How to Take Care of Yourself… in a Conflict with Your Partner

Accepting conflict

Every intimate relationship has to find its balance of harmony, conflict, calm, and passion if it is going to bring those involved mostly benefit.  “Mostly benefit” may not sound so thrilling, yet it is a worthwhile goal. Every partnership has its low moments. Every human connection has some form of conflict at some point.  Every relationship has its own complex actions and reactions based on the partners involved. To get through the difficult parts with a sense of safety and intact love and benevolence toward each other is a win.  This is what I would describe as “mostly benefit”: even with some conflict, there is a foundation of love and goodwill that you share.

Truck Couple
Seeing the process underneath the content

I am passionate about working with couples because studying these interactions and identifying ways that conflict can be minimized and love can be amplified is fulfilling and inspiring.  What feels so catastrophic to intimate partners during a serious conflict doesn’t frighten me as the therapist in the room, because from the outside I can see the intensity of the love between the partners… and also the subtext of the conflict.  I can help to slow down the interaction and untangle the words describing the content of the argument- the topic being discussed- from the tone of voice, the body language, and the emotion expressed that all comprise the process of how the disagreement is being conducted.

If we’re going to get to the root of the discussion in a conflict, we need to focus on the process.  The content that couples arrive to discuss is short-lived in the therapy room, because pretty quickly we get underneath it.  What are the emotional needs that are really being negotiated here? (To feel heard? To know you are trusted… or your partner is trustworthy?)  What resentments are not being spoken directly, but are being broadcast in tone and posture? (The affair that was swept under the rug? The time she brushed off your grief when you needed support?)

 

 

Introductory skills for uncovering process

It is very helpful to have a marriage and family therapist in the room when you are having these conversations, but if you feel safe and stable enough in your relationship and your communication skills, you can support each other to do the same thing when a conflict arises at home.  

Here are some tips that will subtly shift focus to the process of your disagreement, rather than the content.

  1. Slow your conversation down.  Instead of thinking about what you will say in response to your partner, listen to your partner.
  2. When your partner finishes speaking to a point, repeat, in your own words, what he or she just shared with you.  
  3. Look for the feeling or the emotional need under your partner’s words.  If your partner hasn’t explicitly stated a feeling or need, you can elicit his or her help in identifying it.
  4. Above all else, be kind.  This is not a war. You are on the same team.

Here is an example with just one person trying these strategies, still with beneficial outcome:

“I asked you to pick up my sister on your way across town, but you just arrived without her.  I swear that you never listen to what I’m saying.”

“You asked me to pick up your sister and I forgot.  You feel like I never listen to you.”

“That’s right.  And now my sister’s waiting for you and our family meal is ruined.”

“You went to all this trouble to plan a family meal and now it’s ruined because I forgot part of the family!”

“You’re an asshole.”

“You’re angry.”

“YES, I’m angry!”

“You need me to be better at keeping my commitments.”

“Yeah, it would be nice to be able to depend on you now and then.”

“You need me to be dependable.”

“Obviously.”

“I’m sorry that I let you down today.  I don’t want you to feel like this. Can we have a small snack now and put dinner in the oven while I go get your sister?  Is it too late for a do-over tonight?”

“We’ll be eating after 8pm… but I would prefer that than not having dinner together at all.”

“Okay, can you text her that I’m on my way?”

“Okay.”

 

Notice that the partner who is trying to make peace here is not engaging in a dialogue about the content their partner is introducing.  Yes, they are repeating the content to let their partner know they heard it… but they aren’t evaluating the legitimacy of the content nor offering alternative perspectives.  This person reflected back to their partner what they heard (“You feel like I never listen to you,”) rather than answering the statement (“I never listen to you?? What about yesterday, when I made those two phone calls you asked me to make??”)

 

Reaching out for extra help

This type of communicating is a lot easier if both parties are on board, and even easier when working with a therapist.  But it’s never “easy” at first. This is because the vast, vast majority of us are in the habit of ignoring the process of our communicating and simply addressing the content.  It feels very unnatural to not respond to the content and to instead address the feelings underneath the words. It feels unnatural to step up into a role of support for our partner to express their emotions and needs, even when that partner may be stuck in blaming or negative communication patterns.  This is actually a skill that parents can use to help their children learn language that identifies their feelings and helps them to get their needs met. Since many of us did not have parents who taught us these skills, we have the task of learning them as adults.

In addition to being in the habit of only looking at a conversation’s content, most of us become defensive when the person to whom we are closest brings up criticisms about us.  It takes repeated experiences of safety with our partner to trust that a critique today is just that… not a sign that our partner thinks we are permanently defective or would rather be with someone else.

The kind of conversation I’m describing will not be successful for some couples.  If the baseline sense of safety is not there, or if both partners are not invested in moving past your habitual conflict patterns, this will likely fall flat.  In that case, I really do recommend considering a couples’ counselor. When you discuss the counselor’s style before becoming his or her client, look for someone who can articulate using this type of dialogue.  It is sometimes called emotionally-focused therapy.

Whether you are ready to jump in at home and try what I’m suggesting, or you are ready to find the help of a marriage and family therapist who can guide this type of communication, I wish you the best!

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Communication

Listening

Clarity

Partnership

Looking Deeply

Pausing

Habit-creating

Non-violent Communication

Self Awareness

Personal responsibility

 

 

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Have Downtime

A question raised by a client: “As soon as I get some days off of work, I Iike to jet off somewhere for a vacation.  Is there any better form of self-care?”

Travel can be an excellent option for self-care.  Whether it includes total rest or exploring new places, meeting new people, or learning new skills, you can support your mental, physical, spiritual, and social needs going somewhere outside of the places you ordinarily see.  A travel vacation is a gift to yourself.  There are also plenty of other ways to meet self-care needs and to gift yourself.  Other options are often less expensive than travel and can be as powerful of an experience.  Before you catch that plane or train or jump in that car, here are some excellent ways to care for yourself when you have several days that are unscheduled.   

Cozy Cabin

Reboot

Many of us have some changes we would like to make in our daily habits, and a few free days are a good time to practice incorporating the new habit or eliminating the old habit.  When you see the new habit in action, you can determine how practical it really is going to be in your usual, busy schedule.  You can also see how you feel without enacting the old habit.  You can identify barriers and scheme for how to circumvent those barriers.  Bringing a healthy lunch to work every day might be a challenge if you get home late at night and don’t have the energy or desire to prepare it before bed or in the morning.  These days off are a chance to explore some healthy soup recipes or even research some healthy-lunch hacks the food bloggers of the world can offer.  

Different from the conceptual making of a resolution to do something, creating a habit is done through nuts-and-bolts actions.  Do you want to meditate for 15 minutes every day upon waking?  Some down time is an opportunity to see what that’s like.  Of course, creating a habit is a multi-layered, longer-term endeavor.  First, conventional wisdom says that it takes about 2 months to establish a new habit.  So, after your few days of playing with the new habit outside of your usual routine, keeping it up during the busy periods will be a test.  It is very helpful to focus on the benefits of the new habit in that critical moment, or “choice point” at which you do the action… or you don’t.

For example, if you are laying in bed and deciding to get up to go sit on a meditation cushion, you may rather sleep for another 20 minutes instead.  At that critical moment, it’s important to recall how serene you felt for the rest of the day yesterday when you gave yourself the gift of getting on the cushion.  In fact, viewing the new habit as an indulgent treat you give yourself makes the “activation energy” of the behavior a lot easier to mount.  You are really loving yourself when you set aside time for meditation, feed yourself food that nourishes you at work, coach yourself through a vigorous workout that will keep your cells thriving.  Feeling cared-for is a lot more motivating than feeling cattle-prodded.  The choice in perspective is yours.

Sometimes there are some deeper psychological barriers to adopting a positive new habit / eliminating an old habit.  This course by Kelly McGonigal is an excellent choice if you want to address those elements of change during your time off.  I recommend it.

 

Dive In

Sometimes we have some unresolved experiences or feelings that keep calling for our attention, but it never feels like the right time to really look into them and do the work of “processing” the feelings or experience.  A few free days are a great time to safely look at difficult situations and allow the process of resolution to unfold.  This can be as simple as sitting down with a journal and writing out our thoughts and feelings about the experience, then going on a bike ride.    

Scheduling a retreat at a local church or meditation center is a way to delineate the time during which you are going to “sit with” the unresolved experience.  These venues also offer teachers / spiritual leaders who can offer support if your processing brings up some feelings you aren’t prepared to manage.

You can also bookend your few days of delving into your heart and psyche with appointments with your personal psychotherapist.  He or she may also have suggestions for exercises you can do during your time to welcome movement and healing in your journey through the difficult situation.  A therapist can also help you interpret what you experience, to integrate what you learn into your self-concept and your understanding of your life until now.   

Connect

A few free days are an excellent chance to reach out to loved ones near and far.  In our everyday lives, it’s easy to deal with what’s directly in front of us and mostly forget our web of support- all our friends and family!  With some free days, you can make plans to visit some of your loved ones, either locally or even a short flight away.

You can also plan your days of connecting as a “stay-cation” at home: days of relaxation and other self-care, punctuated by writing letters to distant loved ones and a few hours on the phone.  A whole day free makes it easier to ring up the people who cross your mind often, but with whom time-zone differences tend to prevent contact.  Maintaining the social fabric of your life is an act of self-care and loved-one care, at the same time.  Connecting with others is a basic need we all have to feel secure and seen.  Offering connection to others helps those in our lives who may not be as skilled at reaching out to receive those benefits, as well.  

 

Enjoy your downtime!      

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Communication

Looking Deeply

Habit-Creating

Rest

Creating Community

Healing

Journaling

Share Your Experience
How do you use your time off for self-care?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!