As a therapist I have an aversion to short lists of quick tips, because individuals and their relationships are so complex and idiosyncratic. However, as a busy person, I am always appreciative when an experienced insider can simplify a domain for which I have little time or energy. Drawing on a decade of psychotherapy with couples in crisis, here are five quick – though not easy – ways to respond when you feel stuck in a conflict with your partner.
1. Call a timeout
If it works for a toddler, it can work for you. When anger has taken over and your frontal lobe is offline, even the most rational and mature adult will rage or pout like a three year old. The only constructive move at this point is to take a break, let time pass and take some physical space apart. The purpose of a “timeout” is not meant to punish, but to provide a pause that can allow the strongest emotions to pass. This is an opportunity to be curious about what triggered the conflict and why your own emotions were piqued.
A timeout could be anything from taking ten deep breaths to having one person leave the house for a while. Either partner should be able to call a “timeout,” and it should not be employed as a power play in an argument (though it is inevitable that someone will want to get in the last word). It is much better to argue often and cool off quickly than to allow explosive rage to become a habit or to allow slow burning resentment to fester.
2. Be curious, not furious
Anger is usually a reactive emotion, a defense against some sort of threat, real or imagined. A natural response to having anger directed at you is to become defensive and thus angry yourself. Of course, this leads to a feedback loop, reinforcing the hurt that starts the conflict. If you can quiet your own defensiveness and see anger as a response to vulnerability, you will have a powerful key to understanding yourself and your partner more deeply.
Ask your angry self: “What is it that I am really worried about here? Am I hurt because I feel put down, controlled or ignored? What is the real threat?” You can ask these questions of your partner as well, though it will only be effective if asked with an attitude of genuine curiosity, not a mode of cross-examination. When you return to talk after a heated argument, you might each start discussing the vulnerabilities that led to the anger, rather than the nasty things that were said once the anger was triggered.
3. Focus on specific behaviors, not personality or intentions
When we are annoyed with our partners it is very tempting to analyze faults in their personality, identify problems with their upbringing, or even try to diagnose them. Whatever grains of truth lie in these insights, it is almost never helpful to share ideas about your partner’s personality when you are in active conflict. Using labels or analyzing someone’s character when you are angry is usually just a veiled way of attacking them. Nearly all of us become defensive when someone seems to be judging our whole personality, but we can usually cope with hearing about a specific action or incident in which we screwed up or hurt someone unwittingly.
For example, imagine your response to the following: “You are so self-centered” versus “When you don’t ask me how my day was, it makes me feel like you don’t care.”
4. Ask not what your partner has done to you, but what life is doing to the two of you
Nearly all couples in conflict are dealing with stressors that have a source outside the relationship. There is a tragic and nearly universal tendency to redirect blame from distant or impersonal forces to those closest to us.
Any stressor will expose differences in a couple, and then these differences will come to seem like the primary issue: e.g., It is not that we have no money because I was downsized out of a job, it is that you spent too much on back-to-school clothes for the kids. And so on.
It can help to simply identify the stressors that the couple or family is facing. Consider health, finances, work, parenting, extended family, and even social-political problems. As you make this list, you may be just as depressed, but you will be less likely to take it out on your partner. In fact, you might prefer be angry at your partner than depressed about some of these things you can’t control. However, identifying your shared challenges may forge a sense of connection that will make you both more resilient.
5. Touch over Talk
Although communication, and more of it, is an obvious response to relationship problems, there can be too much of a good thing. Verbal communication is such a dominant part of our interactions that it can eclipse touch as a powerful form of communication. A hug, holding a hand or even sitting close enough to touch, can forge a deeper connection than the rational part of our mind which gets stuck in loops of verbal conflict. So try to let a hug or some other tactile gesture do the talking. Beneath all the words, there is a part of us that is looking for a kind of basic reassurance that can only be found through touch.
Of course, sex is the most intimate and intense way to touch. Although it can be difficult to feel attraction when there is conflict or tension, sex can also heal a rupture in a relationship. When sex has been infrequent because of conflict, couples too often avoid sex or slip into a pattern where one partner is pressuring the other. Both partners benefit from a renewed appreciation of sex as an important source of connection, beyond words, rather than a kind of optional benefit that drops away when things are challenging.
All of these suggestions are easier said than done in the messiness of everyday life and love. If you continue feeling stuck, try talking to an experienced couples therapist sooner rather than later.