By: Joseph Tropper, MS, LCPC
Every relationship has its ups and down, its good days and bad days. Do you find yourself having more of the downs and bad days than what you had hoped for? This is a common problem. You may have concluded that it’s often your spouse’s fault, but probably noticed that this blame sharing does not ultimately solve the issue.
Dr. Alan Fruzzetti wrote a book entitled “High Conflict Couple” where he shows how Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) skills can be used to help end the fights and conflicts that come up in a relationship. He focuses on concrete actions that you can take to improve your stress tolerance and techniques you can utilize to end the draining fights. Of course, it is still up to your spouse to decide how to react to your changes, but you will see the great benefits in learning these skills.
Did you ever notice how easy it is to get into a fight when you are feeling down, triggered or upset? Why do we always fight after she comes home from work, after he woke up late, after the in-laws visited, when we talk about finances? Do not think that it is only your relationship that is like this – this is very normal! When we are in a state of emotional vulnerability, our sensitivities are aroused and our ability to return to a healthy equilibrium after experiencing a trigger is highly compromised. This is the worst time to have a fight, because we will inevitably say some of the most hurtful and regrettable things, instead of having the sense to hold them in. The problem is that we often attempt to communicate with our spouses at this precise time, which only makes the problem worse.
Three Destructive Components
At the end of the day however, it is not really the hurt that destroys marriages and relationships, it is the denial that the hurt is being caused. I may be able and want to forgive you, but not if you deny that you hurt me to begin with.
Thus, the three most damaging parts to a marriage are:
The reason why denial is so harmful is that if you can admit you hurt me, then you can fix it, but if you won’t admit you hurt me then not only do I suffer the hurt, I also suffer from invalidation and the pain of the damage not being fixable.
Terrence Real (New Rules of Marriage, 2008) summarizes this well: “When your partner confronts you about some behavior or character flaw, do a 180 on defensiveness. Rather than deny whatever you can, admit whatever you can!” He also writes, “In the wake of difficult behavior, the most reassuring thing you can do is to show accountability. If you refuse to “own” what you’ve done, your partner will think that you either don’t understand or don’t care. In either case, there’s no reason you would not repeat the behavior. In other words, you are dangerous.”
Five Vowel Approach
So what can we do? Listen to the following ideas and you will see what you can do to manage your feelings and effectively communicate during these sensitive times. Couples often state, “We don’t communicate,” or “We have major communication issues.” I ask them to take a moment to define what this means. They usually are not readily able to explain more. I have come to understand that “We don’t communicate” really means, “You don’t give in to what I am thinking or saying.” There is probably good reason for this. Firstly, it is likely that you are not clearly expressing what you want and secondly, if you are, it is not being said in a way that can reach your spouse’s ears.
I offer you this model of healthy and functional communication.
Communication involves two people who are interacting and requires both a:
- speaker and
The first step in communication is for the speaker to use the formula of “AE” and then the listener to use “IOU”. If any of these details are missing in the communication then it will not be effective, and small or large hurt will result.
The speaker must not over-exaggerate, overreact, blame, insult, berate, accuse or generalize and must stay focused on accurately expressing what he/she is sharing. When this is done correctly, it is much easier for the listener to do his or her part of IOU, which stands for:
I- Interest: “I want to hear what you are saying and I will show you this by being attentive while you are speaking.”
O- Opinion is Okay- “I respect that which you are saying as a valid opinion” (You don’t have to agree with what is being said, you just have to seek to understand it.)
U- Understand what you are saying. “I truly want to understand your view.
We often think in our minds that the listener is always wrong for not validating, but it really goes back to a shared responsibility model. The speaker may not be expressing things in a way that the listener can hear and thus connect with him or her. Proper communication starts with proper dialogue and accurate expression on the part of the speaker, and this in turn enables the listener to do his/her part.
An All-Too-Familiar Story
John was fuming at his wife Jennifer and screamed, “I asked you to do one thing, to pick up my pants from that cleaners and you never do anything for me, I can’t believe how selfish you are.”
Jennifer, visibly shaken, shoots back, “You have such nerve, always criticizing me, you could have picked them up yourself if it was so important. I’ve been home with a sick kid all day, what have you done to help?!!”
John: “I’ve been slaving away at work, I left the house at 8 AM and didn’t have a moment until I just got home now at 7, all I asked you to do was one thing but your life revolves around your selfish needs.”
“I resent that, and you have no right to talk to me that way, in fact, you can pick up the suit yourself, that’s the last time I offer to do you a favor!”
John storms out, slamming the door behind him; Jennifer runs to her room crying. They don’t talk for a day and the snappiness and upset linger for days, triggered over and over again.
It’s easy to see how this fight can continue on and on and escalate more and more. Each speaker fails to use accurate expression and each “listener” fails to validate their partner’s words. Thus, the spiral of anger, hurt, resentment and distance only gets more intense as each person defends and justifies their position while ignoring what the other is saying. Sound familiar? Let’s talk about some solutions and then we will come back to this story.
The following list offers suggestions of how to better communicate and get what we need in our relationships. The basic premise is that with some practice, forethought, self-soothing and a plan to make small changes, we can get back on track.
Worthwhile Suggestions (Practice 2 per Week Only)
- Lower your tone and see how much this impacts your partner
- When your negative emotional arousal is low and not triggered, notice how much you love your partner, are committed and want to be in a friendship, partnership and supportive role together. When your negativity is aroused, know that it will pass and try not to act from that place.
- Before speaking to your partner, ask yourself: 1) What is my objective, what do I hope to accomplish? 2) Are the words I plan on using going to make our connection better or worse and help me accomplish what I am aiming for? Focus on the consequences that will come from escalation and think about why you want to avoid them.
- Develop a list of things you can do when you perceive that you are being attacked by your partner so that you don’t retaliate and make it worse. What are you focusing on, or distracting and/or soothing yourself with?
- Practice stepping back and not retaliating, thinking about past times that you did retaliate and how it went.
- Share personal interests and ideas with your spouse to foster positive feelings and mutual respect during neutral and positive times.
- Find a quiet place you can go to, that you will associate with positive feelings about your relationship with. Use this spot as a place to calm down when you’re triggered and upset.
- Notice how judgmental you become when you’re angry and recognize that in that brain-space, it will be hard to connect with and be understanding of your spouse.
- Practice rating how important something is before asking it of your spouse, 0 means not important at all and 100 means it is the most important request over the past one year. This adds much perspective and flexibility.
- Meditate upon the manta: “Validation soothes emotions”.
- Practice noticing what your partner is feeling, wanting, thinking and feeling.
- When your partner is self-critical, try to validate the overall emotion while ignoring the judgment.
- Practice validating with, “Of course you feel that way, anyone who had your experience would indeed share those feelings.” Remember that validation is not endorsement and condoning of an action, it is simply an expression of respect for another’s wants, desires and opinions.
- Notice when your partner is vulnerable to you and respond with your own vulnerability.
- First self-validate and self-soothe and this will give you more strength and patience to do this for your spouse as well.
- Define what the problem is- sometimes this is part of the misunderstanding. Notice how your feelings and opinions shift over time about the issue and recognize that both of you can be reasonable and flexible.
- Develop a solution chart that clarifies each person’s role and expectations. For example: “We will switch off doing the dishes every other night – whoever does them does it their own way as long as they use soap, wipe down each piece and clean up after themselves sometime before 8 AM the next morning”.
- Make up in your mind that no matter what your spouse says back you will give them positive validation about their feelings of hurt and continue to pursue peace. You will find that usually after 3 validations, your spouse will soften and may even accept the offer of peace.
- Practice distress tolerance: Make a list of small things your spouse does that bothers you. Pick the smallest one and accept that for the next month you will not criticize, complain or comment about it and see what happens.
- Embrace your partner for who he or she is right here and now. Make a list of what is meaningful about your partner and remind yourself of it when you are not feeling this way.
- Look over this list during the next five days and five fights and note which techniques would help enhance your relationship.
John walked over to Jen and said, “I’m sorry that I yelled at you about my shirt.
Jen: “You’re damn right you did, and I’m still hurt!” (still in defense mode)
John: “I know that I hurt you with my words and actions and I want to apologize. I regret the painful and inappropriate words that I shared in anger.” (practicing to validate 3x and going strong)
Jen: “Where have you been until now? You ruined the evening and ruined our week with your usual outburst.” (still not trusting)
John: “I wish that I would have said ‘I’m sorry’ sooner. You are right, it has been a very distant week between us.” (not blaming – just validating and sharing his own pain)
Jen: “Yeah, it was hard.” (softening)
John: “I take responsibility for what I said and I know that I exaggerated. You work hard at your jobs and I need to respect that. Being connected with you is more important than my suit. I appreciate how much you do for me and will try not to add more things to the list.”
Jen: “I appreciate you saying that and I can understand how stressful it is for you not to have what you need. I’m sorry that both of us were unable to pick up your suit. I will try to be more careful what I take on from the onset. I love you and care about you and sometimes take on too much.”
John: “Thank you as well, I wish I could go back and change my response. I will work on staying more calm and ask that you check in with me softly if I appear to be getting agitated.”
Jen: “I recognize how we both played into this fight and I will put in my efforts to de-escalate as well. It feels much better to be connected right now.”
John: “I totally agree. Thank you for listening. I love you.”
Jen: “I love you too…”
Keep on Trucking
Don’t give up. The techniques here do work. They just take time, patience and practice. If the suggestions here help you, then I am happy for you. If you are still feeling stuck, that’s okay- find a professional who can help you get on track. The sooner you seek out help, the sooner you can learn to enjoy your relationship.
About the author
Joseph Tropper, MS, LCPC, is a licensed clinical therapist and the Director of Operations at RCC.