Many of the negative emotional and communication cycles that I see when couples come to me can be summed up very simply. Two people who come into close relationship, start hurting each other in unconscious ways, and can’t stop. The efforts they take to stop the pain unwittingly perpetuate the pain cycle, and so the cycle feeds on itself with each person not trying to hurt the other at first, but the cycle is so strong and neither person knows how to stop it. If allowed to continue long enough, the pain cycle turns both people into someone they barely recognize. They can end up being cruel and spiteful until finally the hope for a resolution fades and apathy develops. This blog post is going to identify some of the best ways I know to end the downward spiral.
“I’m in pain, but you didn’t hurt me.”
This is such an important one I wanted to make sure it was the first one on the list. Life includes pain. Relationships include pain. These are natural consequences. Now, I never want to suggest that this means you should accept physical or emotional abuse in a relationship. Those are not inevitable. But some pain is a necessary part of closeness. A lot of relationship pain comes from natural causes (like when your lover gets sick and can’t spend time filling your needs). For those natural causes, we can usually understand easily that the pain is not personal. There are other times of misalignment that can be hard to not see as personal. One example would be that time you are left waiting to be picked up because your partner was stuck in traffic but you think they forgot and you feel hurt.
In situations like those, it is much harder to see that your partner didn’t hurt you. You feel pain, and it seems like your partner is hurting you and so you may assume (without even realizing that you are making the assumption) that they are hurting you. Here is an example. Imagine Pat and Jean. Pat has a hard day at work and walks in the door before dinner expressing something to that effect. Jean is concerned and feels tenderly towards Pat so Jean does what Jean would want Pat to do in this situation. Jean leaves Pat alone to decompress and takes care of making dinner. Pat’s emotional needs are different from Jean’s. When Pat is in pain, Pat wants comfort and conversation. Pat also likes to be able to feel effective at doing something after feeling less than effective at work. Pat therefore takes Jean’s distance and the way Jean shoos Pat out of the kitchen as emotional dismissal and a put down (as if Pat can’t make dinner). Pat feels pain at this response. But Jean’s actions were kind and compassionate in origin. Pat is hurt, but Jean didn’t cause the hurt. If Pat doesn’t understand that it is possible to feel pain without someone causing it, Pat may assume that Jean is causing/creating/intending this pain. Pat may react negatively to Pat and now the two might be in an argument.
If however, Pat could believe, “I’m in pain, but you didn’t hurt me” then Pat can follow-up by requesting that Jean meet the unspoken needs. Pat can acknowledge that Jean’s needs are different but give Jean the benefit of the doubt by trusting that Jean wants to help Pat’s needs to be met.
Sometimes, the person in my office in Pat’s position will ask, “But shouldn’t a partner know?” This comes from assuming that other people’s emotions work like ours. Yet if I ask a client, “Do everyone’s emotions work the same way?” almost none would say, “Yes”. Yet we operate out of this unconscious belief regularly. We reveal that we believe it when we are surprised that our partner doesn’t anticipate our needs without having to ask for them to be met.
“I am going to behave like the person that I want to be”
Sometimes I tell clients that if just one person in a dyad wants to stop the negative cycle that is enough. I will then try to figure out from each person how they hope to behave in conflict situations.
In the calm of my office, it would be very rare for someone to say, “Well, when I feel hurt, I want to treat my partner with coldness, judge and blame them, and then be snippy and dismissive.” Instead, people will say they want to be the last to join the argument, they want to be more patient, and more understanding. And then I try to help them figure out how to do just that even if they are hurting.
The ability to hold onto your own best intentions even when you are hurting can defuse impending arguments with surprising quickness. In the case of Pat and Jean offered above, maybe Pat could have simply said, “I really would like to make dinner because that would help me feel more effective after some setbacks today. Would that be okay?” Maybe when Pat first expressed hurt at Jean, Jean could have said, “Oh! I was trying to help you by giving you alone time and making dinner. Do you need something different from me?” The ability to receive an invitation to the negative cycle but to decline that invitation is a powerful relationship skill.
“What do you mean by that?”
As I’ve alluded to, a lot of the hurt in relationships come from thinking that you know what the other person wants and needs, or from thinking that you know how to interpret their behavior. In the example above, Jean interpreted Pat’s emotional state and assumed what the needs were. Pat interpreted Jean’s behavior as negative though Jean’s intentions and emotions were of support and connection.
So, when things go awry, you need to ask what is happening. Statements like, “What are you trying to tell me about your feelings when you do X?” or a statement like, “When I see X, I interpreted it as meaning Y, is that right?” This simple act of humility can end a negative emotional cycle with ease because you can find out that your interpretation is wrong. That humility is even more important but also harder when a couple has been together for many years. With years of experience with each other, it is even easier to assume then that you know already what your partner’s behavior means. But many times, the person you are basing your interpretations on doesn’t exist anymore. That person from years ago grew up and changed to become the person in front of you now. Asking this question helps you update your interpretation.
“What would really help me is. . .”
The opposite coin of the humility to ask what your partner needs, is to exhibit the courageous vulnerability to ask for your needs to be met. As I mentioned above, it is easy to think that your partner should know what you want or need. But if you ask, clearly and behaviorally, you remove any doubt.
Let me explain the difference between a clear request and an unclear one. A client might say, “I want affection.” But does that mean sex, hugging, listening, food, an outing together, a walk, or a gift? The word affection means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. “I want a hug that lasts several minutes, I my hair stroked, and a cup of tea afterward.” Now, that’s clear! Some people feel that telling a partner like this removes the sense of authenticity. People will says, “if they really love me, they will know already”. But it takes time to develop these detailed maps and if you never spell it out, the knowledge (which is so specific and idiosyncratic) cannot be discerned through active listening. So, unless you are spilling the beans about how you best receive love, your partner won’t know. Furthermore, your needs are changing over time. Your partner might be doing the thing you used to need but don’t anymore.
“This challenge is a benefit at other times.”
Sometimes, your partner isn’t trying to hurt you but you feel hurt and there isn’t anything that that good communication can do to solve the problem. Maybe the source of the pain has to do with your partner’s personality, or unalterable career demands, or their family or origin. But if you keep thinking that any relationship will come without some of those divides you are mistaken. It is just as important to accept the unalterable challenges and divides in your relationship as it is to accept the loving connections. In fact, most often the divides come at complementary points in the relationship. Love how your partner was there for you when your grandmother was sick, but frustrated by how they don’t seem affected by your frustrations with your friends? Love how spontaneous and adventurous your partner is but frustrated by their lack of planning and foresight? Likely the same traits that showed up in one place are also showing up in the second. You need to accept that for all people including ourselves and our partners our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses. When you accept your partner for who they are instead of trying to fight to make them who you think you want them to be, you will be more loving and kind, and they will usually respond positively in return.
The meta-principle I’m expressing in this post is:
Whatever may be causing the cycle of hurtful communication in your relationship, there is likely to be more than one way out of the cycle.
I have worked with many couples to help them stop their argument cycles and I am willing to try for you too.