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 Feel Disappointed by Someone

“One of my close friends didn’t come to my wedding, even though I gave her months of advance notice.  I know she can afford the trip, and I even made a point of letting her know how important it was to me.  ‘Disappointed’ is an understatement for how I’m feeling about this!”

 

Disappointment is a fact of life, and unmet expectations of other people are one of the greatest sources of it.  If you look again at the sentence you just read, you may notice the phrases, “fact of life,” and “unmet expectations.”  These two terms hint at keys to unlock the prison door of disappointment- which is a prison of our own making.  Disappointment is like all of our negative emotional states- we have the power to change it.  If we don’t manage our disappointment, it will soon become resentment, and resentment is toxic.  When we learn to distance ourselves from our expectations of others and to deconstruct those expectations, we can often get some freedom.  When we allow the disappointment of this one person’s action (or inaction) to rest on a level with all the other myriad disappointments we experience in life, we distance ourselves from the behavior we perceive as being disappointing.  This also leads to freedom.  The through-line here is recognizing that there are different ways of looking at the situation you are currently reading as “disappointing.”  Let’s look more closely at how we can care for ourselves when disappointment arrives on the scene.          

    

Sit With It

The best thing to do when a strong, negative emotion is rearing its head is to take some time by yourself to sit with it- to welcome it, listen to it, see what it has to teach.  Rumi said it best, in the poem “The Guest House.”

Your initial urge will probably be very different than this suggestion.  You may be inclined to numb out with some distraction (social media, television, daydreaming) or substance (alcohol, prescription pain meds.)  On the other end of the spectrum, you may be inclined to embody the emotion and to let it loose on other people.  If you’ve ever stuck your digital foot in your mouth by firing off an inappropriately angry email, you know why this is a bad idea.  I’ve heard it said, “Don’t just do something!  Sit there!!”  This is funny, and true.

Pug Puppy

This guy is working it out.

However, sitting with difficult emotions is not easy.  This is one benefit of psychotherapy- you get the practice of sitting in the room with an empathetic person as you express challenging emotions and learn, through repeated practice, to listen to and learn from these emotions.  This helps you to later go through the process on your own.  Some people learn this skill as they mature through adolescence, and some people enter adulthood still needing help with this.  The good news is that many of us have access to therapy to work this out.

When you do sit with the disappointment, you may feel terrible.  This is a good time to take out a journal and write down your thoughts.  You might write, “my friend doesn’t really value me or our friendship, since she didn’t prioritize my wedding.”  Write down your fears, too.  They could be, “She and I are growing apart, I’m becoming less desirable as a friend, my husband will think I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I’m unloveable, maybe my new husband will realize this and leave me.”  It’s really important to let all the pain and fear leave your psyche, to be seen on the page.  I can guarantee that, if you dig deep, you are going to find some ridiculous and embarrassing thoughts.  This is the human condition: we are a bunch of infants running around in adult bodies.  The more you listen to the infant and take care of the infant, the less likely you are to act like the infant in front of people.  

If this kind of vulnerability is new and uncomfortable to you, do this writing part next to a shredder or a burning wood stove, so you can destroy the document as soon as you are done writing and using it.  But before destroying that evidence, sit with the child-like thoughts and fears you may have uncovered, and send well-wishes to that child.  Cultivate some compassion for the child.  I have learned that placing my hand over my heart cues a sense of both nurturing and being nurtured.  Try sitting like that for a few minutes.

 

Reframe the Disappointment

Once you have honored your own emotions and underlying thoughts and fears, it’s easier to widen your perspective.  This is the time when you can deconstruct your expectations of the person and your stories about the disappointment.  

Here are some mantras that I find helpful when I’m feeling disappointed by someone.  The first one is:

This is not about me.

Because, truly, whatever the other person is going through or whatever his or her shortcomings, the disconnect between your expectations and the other person’s choices are almost never about you.  Untangling your disappointment from the ego leads to some freedom.  Second:

This is the nature of reality: dissatisfactory.

I’ve heard it called the “inherent dissatisfactoriness of life”- many spiritual teachers talk about how dissatisfaction with the material world is just the price we pay to be in the flesh, dealing with imperfect bodies, imperfect minds, entropy, and all the other things that pose challenges.  Hence, the drive to seek meaning in spiritual practice.  Whether you believe this or not, there is no denying that the person’s behavior in question is not the only thing you were disappointed about- maybe even that day!  Recognizing this may help to accept this disappointment as just another drop in the “I don’t like it” bucket.  Third:

This is an opportunity for me to take care of myself.

What did the person fail to do, or fail to do for you?  Can you do it for yourself?  If so, do it!!  Don’t let your disappointment keep you from enjoying what you thought would be coming from the other person.  Do it for yourself, and enjoy it.

 

Acceptance

You’ve considered some new ways to look at the disappointment.  Now let’s dig deeper, to your expectation that set up the disappointment.  First, was your expectation a reasonable one?  Once you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you may find that your expectation simply wasn’t reasonable.  Maybe it was something that you would do- but was it something that the other party could reasonably be expected to want and be able to do?  For example, if you were disappointed that your friend with three jobs and two kids did not give you 24 hours advance-notice of a lunch invitation… maybe your expectation- while reasonable in most circumstances- is not reasonable here?  Expecting your partner to remember your favorite beverage when he’s at the grocery store is pretty reasonable.  Expecting your mother- who has never been expressive of her feelings- to tell you she is proud when you land a new business deal isn’t- unfortunately for you- reasonable.  

When looking at the reality of the situation, we can see the places where we haven’t been reasonable- the places where we need to accept reality- and also the places where we can ask more of our loved ones.  Maybe you have heard the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  

There is much, much freedom to be had in this sentiment.  When we can see the parts that we simply cannot change (a friend / relative / coworker who is not interested in being reliable, for example,) we can let those expectations go.  Sure, we also then adjust down our vulnerability to that person- but without any hard feelings.  This approach- acceptance- is against a lot of people’s natures.  Humans are problem-solvers, and sometimes the problem is another person!  If we could just decide how everyone else would act, the world would be great- right??  This is the dream of every dictator.  When you find yourself wishing someone were more this way and less that way, remember Stalin and instead radically accept the person for who they are.  You don’t need control of other people- managing yourself is hard enough!  

On the other hand, when we see the parts that we can have a hand in changing (a partner / coworker / friend who simply doesn’t know the best way to relate to us,) we can speak up and help change the situation.  This is where setting some boundaries- described in the next section- comes in.     

 

Set Boundaries

Now that you are much clearer in your thinking about the disappointment, and have gotten a deeper understanding of what pieces were your perception and what pieces were truly unacceptable behavior, it’s time to communicate skillfully.  It’s important to remember the things you appreciate about your coworker or loved one before you broach this conversation.  Look deeply to see the paradoxically good qualities tied to the disappointing behavior.  For example, if your college-aged daughter skipped her Sunday phone call home and didn’t answer her phone when you called, only to call the next day and say she had been backpacking that weekend, you might be disappointed that she didn’t tell you ahead of time so you could make other plans and not worry.  If you look deeply, you may also see your appreciation for her spontaneous and adventurous nature.

Next, look for times that you have made the same mistake as what you are finding disappointing right now.  There is almost always an example… for example, didn’t you miss the Sunday call by an hour last month, because your phone battery died and you weren’t somewhere you could re-charge?  Look deep for this- taking responsibility for your own regrettable actions allows you to have empathy for the other person, allows you to see how easy it is to do what they did.  When you share your regret with the other person, you also clear the air and you model taking responsibility for your mistakes.  To set your boundary, find a good time to talk with your loved one or coworker.  Share your appreciation, share your regrets for times you’ve made similar mistakes in your relationship, and then set your boundary.  For example:

“Lisa, as your mother, I so appreciate your spontaneous and adventurous nature.  I love that you are taking time to build friendships and enjoy the mountains even when you have such a demanding course load.  I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I didn’t plan accurately last month and I wasn’t able to call you for our weekly phone call.  I know you set aside that time and I’m sorry you had to wait.  This last weekend, I was pretty worried when I didn’t hear from you on Sunday- and even more worried when I tried calling you.  I do my best to not catastrophize, but that kind of stuff keeps me awake at night.  In the future, I’d like for us to both make a better effort to keep our phone call- and to always let the other person know if we won’t be available.”  

Or, on the topic of the missed wedding:

“Sadia, I appreciate that you are such a go-getter- you’re always doing creative things, and going to new places!  I was recently thinking about the time you planned a group vacation in Mexico and I was the only one from our group of friends who didn’t make it- I’m sorry I didn’t make a better effort!  Last month, when I was looking around at all the friends and family in town for my wedding, I was very hurt to not see you there.  We can’t turn back time and put you in those memories, but I need for us to have a conversation about how that went down, so I can put it behind me.  I want to know that you value our friendship and value me… if, in fact, you do.”   

When you approach another person with well-considered thoughts and perspective, you are much more likely to see a positive outcome.  The communication style I am describing here- influenced by both Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication and the Beginning Anew conflict resolution style of Plum Village Monastery- allows both parties to feel seen, heard, appreciated, and accountable.   

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Listening

Pausing

Journaling

Compassion

Acceptance

Reframing

Gratitude

Personal Responsibility

Self-Advocacy

Communication

Setting Boundaries

 

Share Your Experience
If you have some ideas or experience with managing disappointment, please share them in the “comments” section.  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Need to Change Course

“I need to either change my work contract or find another position, but I don’t know how to go about making this change without upsetting others. Help!”

 

It is great to know what you need.  Clarity is an underrated mental state.  So, you’ve done half the work- you know how something in your life is not meeting your needs.  Your next step is getting your needs met.  The preparation for, execution of, and resolution of negotiations on this front are different depending on the nature of your relationship with the other party.  We have needs in every area of our lives, so I’d like to broaden this topic from one of making a change at work to making any kind of change that involves others.  Here are some steps for taking care of yourself in this sometimes murky area:

 

Walk Through the Potential Outcomes

Something is not working for you, and you have concluded that this thing must change- one way, or another.  For example… your hours at work need to be reduced because you are burning out.  You need your girlfriend to text or call at least once on days you don’t see each other so you know she’s alive.  You need your neighbor to stop using the leaf-blower at 7am on Saturdays so you can sleep in.  Whatever your situation, take some time to consider what the outcome of requesting your desired change might be.  

 

Consider:

-the strength of your relationship.

-whether the other party has been responsive to past requests you have made.

-whether your need may be reasonable in the other party’s eyes (which is not an indication of the validity if your need- simply an indication of the other party’s perception.)

Imagine what the best-case response could be, if you bring this topic up with the other party.  Now note the worst-case response.  For example, in the burning out on the job example, a best-case response could be your boss agreeing to reduce your hours- without reducing your pay or benefits.  A worst-case response could be a dismissive and non-accommodating reply from your boss, followed by an unprecedented- and seemingly undeserved- formal reprimand from her the following week.  Which one of the responses is more likely to happen?  

 

 

lighthouse

Let your own light guide your way

 

Decide if it is Safe to Bring your Request to the Other Party

If your mental walk-through of potential outcomes seemed pretty promising, you are close to ready to broaching the conversation with the other party.  Go ahead to the next step, “Effective Language for Getting What you Need.”  If your mental walk-through did not seem promising, you need to decide if you are willing to subject yourself to a potentially abusive / unsettling exchange in order to try to get what you need, or if you are simply ready to move on and find a situation that better meets your needs.  A large question here is: if your boss / girlfriend / neighbor is truly so unpleasant- but you still want to bring your concerns to that person- what are you trying to hold onto?

 

A self-care superstar knows that 1) no one else is responsible for our needs, if we are able-bodied-and-minded adults, but that 2) we have the daily opportunity to surround ourselves with people who are responsive to our needs.  If the boss or girlfriend has a track record of little regard for your needs, it’s time to find another job and to leave that relationship.  If the neighbor has little regard for your needs… it may be time to get a noise complaint in to the local officials, rather than wasting your time and breath with your neighbor, directly.  In an ideal world, we would be able to honestly and vulnerably share requests with people in our lives.  Unfortunately, some people are not ready for that kind of exchange, and are prone to defensiveness- anything to avoid change, or personal responsibility.  

 

I have heard it said that the only mandatory life experiences are “death and taxes.”  There are many people who don’t pay taxes, and some people are pursuing immortality, so let’s just say that nothing is mandatory.  You don’t have to stay in an unhealthy workplace or relationship.  There is always- always– an alternative.  It doesn’t matter if you are 60 years old and it’s the only job you’ve had, or you got married in a cult where you will lose your entire social circle if you divorce.  There is always another way.  However, in these circumstances, you want to take extra care to set yourself up to succeed when you make the change.  So, if you have a ton to lose when considering letting your needs be known or just walking away from what you know will not meet your needs, identify at least 3 resources to help you.  Is it 6 months of living at your cousin’s home when you leave your home?  Federal unemployment money if you lose your job (because, otherwise, you will just be applying for new jobs while still working at your current job?)  Calculated risk and covering your rear are both forms of self-care.

 

Back to broaching the conversation: even if you believe the other party is not able to respond well to your request, read the next section.  You may find a way to get through, yet.  

 

Develop and Practice Effective Language for Getting What You Need

It is possible that negotiations have not gone well with the other party in the past.  This could be due in part to the other party’s inability to have genuine conversation, and it could also be due to your inexperience in communicating your needs effectively.

 

Imagine hearing this, from your romantic partner:

“You never text or call me.  I need you to text or call, or I’m going to leave you.”

What is your immediate, gut-response?  You would probably note the 1) over-generalization of “never” or 2) the threat of being left!  These are two communication tactics that are sure to not get you what you want or need.  Unfortunately, many of us grew up in homes that modeled exactly this kind of behavior- and a lot of melodramatic media reinforce these and many other negative communication styles.  Fortunately, there are better ways to communicate, and we can train ourselves to use them.

 

Now imagine hearing this:

“Something I really appreciate about you is how full of a life you live- you work hard, you make time to spend with your friends and with me, you stay fit- and I know your days are packed, doing all of that.  I know I’m not always the best at letting you know that I’m thinking of you, but I think about you all the time.  I’ve noticed that on days when we don’t see each other, I wish I knew what you are up to- or at least that you are okay, and happy.  When I don’t hear from you on those days, I even get worried.  Are you willing to make a point of at least texting me once on days we don’t meet, so I know that everything is okay?”

What would your gut response be to this request?  Hopefully, nothing too strong- maybe just compassion for your partner, who is sharing vulnerably and respectfully what she needs.  Notice the 1) appreciation she shares first, then the 2) acknowledgement that she isn’t a perfect communicator and 3) her sincere wish for you to be happy and healthy and 4) her non-debatable feeling of worry when she doesn’t hear from you and, finally, 5) a specific, attainable, request of you.  This gal gets two gold stars for having identified all these factors- her need, what she appreciates, her own part in your dynamic, etc.- and then speaking this truth to you.  In other words, she’s a keeper.  You can be a keeper, too!

 

In order to get ready for your own conversation, develop a gold-star script like the one above.  Write it down.  It is by far best to have this conversation in person, so you aren’t going to be holding the script in front of you during the actual conversation.  You are writing this script so that you can internalize and be very clear of all the points you want to address.  You can even ask someone close to you to stand in as the other party while you rehearse delivering these lines two or three times, to get the feeling of the potentially unfamiliar words rolling off your tongue.

 

Have the Conversation

At a predetermined time, or at a time that the other party appears available, bring up your appreciations for the other person, acknowledge the time you know you were remiss.  Be cool- easy-breezy.  Chat a little bit, then ask for what you need.  Make sure you say the emotional and physical consequences to you, when you don’t get what you need (the burn-out, the fear, the lack of sleep.) You are confident because you put the time in to understand your position and the likely position of the other party.  You know your request is legit- and that you are free to go elsewhere, take an alternate route to getting your needs met, if this conversation doesn’t bear fruit.  More often than not, people respond well to someone who has thoughtfully prepared a request, and who speaks with humility and integrity.  Appreciating the other and acknowledging your occasional shortcomings, vulnerably stating the consequences to you of the status quo… these are undebatable, blameless ways to speak.  They inspire collaboration and goodwill.  Good luck!

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Communication

Personal responsibility

Boundary-setting

Self-advocacy

 

Now, Share Your Experience

If this article has inspired you to ask for what you need, please share how you asked and what outcome you saw in the “comments” section below.