Its like my idea that if ten minutes into a fight youre fighting harder, its time to stop. Its time to stop, disengage for a few minutes, watch TV, read a book, take a walk, and then come back.
26.When one partner starts a fight with emotion and the other starts with logic.
If the logical one validates the other's emotions, and the emotional one validates the other's words, then it will be a whole different ball game. In effect, validate where the other persons coming from. If person A is emotional, you can say, Wow, youre really upset about this, arent you? They can respond,Wow, yeah, I am. And all of a sudden there will be more rapport. Or if person B is more logical, you can say I understand that my understanding what youre trying to get across to me is really important to you and the logical one will feel heard. Were talking about disarming behavior.
Deborah Tannen wrote a book called You Just Dont Understand Me. Essentially she says there are male and female modes of interacting. In our society theyre fairly gender based; it may be different in other places and times. The male mode is "fix it", where the male is trying to fix the situation. He says, Whats the solution here? How can we fix it? The female mode is sympathy. I really feel what youre feeling. Ive been through stuff like that; its really hard.
For a person to be most effective with their spouse, they need to be able to go back and forth between those two modes, the sympathy mode and the fix-it mode. Once, with a client, she wanted sympathy mode first, not fix-it. When I started with fix it mode, she felt completely misunderstood, completely unacknowledged. If I started with Wow, its been tough, hasnt it. We would immediately get into rapport. So you can actually ask for what you need. E.g., "Can we get into fix it mode here because I want to actually strategically want to solve this problem. Or I need you to just support and empathize with what Im going through. I dont want solutions; I just want empathy and understanding. Im not saying its always gender based, of course, as it can switch.
27. Turn taking.
Another point is turn-taking. One of the reasons you fight is because youre not taking turns correctly. Youre interrupting each other; youre monologuing; youre not listening, or at least you dont let the other person know youre listening. In fact, I was on a meditation retreat with a friend of mine, and we thought of coming up with a device that would beep, beep, beep louder and louder if the couple were not taking proper turns with each other, to alert them, Wait a minute, you just derailed. Things are going to get worse here. A little acoustic device. Therefore, another way for either of you to stop a fight is to say, Im not going to say anything right now. Im just going to listen to the other person. If person A said to B, B, you just talk for five minutes. Im just going to listen. There would be no fight. It would completely derail the incorrect turn-taking that results in and perpetuates and escalates a fight.
28. Print this out, make notes, and keep them handy.
If youre in the middle of a fight say, Lets pick up the article, or our notes on it. One of them says growl, so you growl. Another says be quiet and let the other person talk. These are nice resources. I dont expect you to hold them in your mind when youre fighting, but if you have them on nice little cheat sheets, how great that will be.
Because all we really need is practice. When my ex-wife and I first fought it didnt work real well, but by the end of our marriage our fights lasted almost no time at all because we both got to a place where we said, I dont want to cause you any pain. It was so important for us; we got to a place of such clarity that we didnt want to cause our partner pain, that we couldnt almost fight anymore. Wed stop; wed say, Wait a minute. Lets not fight about this. Lets acknowledge where we are. We got to the point where we just resolved fighting. It was really great.
29. Remaining flexible.
One trap is for either member of a couple to say, Well, Im just this way. To some extent thats true, but we can each learn to be the other persons way more, and thats really helpful. We can adopt the idea that the other person is meant to be our teacher, and we can learn a different style from the other person that will augment our style, and make us more whole and more real. Instead of being threatened by the difference, we go Wow, this difference is going to be important and growthful for me.
30. Remembering our tone. Opening our hearts.
Everything Ive said here will not end fights, but there may be times when they will. I remember one time I was fighting with a girlfriend during my college years, and George Harrisons record was on, All Things Must Pass and Isnt it a pity came on, about how we break each others hearts and cause each other pain. I heard those words, and became aware of the effect I was having upon her, and I stopped fighting and said, Im sorry Im yelling at you. She said, You got that from a song? The song just stopped me cold because I didnt want to hurt her.
We have to remember that it doesnt matter if our intention is good if our effect is hurtful. Effect is more important than intention.
The repair is feeding the relationship, making sure all the loose ends are healed, making sure the other person knows you care.
31. Relationships are not always for forever, and that's o.k.
When I was a teenager, I happened to look at a bookshelf in the hall and saw a collection of essays called, "Sex in Civilization". In reading them, I was most struck by an essay that compared relationships to flowers. They pointed out that some flowers (and relationships) are perennials, and bloom year after year. But other flowers (and relationships) are annuals or biennials, and are no less beautiful or valuable. In other words, not to glorify the lifelong marriage at the expense of shorter relationships.
One of the primary reasons that my marriage ended was because my ex-wife needed to travel. (Which she did, around the world, for years.) She just needed to go. I bought her a ticket for around the world. We parted well. She said, Youre so nice to me I dont even want to leave. Youve met all my relationship needs, but Ive got to go. Its just in my blood. It was fine, it was time for the relationship to go its own ways. She even said to me a week or two ago, You know, Hank, youre one of the most important people in my life. How many couples can have that kind of interaction after a divorce, so I feel really good about how weve done this. A relationship isnt always meant to last forever; my ideal is that it would. Sometimes you match for awhile and then you go your own way. And we had some great years together.
Click to Return to
Send e-mail to Hank Friedman by clicking here
If the above email link doesn't work, please send me an email to: email@example.com
Copyright © 2002 Hank Friedman --- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED