Two articles from the NY Times to think about:
We are Fighting for…??? Embroiled in battle, couples can tap a useful tool, self inquiry
Self Inquiry: It goes something like this: “Self, what am I trying to win here?” If you come up with an answer along the lines of: ” To prove that I am right” dig deeper. “To prove that my spouse is wrong.” Deeper still. “To prove that I am not the bad one. To prove that my partner is the bad one, the unkind one, the thoughtless one, the selfish one.”
Who let the dog out? Who forget to pay the mortgage? Who drank too much at the party? Who embarrassed whom? Who does more? Who hurts more? Who cares more? Who makes more? Who pays more? Who sacrifices more? Who martyrs more? Who Started It? ”
My question: “Who Needs It?” Couples can fight about anything. Absolutely anything. We all do it. But what lies at the root of the battles? What are we fighting for? There is always a reason, often out of awareness, which, when uncovered, gives dignity and emotional significance to what can, on the surface, appear trivial and petty.
Emotional Significance: The major themes that underlie much relationship upset revolve around “worth”, “value” “respect” and “validation”. Our emotional significance to the other. Despite gender differences, men and women are similar in their need to feel acknowledged, respected, and valued.
Self worth is not an island unto itself: In the Coupledom, self worth is deeply influenced by how one perceives they are viewed by the other. Often what solidifies the budding relationship is the mutual feeling of being “special”, desired, respected, and loved. What follows is much more complicated. Through the transactions of daily living, running a life together, a family business of children, sex, money and work, the very glue of mutual respect and love can seem to dry up.
Subjectivity is at the Heart of Human Existence: We all live inside our own skins and base most of our perceptions of the world from that perspective. Our senses are organized to send data to us about how the world is treating us. However, often that very data input is skewed to meet the demands of our system, our emotional history , physical and experiential requirements. For that reason two people telling the so called same story have slight to significant differences in facts and interpretations. Facts sometimes can be checked out but most often rely on memory and therefore carry a very selective component. Frequently, couples battle over the “details” of what “really happened”. This is a wasteful and often poisonous occupation. The “subjectivity” of experience and the selective process of memory suggest that no one wins that battle, not really. Instead inquire into your self for the emotional significance of that interaction. Then you can look for the words that can best describe and explain to your partner what you would like for them to understand.
Bickering Builds Walls: Living “in our own skins” coupled with our lack of clarity of the emotional significance of events, leads to battling blindfolded. Darting about sticking wounds into our partners hither and thither and being stuck. This artless dueling builds walls of wounds and pushes worlds apart.
Remedies: When motivated to battle, stop and think, self inquire. What really hurts here. Is it the repetitive refusal to empty the garbage when requested or have the meal hot on the table when returning from work? The forgotten return phone call, or the bill for the seemingly unnecessary item? Or is it the message that seems written all over these events? And if so, how can I explain that to my partner?
The Vulnerable Stuff: Speaking in the “I” form. “I feel” rather than you do or you did or you did not, immediately shifts the listener’s attention from defensive to empathic. I feel sad or foolish or insignificant or disrespected when this happens. Can you understand that? Sharing the vulnerable stuff, rather than the accusatory, allows the other the option of being in your skin for a moment. Though folks steer away from revealing the softer side, it is the side that leads to empathy. Not hysterics, endless sobbing or wringing of hands. Articulating what is at the heart of the pain. Insults and accusations are unappealing and the least likely choice to draw interest or empathy from the listener. Digging deeper reveals something much more attractive, the origins of that person they first fell for. The vulnerable one who allowed them in. Dig in together to reconnect with that softer part of the Coupledom. (Warning: anything manipulative or insincere will not work).
Beware Damaging Assumptions: Never assume the petty and trivial is all there is to the pain and anger. Never assume that your partner is too macho, too cold, or too callous, to feel hurt. No one has the monopoly on pain. The toughest hombre in town can match vulnerability and bruises with the softest damsel in distress.
Experts at Digging and Self Inquiry: As always, if this process gets stuck seek out an expert who has the tools to guide you both towards self inquiry and shared vulnerability.
©jill edelman,M.S.W., L.C.S.W.