Making Relationships Work: The Big Four

It isn’t about luck or chemistry (though it helps) or simply slogging through (though sometimes you need to do this). Like a lot of things in life, success in relationships is a little about skill, a little bit about awareness, a lot about honesty. So here are the Big Four that can make your relationship work. Get ready to take notes!

#1. How not what. Sam and Allie disagree about how to rearrange the living room. They both start off calm and rational, but the conversation somehow quickly turns into an hot argument about who always gets their way, who has no sense of taste, etc. And after a few more minutes, it gets even more ugly and out of control than that – they are into mothers and Christmas ‘04.

There are actually two things going on simultaneously in this argument – content and process. Content is about
what you talk about – ideas about the living room. Process is about how you talk about it – the way the conversation gets hot and off course. Process always trumps content. Having a conversation like driving a car down the road. You want to pay attention to where you are ultimately trying to get to, but you also need to pay attention to your driving. Once you start to veer off the road – the conversation is getting off course – you need to steer back to the center line, or if necessary, stop before it is too late. If you don’t, you’ll wind up in a emotional ditch, and never get to your destination.

Makes sense, but it’s not what we instinctively do. When we get angry we instead try to fix our emotions by heaping on more content – bringing up examples from the past, making more points in our argument – if we can get the other person to finally understand, we’ll feel better. But he can’t because he’s in the same boat – is emotionally flooded and can’t process what you are saying. At some point anything you say will only heat the other person even more – your words are like throwing gasoline on fire. The problem in the room is no longer about furniture, but the emotions. You need to put the emotional fire out. There are two ways to do this:

1. Be quiet and listen. This is your first line of response as soon you realize the conversation is getting heated and going off course. Listening does not mean (though at first it may feel like it) that you are giving in. By listening, and reflecting back the emotion – “I know you are feeling frustrated, angry, etc.” in the most calm voice that you can muster – you are no longer feeding the fire with content, and the emotional fire can burn itself out. Now what the other person may do at first is ramp up to get you to re-engage and get back in the fight – “At least I never…!” “Well, your mother _____!” Don’t go for the bait. Hold steady, stay calm yourself, and eventually the other person will begin to settle.

2. Call a halt. If listening and reflecting doesn’t seem to work, or if you are having a difficult time containing your own emotion, it’s time to call a halt, equivalent to pulling the car off to the side of the road and stopping. Stopping is important to prevent the emotional wounding that can happen in a heated argument. Stopping is about self control, self responsibility.

The best way to do this is to agree on a first-aide-time-out plan ahead of time. Here are the steps:

1. Decide on a non-verbal time-out signal – throwing the dish towel up in the air, doing a referee time-out hand signal, whatever you agree on. Use this signal to call a halt as soon as either one you feels the conversation is getting out of control.

2. After signaling your time-out, stop talking, and set a kitchen timer for a half hour or hour – this marks the designated cool-off period.

3. Do whatever you need to do to calm down – sit in the car, lock yourself in the bathroom, stand in a corner and take 30 deep breaths.

4. At the end of the allotted time you both come out of your corners and try the conversation again. If one or both of you are still too emotional, stop and reset the timer. You may need several breaks, or even wait until the next day to calm down. Only talk about the problem when you are both emotionally flat-lined.

Because emotions and rational thinking don’t mix, real problem-solving in the middle of a heated argument is impossible. What this plan does is separate the two – cools the emotions so you can then rationally solve the problem. Knowing the first-aide steps in advance helps ensure success.

But even though you understand the drill, getting it down will take practice. Expect the first couple of attempts to be a bit ragged. One of you will signal the stop and the other will want to get a last word in, or will say something to push your buttons and keep you engaged. The key is self-responsibility – paying attention to you, rather than what your partner is doing. Stop. Set timer. Leave and cool off. Then come back and try again.

#2. Healing Old Wounds. Sam may or may not agree with the where Allie wants to put the couch, but what can really set him off is the way she seems to just dismiss his ideas – she rolls her eyes, or doesn’t seem to listen. This feeling of dismissed or discounted is an old wound for Sam – he felt it a lot as a kid – and it still stings. When this happens with Allie, he reacts the same way he did when he was young – gets angry, withdraws, or becomes accommodating and child-like.

Within close relationships, childhood wounds tend to be complementary. Sam’s anger, withdrawal, or accommodation triggers Allie’s old wound – she now suddenly feels controlled, frightened or abandoned – and her response – getting angry, withdrawing or accommodating herself – only further fuels Sam. Around and around they go, both feeling like hurt 10-year-olds. Not only does this re-wounding keep them from solving their problems, over time one or both of them is likely to get tired of repeatedly feeling like a kid and always being re-injured. They back away from each other or talk about leaving the relationship. Enough, they say to themselves, is enough.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is challenge and opportunity here. Rather than you and your partner replicating the old wounds of the past, you can instead help each other heal them. Here’s how:

1. Figure out what feeling you are most sensitive to – feeling controlled, being dismissed, feeling unappreciated, etc. If you are not sure what your triggers are try finishing this sentence: I always wind up feeling ________. or People always _______ me. This will give you a clue to your wound and the underlying story you tell yourself that makes it hurt.

2. Think about what type of things your partner does that triggers this feeling – gets this loud menacing voice, doesn’t notice that you took out the garbage, gives you advice when you didn’t ask for it. Usually your partner is not doing any of these things to hurt you, in fact, he is in his mind just “doing what he does,” – isn’t angry but in his mind feels excited, is being controlling but rather helpful by giving advice. It’s your past experience and sensitivity that causes you to misinterpret and over-react.

3. Tell your partner what this wound is – I’m sensitive to loud noises; when you don’t notice what I do to help I feel unappreciated – and what you would like her to do differently –listen rather than giving advice; leave me alone when I seem upset, compliment me when I help out. Essentially what you are doing here is letting your partner understand what makes you tick; rather than just complaining, you’re telling her concretely what to do instead. More importantly, you are doing what you couldn’t do as a child, that is, being assertive and asking for what you need and want.

4. Go against your own grain. Your partner’s behavioral changes are only half the equation. You need to change your own response as well. Whatever your instincts are – to withdraw, get angry, accommodate – consciously try and do something else – control your temper, be assertive and say what you want, stay engaged and listen rather than worrying about figuring out what the other person wants. By doing this you override your old patterns, and, in turn, are less likely to trigger your partner.

5. Focus on you. You don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that the only way you can feel better is to somehow get your partner to change. Concentrate on you. Change what you are doing, don’t worry about your partner. By focusing on you the over-sensitivity fueling the pattern will stop, and your partner will actually be better able to take care of himself.

#3. Create a Vision. Awareness of the process and the healing of old wounds helps you both keep the car that is the relationship on the road, rather than going off into the ditch. But journeys are not just about good driving, they are about destinations. And this is what creating a vision is all about.

There are two versions of this. One is the short-term, your everyday life. What types of things do you like to do in a day, a week? What do you like to do alone, together as a couple, as a family? How much time do you need by yourself or want with your partner or children? Imagine an ideal day. The other is the long term. What is your vision of life five years, ten years from now? When the children are grown? When you retire?

It’s important as a couple to talk about these dreams and goals and to more or less be on the same page. This is the essence of compatibility, that my vision of life is similar to yours.

#4. Think positive. Or better yet, act positive. What research has shown is that you need a 4:1 ration of positive to negative comments in a relationship in order for you and your partner to feel anything positive. Anything less - like a 2:1 ratio where you feel you are always complimenting your partner – is likely to be heard that you are critical and on her back. Only by moving up the ratio – letting your partner know as often as possible what you enjoy and appreciate, what you find touching, caring, and considerate – can she not only feel her efforts are noticed and rewarded, but can she better understand what you need. This conscientious focus on the positive goes a long way in offsetting the negatives that arise, and can change the entire tone of the relationship.

So there you have it – The Big Four – the skill of keeping conversations on track and out of the ditch; the challenge of allowing each other to become aware of those things that you are most sensitive to, and then ultimately helping heal each other’s old wounds; the art and honesty of creating a common vision; the awareness and sensitivity to let your partner know what you need and appreciate most. If all this is new for you, try starting with the first. Once you are able to keep the conversation safely on the road, it will be easier to move towards the others.

Keep in mind
it is not about doing it right, but doing it different. You goal is changing patterns, not creating perfection. If you go off the road, pay closer attention next time to you and what you need to do to stay on course. Take acceptable risks, stay honest, envision your life. With practice it will become easier, you will feel more self confident. You’ll find that your relationships will work.

Practice Makes Better

These skills can also be practiced in other areas and ways in your daily life. Here are a few suggestions:

Practice assertiveness. Though perhaps less strongly, it’s likely that your old emotions wounds get ignited with other people and in other places – you feel micro-managed by your boss, for example, or ignored when out with a group of friends. Again, speak up rather than getting angry, withdrawn, or accommodating. Let your boss know her supervisory style isn’t working for you and what you would prefer. Tell your friends how you feel. Realize what is from the past, but act in the present.

Use your emotions as information. Rather than harboring hurt feelings, taking them out yourself, or dumping them on others, try thinking of your emotions as information – what does your anger or hurt tell you about what you need most?

Pay attention to process. When talking with a friend, try noticing the process of the conversation – unspoken emotions, the give and take, the way the conversation veers off course. Practicing this skill in more neutral situations will make it easier to notice it with your partner and family.

Schedule a vision update. Some couples set aside time on New Year’s Day or someone’s birthday to review the past year, set goals for the next. It’s a good way for both of you to keep current and clear.