When we fight or are stressed in relationship, we engage in a variety of protective postures and activities. We scream, pout, run away, shut down, cry, plead, deny, analyze, etc. Each of these moves are designed to reduce the discomfort we feel. However, there are many things we do or say when hurt, angry or afraid that actually make matters worse in the heat of an argument. Here are just a few of the most common mistakes people make when upset or triggered that escalate fights.
Generalizing or Bringing Up the Past: When upset about something, we tend to remember all of the other times we felt similarly. This tendency causes us to generalize our thoughts and feelings out beyond what we are experiencing now. We tend to think in terms of “always” and “never” when we are angry or hurt. “I never get what I want in this relationship.” “You always criticize me!” “You are never happy with what I do.” Generalizations like these only make whatever you are experiencing bigger. They also can overwhelm both you and your partner with a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness. And they can inspire defensiveness in your partner, as they will want to argue with your generalized assertions.
Bringing up the past is another common mistake couples make. When you bring up the last time you felt hurt like you do now, and the time before that, and the time before that, old wounds get re-stimulated. While people use the past to add evidence to their claim that things are not getting any better, and to justify their hurt and anger, they also cloud the issue by bringing in too many incidents and unresolved feelings to the table. Generalizing and bringing up the past is confusing and prevents couples from focusing on and resolving the presenting complaint. With ten issues on the table, for example, it is challenging to know where to start for tackling a problem or addressing a concern.
A good practice when upset is to avoid generalizations and avoid bringing up the past. In particular, avoid using the words “never” and “always” altogether. Instead, keep your focus on this moment, on what you are experiencing right now. Instead of saying, “You always criticize me”, say “I am feeling criticized right now.” Instead of saying “you are always late”, say “I am angry you were late today.”
Breaking up in the middle of a fight: This generalizing tendency, along with a strong desire for immediate relief from pain, results in some couples breaking up, or threatening to break up, every time they fight. Breaking up in fights, while intending to stop pain in the moment, actually only escalates fear and anger. Breaking up adds uncertainty of the relationship and future to the mix of whatever breakdown is at hand and makes the problem even bigger and more overwhelming.
As with generalizations, breaking up makes it difficult to focus on and resolve the issue at hand. You can’t express your anger about your partner being late nor can you creatively explore solutions, for example, if she/he is packing their bags to move out.
A good practice is to avoid talking about splitting up in the middle of upset. Take time outs instead, and re-group once you have calmed down and can think clearly again. If you still want to consider the possibility of separation or divorce once the heat of the moment has passed, that is the time to discuss it.
“You” statements: It is always easier for us to point the finger in blame when we are upset, and to see what the other person said or did to contribute to the breakdown or upset. And we are usually are all too willing and eager to point those out in the heat of upset. “You never help around the house!” “You never listen!” You statements like these will invariably put your partner on the defensive and can easily escalate your fight. You statements also have the unfortunate side effect of inspiring the other person to hurl you statements right back.
As tempting as it is, steer away from talking about the other person. Instead, talk about yourself – what you are feeling and thinking. It can be useful to know, that the closer you are to telling the truth about your own experience in this moment, the less arguable it is. For example, instead of saying, “You never listen!”, say “I am not feeling heard right now.” Your partner cannot argue with your experience of not feeling heard. This shift in focus will significantly shift your experience in the midst of upset, and is unlikely to add fuel to the fire.
Talking about the problem:
We have a tendency when we are upset to go on and on about our complaint. We really believe if the other person knew how dissatisfied we are, they would change and “fix” our complaint. However, unbeknownst to all of us, the more we focus on the problem, the bigger and worse it becomes. More often than not, talking about the problem IS the problem. Instead, share your complaints as requests. For example, instead of saying, “You are so critical”, say, “Would you be willing to say something you appreciate about me?” Move towards solving your complaint or breakdown and offer suggestions for how things might be better.
These are just some of the common mistakes couples make in arguments. Be gentle with yourself as you learn to embody these new practices. Remember, practice makes perfect, so play with practicing what works!
And finally, here’s a very common question we get …
A Common Question from Couples
What do I do when my partner and I are disconnected?
The tendency when we feel disconnected is to assume it is the other person who is the source of the distance. We blame, we wait or we resign ourselves to accepting distance as the “way it is”.
When disconnected, ask yourself what you are not saying? Where are you holding back? What are you not asking for? How are you contributing to the lack of intimacy? Love is what is present when there is nothing in the way. Look for what you might be holding in the way of your love for your partner. Many doors will open when you look at yourself as the Source of your experience.
Intimacy = Into Me You See. If you want to be closer to someone, reveal more about yourself to the person you want to be intimate with. Be as honest, real and vulnerable as you are able. Make “I” statements. Talk about you – avoid talking about them. Authenticity builds trust and increases intimacy.
Be what you want. You want closeness. Be close. Reach out. Touch. You want intimacy. Reveal yourself. Make eye contact.
Ask what your partner needs to feel safe to be intimate with you. Listen with your heart. Expect them to meet you. Assume that they too want to be intimate. Or they wouldn’t have chosen to be with you….