Archive | May 2012

Return to Equilibrium

Have you noticed that, when you have an argument with someone, one of you gets over it more quickly than the other? In fact, in intimate relationships one partner might want to make love after a fight, while it’s the furthest thing from the other partner’s mind. When people engage in emotionally reactive exchanges in which both are shouting in frustration at one another, they “lose their balance,” and they may differ in the amount of time they each need to return to equilibrium afterward. One person may take only minutes, while the other may need several hours or a whole day. Usually, the more volatile an argument has been, and the more emotional the participants have become, the longer it will take to “come down” from the incident. It can take a while to settle down after parties have been throwing things at each other, either verbally or literally — and again, it may take one person much longer than the other to recover from the incident, regardless of how hard the other tries to get them to “snap out of it.”

If you respect each other’s need to settle down after an incident, you will give each other the space needed to return to equilibrium — however long it takes. Attempting to reconnect while one of you is still “out of balance” may only incite another argument. Wait until the emotional reactivity has subsided and then get back together to make peace.

Your Partner Can’t Read Your Mind

When two people have been in relationship for a while, it is common for a partner to begin to believe that he/she “knows” what the other is thinking and feeling. The obvious assumption, then, is that the other also “should know” their feelings, thoughts, preferences, and wishes, and therefore, it’s not necessary to express them openly. Soon, this failure to express leads to lack of communication — and, lack of communication has a deadly effect on a relationship.

The way partners interact in intimate relationships often has roots in their relationships with early caregivers. Attunement in healthy caregiver-child relationships allows a caregiver to surmise that an infant needs food or a diaper change, for example, or that the infant is in pain or discomfort. In the course of normal development, the child becomes independent from the caregiver, and is able to express his/her own wants and needs. Sometimes, however, the caregiver-child relationship becomes enmeshed, which means that the boundaries between the two are blurred, as though the thoughts and feelings of each are one and the same. The caregiver is unable to validate the independence of the child, and the child is unable to act autonomously. If the child grows into adulthood with this enmeshed template as a model, he/she will bring it into adult intimate relationships, and expect intimate partners to also be able to “read their mind” and respond accordingly, as their caregiver did. When their intimate partners fail to meet this expectation, they are bitterly disappointed.

Communicating one’s own thoughts and feelings is important in a relationship. Not only does it enable each partner to learn more about each other, but it also helps a couple to resolve differences in perspective. For example, one partner may see anger as normal, while the other sees it as something to be avoided at all costs. If the anger-averse partner assumes that the other “knows” how they feel about anger, he/she will feel hurt each time anger is expressed, wondering, “Why does he/she do this to me when he/she knows that anger scares me?” Or, the anger-averse partner may just clam up, causing the other to feel even more frustrated and become even angrier.

Let your partner know how you feel, what you think, and how you perceive different situations. Ask for what you want and need in your relationship. Don’t assume that your partner knows. Most probably, your assumption is false.

Awareness: The Three-Legged Stool

In order to manage anger effectively, a person must develop a sense of awareness — awareness of what’s happening in their body, awareness of what feelings are underlying the anger, and awareness of the thoughts that are triggering the anger. I call this the Three-Legged Stool, with each leg being just as important as the other two.

When you get angry, you might not be aware of how and where your body is reacting to the anger-provoking incident. Your body is actually the first indicator that you are angry. In fact, your body can display signs of anger even before you realize you’re angry! Common indicators are a tight jaw, clenched fists, and shallow or rapid breathing. There are many more. The next time you begin to feel angry, tune into your body and scan it to notice what’s happening. On a piece of paper, jot down what you notice to reinforce your awareness of your personal physical signs.

Feelings comprise the second leg of the stool. Anger is a secondary emotion, and there are always primary emotions under the anger. Often people focus on, and express, only the anger, failing to note underlying feelings such as hurt, disappointment, fear, or sadness. When you express anger, the target of your anger will usually express anger in return. If you’re feeling hurt or disappointed, this is the last thing you need. However, if you take time to explore what you might be feeling under your anger and express that feeling, you are more likely to receive the response that you’re really needing in the moment. Saying “I’m disappointed that you didn’t remember to….” or “I feel hurt when you say….” may result in an apology from the other person and a commitment to remember to do things differently in the future. If you lash out in anger instead, the other person will become defensive, offer excuses, and feel victimized by your anger.

Finally, it’s important to identify the thoughts that are running through your head when you are angry. Ask yourself whether they’re realistic or distorted. Are you jumping to conclusions without all the evidence; seeing things in terms of black and white with no “grey areas”; overgeneralizing; placing all the blame on someone who’s not fully responsible? If you take the time to step back and notice your thoughts before responding in anger, you will be better able to express yourself rationally and explain your perspective of the incident that has made you angry.

Your physical signs, underlying feelings, and thoughts affect you regardless of whether or not you are aware of them. Let’s suppose you are not aware of these indicators, and the following takes place:

You feel tension in your neck when a set of circumstances arises. You think that the circumstances are out of your control, and there’s nothing you can do to change what is happening. Feeling “out of control” makes you angry, and you take it out on the person closest to you.

Contrast that with what you can do if you are aware:

You feel tension in your neck when a set of circumstances arises. You take a few minutes to breathe into the tension and consider what might be causing it. You realize that you are feeling “out of control” over a certain situation. When you examine your thoughts, you notice that you are jumping to conclusions without having all the facts. You’ve managed your anger, and the awareness process has helped you to avoid taking your anger out on the first person to walk into the room.

You have a choice: To become aware or to stay unaware. Which will it be?

Going Through the Motions

Sometimes life gets in the way of relationships. Work routines, household chores and child care can take priority over the way a couple interacts. Before they know it, they are directing all their energy toward people outside of their relationship and have none left for each other, so they just “go through the motions.” Although they may recognize that this is happening, it takes commitment on the part of both partners to change their behaviors and do things differently.

Do you recall how you interacted when your relationship began? If you would like to regain that connection, here are some tips to consider:

  • Make an effort to pay attention to each other in small ways. For example, when your partner leaves for work walk him/her to the door and send them off with a kiss. When he/she returns home, smile and show them that you’re happy they’re home.
  • When you talk, communicate with each other rather than talking at each other. Share your emotions and your personal thoughts, and encourage your partner to do so. Empathize with your partner when he/she has had a difficult day.
  • Go out alone together. Lack of time alone together leads to distance and feeling disconnected. When couples feel disconnected, neither feels cared for or supported by the other.
  • Create a “honeymoon week.” Agree for one week to act the way you did when you first became a couple.
  • Allow each other to pursue outside activities. When you return home from an outside activity away from your partner, share what you did, what you experienced, who you saw, what you felt, and so on. When your partner talks about outside activities, express interest and support.

These suggestions are just for starters. Be creative, and think of additional ways in which you and your partners can once again make each other your “Number One”!

The Expectation of Sameness

For some people, entering into a relationship — whether it be an intimate relationship, a friendship, or a relationship with family members or co-workers — creates the expectation that those in the relationship will think, feel and act in the same way. When they find that this is not the case, and that the other has his/her own set of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, they are disappointed and may even feel as though their own views are threatened.

Having different perspectives on a variety of issues, and thinking about people and events in different ways, can add a dimension to a relationship and enhance it. Imagine sitting with someone who is a clone of yourself. This clone thinks, feels and behaves exactly like you. Initially it may feel good to have someone who validates absolutely everything you say and do, but after a while the novelty would wear off. You’d get bored with your predictable clone, and begin to seek some diversity.

The next time you’re with someone and you find yourself judging how they should feel, think, or behave, stop yourself. Appreciate the ways in which the other is different. Accept the other as they are in the moment. Instead of feeling threatened by the differences, be curious about them, respect them, and remind yourself that you and they are each a product of your own unique set of circumstances and life experiences. Notice how your differences enrich your relationship, rather than focusing on how these differences frustrate or annoy you.