By Adam D. Blum, MFT, Founder and Director
Is your relationship feeling stale? Or stressed?
For most of us, the answer to these questions is a big “yes!”
It’s hard to keep a feeling of aliveness in ourselves and in our relationships when we aren’t having new experiences to keep us energized.
For most people the primary unknown in our daily lives is “Will I get this scary disease?”
Stagnation can describe many of our current relationships. You are dealing with the same people, and the same problems, day after day.
Perhaps you are getting more irritable and falling into arguments more often.
Here are some tips about how to improve your relationship in these extraordinary times.
Take A Peek Underneath the Argument
Right below every argument something else is going on that is not about the subject of the fight. It’s hard to see that in the heat of the moment but when things calm down, can you get curious about the underneath story?
A good question to ask yourself is, “How does this subject relate to my sense of vulnerability?” When it comes to exploring relationships, the gold is in vulnerability.
To give you an example, your internal story could look like this:
“When he gives me that cold look I feel really alone. And it actually reminds me of being a sissy kid who ate most of my lunches by myself in the 5th grade.”
Or it might be:
“When I see that she’s left the mayonnaise on the counter again I see it as a symbol of all the things she’s never done for me, and all the things I had to do for myself growing up.”
Just knowing your triggers—and how they relate to your own past—can provide you with a sense of relief. When you can say to yourself “I know what this is really about,” you start to feel more in control and feel less overwhelmed.
Skip the Facts and Take a Break
Typically during a fight we get defensive. And then we start debating the facts.
“I told you it started at 6:15 pm not 6:30 pm!” We focus on the smaller details, the fine edit. But the fight is about the bigger issue, not the little facts.
When you are stuck in debating the details, could you try to steer the communication to what therapists call a “process” comment? That means a comment about the process of what we are doing right now rather than the content.
You could say:
“Let’s not do this. If we keep talking we will have a miserable evening. Let’s take a 10-minute break.”
“We are not doing this well. It will just harm our relationship. Let’s protect us by taking a time out. I’m going to the bathroom to wash my face.”
Saying you feel hurt is a process statement. It is not about the facts of the argument. It is about the feeling that is emerging between you and your partner.
There is no chance of good communication when you are feeling angry and escalated inside. There’s no point in continuing the discussion until you feel a little more grounded. Taking a break and walking around the block, listening to music, or whatever relaxes you is the most important first step.
The content of the impasse between you and your partner is not typically the issue. Your form of communication is the problem.
The Antidote to Polarization
Once you have both practiced getting calm, you’ll be better equipped to do the work of thoughtful communication.
Good communication is about empathy and seeing the other person’s perspective.
You could start by taking turns making one comment that validates the other person’s perspective.
For example, if you are arguing about whether or not to go to an event that could be risky, you could say to your partner:
“I know that you are trying to create some excitement and fun for us.”
And your partner could say:
“I know that you are trying to protect us and keep us safe.”
That conversation may begin to soften the polarization between you two. And when you think about it, it’s probably not true that one of you is the voice of paranoia and protection and one of you is the voice of danger and risk. The truth is both of you want to have fun. And both of you want to remain safe.
Or, in another common example, it’s true that both of you want a clean bathroom even though one of you cares more about that.
There may not be a clear answer to “who is right?’ But if we feel validated by our partner, it is much more likely we will end up in a compromise that protects the relationship and makes both partners feel okay.
The hard work of being a couple is to preserve the connection between you, not to find resolution to the issue.
Remember, it’s not a difference of opinion that creates the stalemate. It’s the polarization that’s the problem.