Disagreements, miscommunications, failures, and fights are going to happen in every relationship. We are two different people, with different upbringings, and different ways of perceiving and interpreting the world around us. We are not going to see everything the same way. That is actually a huge benefit to succeeding and raising a family. It also can be very frustrating at times. Just this morning my husband walked in our room and proceeded to tell me about something he had just done and I said “sometimes, I have no idea how your brain works.” Most of the time, after 14 years, my husband and I are pretty much in sync with things. But, sometimes he says or does something that makes me do a double take. So, when these things happen, like last week when he left our 12 year old at school for over an hour because he wanted to finish cleaning out the gutters before the storm, and I lost it with him, how do we recover? In my mind, my husband committed a horrible parenting offense, and in his mind, I am an incredibly mean person who doesn’t care about his feelings and doesn’t appreciate the hard work he was doing getting ready for this “supposedly” horrific storm.
Well, first let’s talk about what happens when couple’s do not know how to come back from a fight, or, if they sweep it under the rug and never address the real issue. In the case I mentioned above, I could continue to believe my husband isn’t a responsible parent, and continue to feel like he isn’t someone I can count on with the most important people in our lives. I could start putting him in this box of being irresponsible, undependable, untrustworthy, and I could continue to be upset about it even when it isn’t happening. So when he does little things that upset me, I will see it through this much bigger lens and make a big deal every time I perceive him as being irresponsible. I will react in a way that will make no sense to him at all.
He, on the other hand, will have heard me yell at him about leaving our son there, calling him irresponsible, undependable, untrustworthy, and basically not a good parent. Which he is actually an amazing dad, but in that moment I was so flooded with empathy for my son waiting for the hour, I was enraged and could only speak to what had just happened, and not what kind of dad my husband has been for the last twelve years. So in my tunnel vision, I said all kinds of outrageous things.
If we were unable to go back and make sense of all of that, my husband would feel completely defeated by what I said. He would think, in all of my effort to work hard, wake up in the morning and make the kids lunches, read to them at night, fix bikes and take them on bike rides, hold them when they are hurting, spend weekends at sports games, and make most of my decisions on what is best for them, their mom thinks I am an irresponsible parent. That would be devastating to anyone. He knows he is a good dad, so he would begin to imagine that there must really be something wrong with me if I couldn’t see that. He would think I am impossible to please, I don’t appreciate who he is as a dad, I don’t respect the fact that he provides for this family, and that I must not understand that everything he does, is for us. And as with anyone, it is really hard to want to be close to someone who sees them that way. So, he would shut me out, do other things that give him a sense of pride, and stay away from the feeling that he is a failure.
Now, we can see, how over time if I continued to get upset at little things, and he continued to stay away from me being unhappy with him, we would eventual create the cycle of disconnection that would lead to a very unhappy relationship. And, if we were like most couples, couples therapy wouldn’t even be an option we would consider. Even though, as EFT therapist, we know how to get couples out of this cycle. Instead, most couples will live this way until an affair happens, an addiction is created, a divorce is presented as an option, or the kids move out. So I want to emphasize the importance of how to recover from a fight. Because little things turn into big things over time.
So what is the formula, for moving from yelling at your partner and losing it because a major offense happened, or doing something that made your partner feel insecure in the relationship? How can you affectively apologize in a way that lets them know how important they are to you? Well, in my case, we both did something that hurt the other person. I know some of you are thinking “so who has to apologize first”? It doesn’t matter. This is your relationship and you need to do whatever it takes to protect it. The formula starts with you being very clear on what was triggered in you, when the offense took place. For me, it was that my husband would put my son in that position. And for my husband it was that I could say all of those things after 14 years of knowing none of them were true about him. So, when you can figure out the underlying meaning to you, you talk only about that. Some common meanings are “I am alone in this,” “I am not appreciated,” “I am not valued,” “I am not lovable,” “I am not seen,” “I am inadequate,” “I am a failure.” If you can get to the root of your hurt and fear, then you can say “when I reacted that way it was because I felt alone in this, and I need you to be here for me,” or “when you said that, I heard you saying I was inadequate and not enough for you, then I get afraid you are going to leave me.”
So, once you find yourself in a fight or negative pattern, stop everything, take a couple of deep breaths, and then take a minute to figure out what is really going on. Protect your relationship, put the value and energy it deserves. Make a cup of tea and ask your partner to sit down with you and figure out what is really going on here. If you feel out of control during a fight, it is because our brains code our partners as a part of our survival. And when that gets threatened, our sense of safety is threatened and it feels like life or death. So stay close and calm that fear in each other’s brains first, then tackle the problem.
Love Long Love Strong,
Robin Blair, LMFT