Even in the best of relationships, there will be times when we are so annoyed with each other that the sensible way to handle our feelings isn’t possible, and anger just seems to explode. It’s a natural occurrence that happens to every couple, and there’s a simple way to try and repair the damage done.
Take — what may be — this familiar scenario: Things seem to be going their usual, comfortable way, but an issue arises that, this time, feels like a worse affront than usual and you don’t have the patience for it. So you let loose on your partner.
Even as you’re acting out, you’re aware that you’re being self-indulgent; but this time, you don’t care. Your partner also doesn’t care and lets loose, too. You both dig your heels in, and the two of you — usually loving, sensitive, and gentle — can’t talk to each other because all you both want to do is complain, accuse, and defend with a vengeance. So, you’re in for a longer bout than you’d like.
The ironic thing about an episode like this is that it is set off by familiar and repeated behaviors, or even personality styles, that you both know about and, basically, have accepted in each other. Chances are that these very same qualities that are infuriating you both right now are even what attracted you to each other in the first place. You’ve talked about the dark and the bright side of these differences — these ongoing problem patterns — and learned how to handle them when they come up. But this time, your reaction is totally out of control.
One of the recurring conflicts my husband and I have has to do with the level of activity in our lives. I tend to want to be on the go constantly: I need chores, action, people, and novelty. It’s probably a way to cope with the anxieties of life, and I might be extreme in this way. My husband is content to stay put and tends toward the other side of the coin. I’m sure that one of the reasons we were drawn together was an unconscious realization that by joining our lives, we’d find a middle ground that would be healthier for each of us.
Sounds good, and it is good when it works, but it’s a very tricky balance to maintain. If the pendulum veers too much in either direction, the other partner begins to panic and revert to deeply entrenched behaviors: I become demanding, and he withdraws. I feel he’s not going to be a good partner to accompany me in the world; he feels it’s hopeless to try to satisfy me. We stop talking, avoid each other, and start to sulk. If we’re not careful, we can let hurtful anger take over.
So what is a loving, committed couple to do during the times when hurtful things have been said? One thing that comes to mind is: “First, do no further harm!”
In relationships destined for the long haul, partners must develop the ability to contain their reactions rather than act on them. Containment is an agreement between both partners that says that if either of you needs the space to go through moods and hurt feelings, the other will honor that need, back off, and remember that this, too, will pass. That both partners can and will pull back from their own reactivity, especially when the other is unable to, is an indispensable ingredient to a successful marriage.
But, if we do lose it, an honestly expressed, “I’m sorry,” is the best tool for getting reconnected. When some time has passed, one of us must be big and brave enough to reach out and say something like: “I’m sorry we got into this. I know my part, and I apologize for it.”
For the apology to really work, it must be offered gently, when there is time for eye contact and perhaps a hand on the other’s shoulder. The listener must honor his partner’s outreach with a “thank you,” and a comment showing a willingness to move on. This isn’t hard to do, since our partner saying, “I’m sorry,” looking into our eyes, and touching us, has a tremendous impact. It’s almost like a switch that allows feelings of safety to begin to return.
Since every relationship veers off the path at times because one of us, knowingly or unknowingly, hurts the other, the ability to apologize is a tool that has to be kept nearby and in good working order. The inviolable commandments about the apology tool are that both partners must know how to use it and be willing to share that responsibility; the apology should be made as soon as one is able; the listener should show appreciation for the speaker’s outreach; and if further talk is needed, a date should be made for a future time to better figure things out.
For now, you can just hug and say how glad you are that you’re back together again.
Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at www.JoanEmerson.com.
Dr. Emerson’s Imago Couples’ Workshop at the Old Stone House [336 Third St. in Park Slope, Brooklyn, (718) 768-3195] is April 8 from 7 to 9 pm. Admission is $25 per couple. For more information, visit brownpaper