Christie and Sam have been having a rough patch of late: Argument about little things that get blown out of proportion, where names are called, where feelings of hurt and anger linger for days. After these blow-ups, they do their best to make nice — to not bring up the topic again, to back off as best they can to let things go, to act politely. They walk on eggshells until annoyances eventually build up, setting off the cycle once more.
What Christie and Sam are doing is what a lot of us instinctively do when the relationship atmosphere is charged: you instinctively pull back and try to calm the waters. While this makes sense, it also creates the cycle that Christie and Sam are dealing with — where things are now swept under the rug only to blow-up eventually down the line.
The counter-intuitive stance is to go in the other direction. Yes, you do want to calm the waters and stop the arguing, but you also don’t want to begin sweeping things under the rug. Actually, it is this sweeping is that is often the cause of the problem to begin with.
When I see couples in therapy they come in with a wide variety of complaints about the relationship — kids, money, sex, household issues, work issues, drinking, etc. But what often lies beneath these presenting issues are two core problems: One is that they aren’t able to put problems to rest because they fall into this argue-avoid cycle, or, they avoid talking about problems at all and constantly sweep everything under the rug. In either case a host of problems wind up going unsolved, creating both ongoing tension and landmines that they constantly need to sidestep.
But the other underlying problem is that many couples are often going through a stage of individuation; it may be part and parcel of the 7-year itch, or their own emotional wounds being constantly reinjured and reaching a breaking point (more info on my posts on 7-year itch and 3 obstacles to relationships).
Regardless as the particular cause, what is happening is during these developmental stages is that too much of oneself has over time been compromised away or pushed to the side of the relationship. Both are needing to reclaim and bring back into the relationship what they each want; they need to be more honest and stop watering their lives down; they need change those patterns and routines that no longer work. Both are needing to break out and reset the everyday focus of their relationship and the lives they share
Here are some tips to help you take advantage of the opportunities these difficult times can offer:
You need to stop arguing to intentionally change the emotional climate in the relationship. While this can often seem difficult to do in intimate relationships, the reality is that you are likely already doing this all the time: You undoubtedly have to deal with coworkers or customers who push your emotional buttons daily, but you are able to remain calm, listen and problem-solve.
Yes, I understand that your work relationships are not the same as your relationship with your partner — he absolutely knows how to trigger you, you are more sensitive to what unfolds. But that said, you are half of he argument equation, you know you are capable of staying rational. When emotions ramp up, you want to shift your focus to you and your feelings, rather than the other guy and what he is saying. As soon as you notice that are beginning to get upset, do whatever you need to do to stop the fire and calm yourself down; you may need to call a time-out and walk away. It’s about breaking the pattern and changing the environment.
Okay, you’ve lowered the temperature. Now you need to solve the problem. Resist the inclination to make-up and sweep whatever under the rug. Circle back and talk about the problem you’re were going to argue about. Again pretend you are at work. Remain calm, focus on solving the problem.
The current you’re running against is that “being nice,” accommodating frame of mind that not only sweeps problems under the rug but causes you to pre-compromise in any problem-solving discussion. You don’t need to be controlling or mean, but you don’t want to lapse into that mindset of “I’ll go ahead and propose this rather than saying what I really want in order to avoid an argument.”
Instead take the risk of speaking up and honestly saying what you need, what you want most to change. This is about updating the relationship in the same way you update the software on your computer. You both are trying to get the bugs out, create a more viable version of the relationship. Say what you need and let your partner do the same.
Talk about emotional wounds
Emotional wounds are those emotional reactions that you learned to be most sensitive to based on your childhood — criticism, micromanaging, feeling not appreciated, feeling dismissed or not heard, not getting enough attention or feeling neglected. These wounds flare up and are easily reinjured in any intimate relationship. In order to make this rewounding stop you need to speak up and let your partner know what they are. While you’re at it, find out what his are. Make a deal to stop rewounding each other.
Talk about visions
This is where, particularly in longer-standing relationships, that things can go off-course. You want more or less family time, more or less house, more or less dedication to job, more or less couple time. Step back and look at the big picture of your life. Is it going the way you want right now? If not, now is the time to speak up and share your vision and your values.
The theme here is to use this time of turmoil as an opportunity to get things, all-important things on the table. It is also a time to upgrade the software in your brain about how you run your life — about being more assertive, being clearer about what you believe in, or perhaps being less controlling and more compromising — moving in the direction that you have not moved before.
This is a time, contrary to what your instincts may be telling you, to take important risks to change both you and your relationship.