Couple life can present many difficult challenges – while simultaneously providing the most stabilizing, anchoring force in one’s life. Living day-to-day with another can feel like receiving multiple abrasions. We often feel our partner has stepped on our toes as he walked by, and we instinctively retaliate and step decisively on his. We often feel rubbed the wrong way. Contending with major and minor incidents is one challenge facing most couples on a regular basis. If couples learn healthy ways to navigate ruptures, they can preserve and strengthen the fabric of their relationship. Learning couple skills takes trial and error and discipline.
Angry feelings create fire and flames that can burn both people, quickly leading to a myriad of feelings: disappointment, further rage, indignation, loss of relations, relentless pain, etc. Both members feel terribly hurt if the angry exchange gets out of control and things are said that shouldn’t be said in the heat of anger. Underneath the anger are hurt feelings and painful feelings of vulnerability; those emotions rarely get thoroughly communicated and instead build up creating mutual guardedness that is destructive.
Rules for fighting are quite helpful and I define those so couples can count on them in hard times. First and most importantly, couples have to master the art of the time-out – taking space without fanning the flames. This can be instituted immediately when one or both parties recognize that they are triggered and further discussion will only inflame the situation. Either person can quietly suggest that all further discussion be tabled at that point and both agree to discuss the topic again when they have calmed down. Later in that day or the next day, an appointment is made to sit down in a comfortable place, face-to-face – in what I call ‘conference mode’– and discuss the situation. This should become a ritual: sitting down in a designated, comfortable, quiet place, face-to-face, and with a conversational tone, speak about the controversy. I will say more on this.
Each member learns how to control herself or himself: suspend attacking, any and all verbal abuse, yelling, provoking, following the person around, pouting, or punitive withdrawal. One can take space certainly, but not with an icy, belligerent tone. Learning to act responsibly is part of the maturation process.
As you get good at this, you can even reinstate some decent feelings once the conflict zone has been moved aside to be dealt with at a future time. We call this a repair. You can say, “Let’s let this go and be friends and we will deal with the issue at another, scheduled time.” Many times humor is a good repair, a signal to lighten up and regroup. It is critical to notice even the slightest attempt at repair from your partner and respond in kind. Both partners can take responsibility to activate the repair even if feeling justified in continuing to protest and punish the other. We all have too much pride and stubbornness that we act out even if it is damaging. Couples that resolve ruptures quickly do better over the long haul as the ruptures don’t tear into and destroy the fabric of the relationship. Long bouts of fighting and alienation destroy trust and stability as the fabric of the relationship becomes frayed with larger and larger holes until there is little left.
Learn to set aside conflicts until they can be discussed in ‘conference mode’ where both parties sit down and utilize mindful listening and respectful communication skills so there are safety locks on the discussion. It is important for each person to state how he saw the event, what was problematic for her, how he felt about it and what she wants the other to understand and empathize with so she can let it go.
The other listens carefully, does not interrupt, get defensive, or stray to stating his side of the case and usurp the discussion. Listening to the other is very healing for both. Listen, don’t interrupt, and try to deeply understand the upset, disappointment, anger and pain from the other’s point of view. Develop your capacity for empathy and compassion. Attend to their feelings by expressing that you sincerely understand. Become a good friend to your mate. Apologize for what you see as your contribution to the difficulty. State any vulnerability you may have had that contributed to your poor behavior. Then you will get your turn to share the events from your perspective. And the other will listen attentively and contactfully and you will feel better as you will feel heard too.
Apologies express mutual responsibility for unmindful speech and action. If both members of a couple embody responsibility for their weaknesses, the couple field becomes safer and healthier. The couple then can mutually create its most important function – the function of stabilizing and regulating each member so he or she feels safe, respected and supported. Each member is a critical anchor for the other that both count on. If both members can act responsibly then the couple grows its stabilizing function and both members feel content more of the time.
Please schedule weekly conferences to discuss practical and emotional issues so that issues get resolved over time! Do not let problematic issues fester and never get resolved to the satisfaction of both mates. Without organized discussion rituals, couples exist in a toxic soup where items are never resolved and resentment and despair builds-up and stagnation and resignation becomes pervasive.
If you repeatedly reinforce the stabilizing function of the relationship by creating deep mutual understanding that leads to action and resolution of items of importance for each member, then each member feels responded to. The environment becomes one that truly meets the needs of each person, resulting in a thriving duo made up of two happy individuals.