This is one of the big issues most couples have struggled with at some point in their relationship: who pulled the trigger on a toxic event – who was really responsible for the mess?
It usually goes something like this:
“If you hadn’t said ______________________ I wouldn’t have been so ____________________!”
“Well, if you hadn’t been so ________________ I wouldn’t have said ______________________!”
And round and round it goes. A circle of blame and justification for bad behaviors. Both partners not feeling understood around their respective grievances, because the context felt so critical to the sequence.
If you’ve ever been in one of these go-arounds, (and chances are, you have been, more often than you’d like to admit), then you know too keenly that this kind of exchange only contributes to raising blood pressure and your dog, who’s been witnessing it, getting more weirded out by the minute. (That’s another post: “Want the truth? Then watch the dog!”)
I’ve worked with couples who escalated so intensely around this kind of exchange that they fought for hours about this Who Started It All nonsense, then punished each other for days or weeks afterward!
So, what’s a more productive line of questioning to pursue around a fight? – one which might actually move the two of you toward some healthy ownership, some forgiveness, repair, resolution and some learning?
It’s a few simple questions to ask yourself:
“Where was I in that fight?”
“What were my contributions to that problem?”
“What do I regret about my own behavior in that situation?”
“What could I have done differently, even though I felt provoked?”
(My often blamed) but wise husband says: “In other words, take a look at yourself, because that’s the only thing you can actually change!”
I’m reprinting a brief article I received from the Gottman Institute about how to approach your partner with a complaint without the complaint getting experienced as a criticism, or an attack on their character. This “softened startup” is an approach I’ve been advocating for years to couples, but I thought it was very succinctly captured in the Gottman’s article. Here it is:
In the last Marriage Minute, we talked about Criticism, the first of the Four Horsemen. To review, criticism is an attack on your partner’s character or personality, often starting with “you always” or “you never.” Or you can be more direct with criticism: “You are so lazy,” or, “That’s just like you, finding any excuse not to spend time with me.”
Fortunately, it’s reversible.
The antidote to Criticism is what we call The Softened Start-Up.
To soften your start-up means to approach a conversation with how you’re feeling about the situation, not your perception of your partner’s flaws or behavior. There’s a difference between complaints and criticism. A complaint addresses a specific instance or action and acknowledges how it made you feel.
A good formula to remember is:
“I feel [your feeling]”
- left out
“About [the specific behavior, not a pattern of behavior]”
- “when I’m not invited to virtual happy hours with your friends,”
- “when you don’t read the articles I send you,”
- “when we don’t have dinner together.”
“And I need [state the positive need].”
- “to know what your preferred evening schedule looks like and how I can be a part of it,”
- “to feel like you’re interested in the things I care about,”
- “to spend some quality time together this week.”
Practice softening your start-up.
The most prevalent problem I deal with in my work as a psychotherapist with individuals and couples is the issue of how people talk to each other when they’re trying to manage conflict. And “conflict” isn’t always about big ticket items, like how to handle a kid’s bad behavior, or who is spending how much money. Conflict can be about who forgot to feed the dog or who did a lousy job declining an invitation to a party. It can be about anything where there’s an experience of difference or disappointment or hurt or aggravation or frustration. (The list goes on and on).
So, if you notice a fair amount of escalation or reactivity or avoidance or defensiveness or criticism in your marriage you may need some help. You’ll want to first understand how the tactics you and your spouse use may be destructive and why. You’ll also want to know how these behaviors can become part of a toxic pattern which may put you at a higher risk for divorce. Most importantly, you’ll want some tools for how to deal with conflict in more mature, constructive and respectful ways so the two of you don’t become a nasty statistic.
You can even practice together with your partner, giving advice to an imaginary couple who struggles with criticism. For example, how would you soften “You always leave dirty dishes in the sink”?
You can also apply this formula to positive things—”I feel cared for when you check in to see how my day is going!”
For a quick primer on all of this I’d recommend that you listen to my latest podcast on BlogTalk Radio about this subject. In just 30 minutes I condense the subject sufficiently so you’ll be better equipped in this department. After that, it just takes practice, practice, practice, like anything else that matters in life.
Here’s the link to the podcast:
*If you need some help with this issue because you either get too distracted or overwhelmed or discouraged on your own, then contact me for an appointment at my Portsmouth office at 603-431-7131
In this 30 minute episode I explore the frequently experienced issue of standoffs or impasses in marriage – those times when couples get “locked in” to a negative sequence when nobody feels heard or acknowledged, and nothing gets resolved. These “lock-in’s” can be about critical issues of importance or minor things, but the feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness generally feel quite awful for each spouse.
Tune in to get some handy tools this couples therapist can teach you to interrupt the impasses, manage yourself more calmly, and move forward with your spouse in a more conciliatory manner.
Join me and have to option to be live on the air with questions or comments by calling toll-free 877-497-9046.
If you can’t make the live podcast you can stream it anytime at: www.BlogTalkRadio.com/SusanLager.
Most of us are familiar with the “January Effect” – people armed with New Year’s resolutions to live cleaner: workout regularly, be more organized, eat more healthfully and lose weight, drink less, be more productive and waste less time, etc., etc.
Years ago when I belonged to Gold’s Gym we “regulars” would see swarms of well-intentioned people in January jamming up the machines, crowding the classes, full of optimism, only to almost entirely clear out by late February or March. The self-righteous eye rolls or chuckles among the “regulars” would be palpable. After observing it yearly I ultimately decided that this phenomenon might not be so much about laziness, lack of commitment or disorganization, but maybe more about a lack of permission – a lack of giving oneself permission to honor the need for down time, rest, hanging out, or sometimes people’s lack of permission to look at themselves with honesty about what’s really important to them. Had the resolutions to work out rigorously four times a week taken into account what was realistic in the context of people’s sleep habits, infrastructure to take that personal time, need for solitude or need for rest? Often not – coming to the gym frequently sounded good on paper, but had these people given themselves permission to look realistically at all these other factors that could undermine them? I think not.
I met with several couples in my practice after the holidays who talked with surprise and delight about having had a wonderful time with each other and with their kids during the holidays – for some, the first time in years! It wasn’t because they packed more activities in or were “good.” They didn’t go to every festival or capitalize on every possible day to ski or ice skate. They didn’t go to every party. They didn’t jump start their New Year’s resolutions. Instead they gave themselves permission to do less, to relax more, sleep more, hang out more, go offline, and not compete with their friends or neighbors to be the most social, or have the best holiday decorations, or the most elaborate rituals. They had given themselves permission to be honest with themselves about how much was enough, and how much might be too much. They tuned into themselves and their children rather than the hype around them, and it made all the difference in the world.
So, if as you read this you feel some apprehension about becoming a sloth if you practice tuning into your needs for rest and relaxation, take a deep breath and just try it for awhile. You may very well discover that when you legitimize downtime you won’t ultimately be less productive or social or happy. You may just discover a quieter, “slower” aspect of yourself, creating more peace of mind. You may even get to the gym with sufficient regularity after January!