The other night I was sitting watching a show with my wife. She was talking about a program and mentioned it several times. I started to flinch. In a level tone (because now I know now that raising my voice would start a fight) I said “OK, I’ve got it.” She fired back, “Why do you have to say it like that.” I didn’t understand, after all I said it in low tone.
So, it went like that back and forth until we went silent. We’ve learned a lot over the years and one of them is to stop talking. So, I went into the other room and started to process it out. When we are angry the part of our brain, we are connecting to is the “Flight or fight” or survival part of our brain. When we take some time and cool off, we can begin to start thinking with the frontal lobe where compassion and empathy can work. As the survival brain is working, it’s always her fault, she is just too picky and expects me to be perfect and even though I said it the right way she is still not satisfied. It’s never enough. She’s always complaining.
Where does that leave me? Well, I’m right, she’s wrong. I’m justified in my response after all she was asking again, and I can just wait for an apology. Not so fast. After I start calming down, I can go a bit deeper. I ask myself why that bothers me so much. Now I’m in my frontal lobe. I start to consider my history, my claustrophobia, my impatience and lack of empathy toward my wife.
I realize that it’s me, my responses and not her. Someone else would respond differently. Secret number one. Own my responses. My anger, irritation and that expression belongs to me. Our ability to take time to look at ourselves and take ownership is the most important skill in a relationship. Without self-reflection there is no relationship. Otherwise, we fall into blame and defensiveness and ultimately learn nothing, doomed to repeat the same event.
As I was no longer in fight or flight mode, I could go back and start talking to my wife. I asked her what a healthy response might be, and she said, “Just say OK.” I said I can do that and apologized for being irritated. In this way I can now look at what irritates me and learn to self sooth and level out my responses. We call this “Self-Regulation.” She’s just being who she is and sometimes that means repeating herself. It’s my job to work it through. Now I can tell her about my part and ask for her help with this. She can do the same for me.
Excuses, anger, irritation, punishment, defensiveness, shutting down and needing to be right are not healthy responses and inevitably lead to escalating the conflict. “To err is human.” Needing to be right means we have a deeper problem with ourselves. It means being wrong represents a deficiency in us. We are less than if we are wrong. So, we save ourselves by needing to be right. Being right is the wrong way to solve a problem. It becomes the problem.
We might ask, ok, what are the other three important skills in a healthy relationship? If we use the anagram SAVE then we are on top of it. What it means is Self-Reflection and regulation, Acknowledgement, Validation and of course Empathy.
This process brings us to the most important goal, Problem solving. The faster we can get to problem solving the shorter the conflict. Once blame, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling (kudos to John Gottman) end then problem solving can begin. That means, brainstorming about what might work better. What can couples do to move forward to fashion a better outcome? If we can keep solving problems, then over time there will be less and less problems to solve.
So, how did we use SAVE in our interactions. First, we stopped talking and I went and self-regulated until I cooled down. Then I could reflect on what happened and delve into what part of the problem might be about me. After some time, we began again. I acknowledged her response to me and validated her right to expect me to be respectful and kind even when she might be triggering me. I moved from flight or fight to the frontal lobe where understanding, compassion and empathy are and could then think about what she may be feeling at that moment.
Learning how to regulate our emotions is a huge challenge, especially when all the circuits in our brain are exploding. It’s a high bar but one that I appreciate because ultimately it makes me a better man. This means that I process my own emotions rather than just spew them out all over the person I love. It has a lot to do with self-respect. We forever remember what we’ve said and done. We must live with that. Respecting ourselves helps us to do the right thing when we feel triggered.
Empathy is a vital process in problem solving. Remember empathy does not mean sympathy or that we must agree. Empathy is objective, it’s seeing through the eyes of the other. Heinz Kohut calls it “Vicarious introspection.” It’s the opposing part of self-reflection. When I could see it from her point of view it made more sense. Part of understanding how relationships work is to appreciate what is important to our partner. It also builds connection.
Finally, we talked about what we could do moving forward. Now this is not to say from this very simple conflict that those waters don’t run deeper because they often do. But that’s part of the process. No matter what, to look at any interaction it always must include looking at what is happening inside us and between each one of us. It’s that focus that drives us toward resolution. Without it we get lost in our shame and our defensive blaming.
The process of resolution does require humility and generosity. The ability to own our part is humbling and can feel like humiliation. It’s not. Generosity toward sharing who owns the problem demonstrates our ability to consider the other person and what is important to them. To admit that we own part of the problem how it affects our mate is the critical first step toward being an adult. Maturity requires that we look at ourselves and what has made us into who we are right or wrong. Just like being a parent who is always right, what happens to the child who is always wrong?
We want and need our relationships to be part of the solution. So often when I’m working with couples, I encounter childhood abuse and violent interactions with family members coming up in current situations with couples and families. We do what we know, and we are how we’ve been treated. All children experience some kinds of pain from experience in childhood. Our body remembers and will make itself known during conflicts either directly or indirectly. To understand how we’ve been affected and how our family dynamic is being expressed currently can be very helpful in learning a new way of processing conflicts. By the way conflict is normal, anger, yelling, name calling and hitting below the belt are not.
When couples come to therapy, they are often wanting me to fix the other one. They don’t feel like it has anything to do with them. That’s a fatal error and therapy never works that way. After some 31 years of marriage and countless hours of work with couples this is what has come to me over and over again. It’s what people say about cliches, they keep coming back because they’re true. I think it’s the same with relationships. What’s true remains. Think SAVE.