You’re riding a bike with your partner, having dinner with friends, or walking your dog against the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset. There is ease, open heartedness, and affection. And then a touchy topic comes up. “We need to talk about something you said at the party last week that bothered me.”
Suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, you’re standing against, not with, each other. All you see is your partner’s angry-looking face—glaring eyes, and tight, thin mouth—and a body that has moved from open to clenched. As the chemicals of fight and flight surge through our bodies, our certainty that we are right increases, and we loudly or silently move apart.
We are wired to do this when we sense we are in danger, like when a wild animal is chasing us. Our instinct is to protect ourselves, to run, to hide. The difference is that our partner is not a wild animal who is out to get us. They are just as distressed by what they are seeing in us as we are by what we are seeing in them.
I’ve been a marriage counselor and relationship coach for 35 years now, and trust me: I’ve seen every type of conflict under the sun.
Instead of standing apart and leveling blame at each other as the problem, imagine you are standing together, side by side, pointing at the issue. “We have a problem” is different from “I have a problem, and it’s you.”
We all experience feelings that can be very intense at times, especially when we are in an argument. Emotional regulation is a skill to manage those strong emotions so they don’t control our actions. This requires that we learn to recognize and handle them.
What this means: practicing soothing self-talk, doing some deep breathing, or taking a break. Being certain that we are right or wanting intensely to make our point may both be signs that our emotions are running the show rather than our smart selves.
Because it may be tempting to think the point of an argument is to win, you bring in all the necessary evidence to make your case. It makes sense. However, you are not in a courtroom. The more evidence you produce that your partner is unreasonable, unreliable, and a jerk, the more he or she will respond negatively, as anyone does when “under threat.” Stay on topic rather than making it personal or attacking your partner’s character!
Sometimes, when you have intense feelings about something, this feels counterintuitive. While discussing an issue, you need to stay emotionally trustworthy and bring up the topic gently rather than harshly. I notice that a “soft startup,” predicts a much better outcome than an angry or dramatic one. Don’t scare your partner by using threatening gestures and words, and don’t bring up things that you already know they are vulnerable about.
Be aware of when you are closed off when you harden your heart or move into a warlike position. Instead of closing off your body by crossing your arms, keeps your hands at your sides so your heat stays open. Remind yourself that this is not a war; it’s a discussion. Neither of you is bad or necessarily wrong.
Your task, as impossible as it may seem at times, is to cross that bridge and try to get a sense of your partner’s point of view. Not just “hearing them” but actually feeling some empathy for where they are coming from—even if you don’t agree with them.
We know that most couples have about 10 irresolvable issues and that these issues are about the same kinds of things, regardless of their differences. We fight about s*x, money, affection, social connections, and emotional vulnerabilities. What makes the difference between couples who dive and those who thrive is not the topic but how they manage the conflict. This requires skills, practice, and a willingness to learn the art of gentle negotiation.