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Early Bird or Night Owl?

One issue that can create conflict between partners, roommates and even between parents and children is the bedtime hour. In some homes, dorms and other communal living situations, there are disagreements almost every night with respect to when to go to bed. One person may need at least seven hours of sleep in order to function well at work or at school. Another may need far less. Some “night owl” partners get angry when their “early bird” partners go to bed before them, because they hold the belief that “couples should go to bed together” — meaning, “at the same time.”

While it may seem at first glance that it’s related to stubbornness and refusal to comply, there may be another more complex reason for these scenarios — our circadian clocks. Each of our bodies has an internal “clock” that dictates our sleep preferences. It’s something we’re born with, like our temperament. Our circadian clock tells us when we prefer to go to sleep, and how long we need to sleep. This explains why some people are early risers while others just can’t seem to get their act together until after Noon. It explains why some people believe that at 9:00 p.m. “the night has just begun,” while at that hour others consider the day to be done, and are dragging themselves off to bed.

When you think about it, it’s easy to understand how problems can arise among dwellers of a household due to discrepancies in their circadian clocks. But, knowing about the “clock” can also help us to develop tolerance for those on a cycle different from ours. Parents may not want their night-owl children prowling around the house at all hours of the night, but if they recognize they have a “night owl” on their hands, perhaps they can be more lenient on weekends and allow the child to stay up later and sleep later the next morning. Couples might stop imagining that their partner is staying up late to avoid sex, and occasionally request that their partner join them in bed earlier that night. The disappointment of night owls when they see others going off to bed can be tempered by the understanding that their partner or child simply needs to go to bed early, in the same way that the night owl needs to stay up.

Think about the people you live with now, or that you lived with at other times in your life. Do you remember having arguments about bedtime?  Now think about it in terms of your circadian clocks. It will probably help you to have more empathy for yourself and for the others than you may have had.

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Take Up the Space That Is Yours in Your Relationship

You may have noticed that with some couples one partner takes up all the space and the other shrinks into the background. It could be simply that one partner is an extravert while the other is introverted. If that’s the case, the introvert may be happy to give the floor over to the more outgoing of the two. It may also be related to the couple’s cultural background. In some cultures, the male partner is viewed as “he who must be obeyed,” and it is not acceptable for the female to answer back or even to offer her opinion when it differs from his. But, a third possibility is that one partner concedes the floor because he/she either doesn’t know how to assert themselves or has given up trying.

If your relationship falls into the third category, you may find yourself in an unhappy relationship filled with increasing resentment. When one partner is subservient to the other while the other dictates the way things should be, it creates a master/servant dynamic. When one partner always seeks to be cared for while the other does all the care-taking, it creates a parent/child dynamic. After a while, such relationships begin to wear on one or the other partner, who may finally rebel.

When it comes to large and small decisions, allow each partner to weigh in. If you’ve been hiding in the background, let your partner know that you have something to say. And, make sure that each of you experiences your share of caring and being cared for. If you’re tired of always attending to your partner’s needs at the expense of your own, begin to ask your partner for what you’d like. Consider what your relationship would be like if you balanced things out and each occupied the space that is yours.

Zero Tolerance Domestic Violence Laws

When I teach my anger management class, I encounter class participants who have never before been in trouble with the law, but nevertheless now find themselves court ordered to be there. Due to several domestic violence incidents which resulted in severe injury and even death, more and more towns, cities and states are enacting zero tolerance domestic violence laws — and more and more partners are finding themselves in situations they never imagined they would be in.

Suppose a couple gets involved in an argument. The argument becomes more and more heated, and they engage in a full-blown shouting match. A neighbor hears the shouting, feels uncomfortable, and calls the police. The police show up. If a zero tolerance law is in effect, the police must arrest someone, and sometimes arrest both people — regardless of the fact that neither has touched the other physically, and regardless of the fact that neither party has pressed charges. Zero tolerance domestic violence means tolerance for no form of domestic violence. And, shouting is a form of domestic violence.

So, one or both parties find themselves embarked on a journey they did not anticipate: getting charged with an offense; having to obtain legal counsel, either through the public defender’s office or privately; appearing before a judge; receiving a sentence, usually through a plea deal, and usually involving attending anger management classes for anywhere from eight to twenty-six weeks. All this involves time and money. In my anger management classes, 100% of participants acknowledge that the incident that brought them to class started over “something stupid,” and if they had managed their anger differently they would have saved themselves, their partner and their family a lot of hardship.

The next time you feel the urge to let loose with a torrent of angry words, whether you are in the privacy of your own home or driving down the street in your car, be mindful that your behavior might precipitate a call to the police by a concerned citizen. Stop shouting. Stop talking. Take a breath. If you can leave the vicinity, tell your partner you need to leave for a half hour, and go for a walk. Calm down. Think about your own contribution to the problem, not how wrong your partner is. Develop a plan for approaching your partner peacefully when you return. If you were arguing about an issue that needs resolution, table it until the two of you can talk calmly about it.

You have a choice whether or not to get caught up in the zero tolerance net.

The Escalation of Anger, Part 2

Because arguments so often escalate into verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse, this topic warrants additional discussion. Let’s take a look at situations that typically lead to escalation, and suggestions on how to handle these situations differently:

  • You dominate conversations, leaving the other person with little space to talk. This causes the other to pen up anger until he/she finally explodes. [Suggestion: Avoid monologues. Pause at frequent intervals, and allow the other to respond, so that you’re truly conversing, rather than giving a speech.]
  • You blame the other for the problems in the relationship. [Suggestion: Consider what role you play in the problem.]
  • You can’t control your own anger when the other person gets angry. [Suggestion: Focus on what the other is trying to express. Say something like, “In other words,….” or “So you felt that….” and add, “I imagine that makes you feel….” Responding in this way helps to defuse the other’s anger, because he/she feels heard.]
  • You control what the other person can talk about. [Suggestion: If a topic is uncomfortable, explore within yourself what it is triggering. It is most likely an indication of an area that needs work on your part.]
  • You engage in the one-up/one-down loop. [Suggestion: See The Escalation of Anger, Part 1.]

As you can see, awareness is a healthy first step in any of these situations. In any of your interactions, be mindful of the impact your words or actions have on the other person and on the relationship. Don’t minimize the effect of what you say and do. Recognize when you are being emotionally abusive, and takes steps to change.

Sometimes the Truth Hurts

Ever notice how defensive you get when someone calls your attention to something hurtful you may have said or done? It is partly because we each hold an image of the type of person we think we are, or want to be. When we behave outside of that image and our behavior is pointed out, sometimes we go into denial. A voice within us says, “No, that can’t be so….I’m not like that, I’m like this….I would never hurt someone like that….” It’s difficult to hear what the other person is saying about us, because we don’t want to be the kind of person who would do such things. So, we get defensive and attempt to justify what we did with excuses: “I wouldn’t have done that, except for the fact that….”

The next time someone lets you know that you’ve behaved in a way that caused them to feel hurt, uncomfortable, or frustrated, listen to what they are saying. Acknowledge that, while it may not have been your intention to trigger those feelings, what you did had that impact on them. Accept the fact that sometimes you will stumble and act contrary to the person you strive to be. The acknowledgment to the other will be healthy for the relationship. Your acceptance of your own capacity to fall short from time to time will help you to stay aware of, and work on, your weaknesses. You can’t work on weaknesses when you deny that they exist.

Being on the Same Team

Summer is approaching, and many people are looking forward to spending vacation time with family and friends — or not. While vacationing with loved ones can be fun and relaxing, it can also be a source of stress and even dread. These feelings come up often when a couple schedules time with one partner’s family or circle of friends. There’s an assumption that the other partner should just “fit in,” and enjoy the events as much as his/her significant other. But, that’s not always the case, and when it’s not the case it can result in a full-blown argument.

If you have a vacation or event planned with your own family or friends, invite your partner to tell you how he/she really feels about going. Unless you extend this invitation, he/she may just suffer in silence — and wallow in resentment. Allow them to express that they’re feeling either lukewarm or downright cold about the upcoming activities. No need to get defensive; their feelings are their feelings, and nothing you say or do will change them. However, together you might be able to come up with a plan that would make the vacation or event more tolerable for the reluctant partner. Agree to “look out” for one another. Have a signal — a raised eyebrow, a subtle gesture — that would tell the other that you’re getting uncomfortable, and need to be “rescued.” And then, follow through with a rescue. Walk up to your partner, take their arm gently, and say, “Let’s go for a walk,” or “It’s hot out here; let’s get out of the sun” — whatever you can think of that would give your partner an easy exit from the stressful situation.

Stay on the same team and tell each other, “I’ve got your back” as you plan activities that are potentially uncomfortable or stressful for one of you. If you do this, you may even find that both of you were able to relax and have fun!

Tension in Relationships

For some couples, it doesn’t take much before tension between them begins to mount. Before they know it, they’re “getting into it” with each other — and neither really knows why. It’s a pattern they follow time and time again, and they can’t seem to prevent it from recurring.

One thing to watch for are the assumptions you make when your partner has triggered your anger. If you assume that your partner has done something deliberately to make you angry, of course you’re going to respond with anger. Think for a moment that perhaps your partner’s action was due to the fact that he/she was stressed out due to circumstances relating to work or some other reason. It may not have been about you at all. You just happened to be the closest target. While it’s really not OK for your partner to strike out at you, it may help the situation if you avoid striking back, and instead offer him/her some support and empathy. See if you can find the compassion within you to let the incident go for the moment. When the incident has passed and your partner is calm once again, you can then let him/her know that you felt hurt, frustrated, offended, and so on when they said x or did y. Make a pact with each other that you will let each other know when you’re moody for reasons unrelated to your relationship. This opens up the channels of communication and keeps tension from mounting between you. Your partner can relax, knowing that whatever is bothering you will blow over, rather than causing an argument between you.

Another way to prevent tension from mounting when your partner is upset is merely to listen. Hear what he/she is saying so that you are sure you understand before you respond. Often partners begin to “talk into” each other, focusing only on what they want to say, and they don’t really hear or acknowledge what’s going on with the other person. They interrupt each other and make sarcastic comments. Sometimes they have such difficulty listening to each other that they don’t even recognize when they’re in agreement! If what your partner is saying seems unreasonable or crazy, see if you can find at least one kernel of truth in what your he/she is saying, and agree with that. Don’t get defensive, and don’t try to explain yourself. Listen without judging or criticizing your partner’s thoughts or feelings. Just agree with that one kernel of truth. By doing this, you can lower the intensity of the moment and avoid causing a rift in your relationship. You’ll have plenty of time to explain yourself later.

It’s hard to react differently to your partner if you’ve both spent years suppressing your true feelings and building up strong resentments about times when you each haven’t been heard or understood.  If you each wait around for the other to react differently, it will never happen. Change begins with you!