Updated: May 1
Does something trivial as a cup left on the coffee table, or how to load the dishes in the dishwasher turn into a big blowup? Does any attempt to discuss important matters turn into an argument?
Conflicts and disagreements are a normal part of every relationship and sometimes may even be healthy for your relationship. However, if you are stuck in a pattern where you can't seem to resolve things without it escalating into a big shouting match, let's pause and firstly try to understand what is happening here.
Both of your nervous systems might be to blame here, and may not be your partner deliberately trying to hurt you, as you might think.
In a pattern where both parties are hurling angry, or critical words at each other, both end up getting hurt and the real issue of the conflict is not even understood, let alone resolved. Now, you may be saying to yourself as you read this, that it is my partner that starts the fight and I react to what they say or do. This is a linear, cause and effect way of thinking about relationships that keeps you stuck in the conflictual pattern. As this pattern keeps going you end up feeling like you are married to the wrong person, or that you both are just not compatible with each other. It makes more sense to view relationships as circular. This means that your reactions are a triggered response to a deeper sense of emotional disconnection, and the way you respond to your triggers becomes the trigger for your partner's emotional distress, who then responds to their trigger in a reactive way, that exacerbates your reactive response and this dance keeps going, keeping you both stuck in a loop.
The truth is, that in all negative relationship patterns, whether it's mutual fighting like this or just cold distance there are layers of emotions involved. Often, when you are triggered, your amygdala, the part of your brain that functions to keep you safe from danger fires up. Getting you both to react in a fight, flight or freeze response to the felt danger. You might be wondering how a scenario like a cup left on the coffee table can trigger your danger alarms! Well, the real issue is not the cup on the coffee table, or whatever it is that you started fighting about. Often underneath the surface issues, there is a felt sense of emotional disconnection that is threatening to our system, hence the survival mechanism is activated. For instance, partner A may be feeling frustrated and angry that they do most of the household chores and then complains to partner B that they don't contribute enough at home. This puts partner B in the defence, who tries to justify that they do, or blame partner A for not cutting them some slack. Deep down the real issue might be that partner A is feeling unsupported by partner B, and B feels unappreciated by A. If these two can slow down their reactive nervous systems, they may be able to better communicate their deeper needs to each other and also able to understand their partner's perspective. This can then lead to solutions, such as partner A starting to express more clearly and softly, how he/she likes their partner to support them, which will then lead to partner B responding softly to A's needs, This then causes A to feel B's responsiveness and give back some appreciation that B has been yearning for.
If you and your spouse are in a pattern where the smallest things can quickly lead to an argument that takes an emotional toll on both of you, consider the following steps to deactivate the mutual attack, or find the bad guy pattern:
Recognise that you are both stuck in a negative dance, which is your common enemy.
Try to identify your part in the negative cycle - what is it that you do that keeps the dance going?
If you are feeling triggered, take time out to regulate your reactive nervous system. The amygdala detects and responds to threats very quickly, as its function is for our survival in real danger. While the amygdala is triggered and a fight/flight/freeze response is activated almost instantly, our cognitive centre, which has very little use in a dangerous situation, is slow to catch up. Hence, learning to regulate our reactive secondary emotions helps us switch on our logical brain to assess the situation more calmly.
It might be helpful to have a toolbox of regulation strategies, such as deep breathing, taking a walk, mindfulness meditation, journaling, listening to music etc. to calm down when you are feeling triggered.
You can reconnect with each other when both of you are regulated and feel ready to have a calm and open conversation.
When your partner speaks, listen with an open heart and mind. Try to resist any urge to interrupt while they are speaking, and tune into not only their words but also their body language and facial expressions.
Validate and acknowledge your partner's emotions. After hearing your partner share their thoughts and feelings, take a moment to process what they have shared and avoid instant defensive or critical responses. Give them validating statements, even if you disagree with what they say. For example, "although I don't completely agree with what you are saying, I understand how you might be feeling."
Identify your deeper vulnerable emotions that are underneath the surface, and try to express that slowly, softly and using simple words. When you use simple words, the message about your deeper needs will land more clearly with your partner. Slowing down your pace and speaking softly ensures that your partner's threat system doesn't get activated again, and they may be able to stay present to what you are sharing. For instance, a soft and deeper sharing might sound like, "I get so angry with you because I don't feel supported at home. It feels like I am carrying all the burden on my own." See how this statement does not have any blaming, critical or accusatory language, but it's all about your feelings?
Apologise for any hurt caused, even if it was unintentional, even if your partner doesn't apologise first for the hurt they caused. If you feel you didn't receive an adequate apology even after you apologise to your partner for your part, express how you feel as explained in the previous point. For instance, "I still feel very hurt by the things you said to me earlier, and finding it difficult to move on, even though I know you didn't mean to say those things to me." You cannot demand your partner for an apology, but most likely, when you communicate softly about your needs and express validation & acknowledgement for their feelings, they will respond positively to you.
Despite your best attempts, sometimes this type of cycle may be hard to break, especially if you have been stuck in this dance for so long, or there are other types of negative patterns in action as well. If you feel you both can't seem to break out of your negative patterns, it is a good idea to reach out for professional help, and book a session with a couples/marriage counsellor. Couple therapy can help you learn effective co-regulation in a safe environment.
If you are struggling with your relationship, please reach out for support. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation to discuss your needs from therapy.
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