By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
In reference to Dr. Sue Johnson author of Hold Me Tight – Conversation 3
If you a see a bear, rumor is you’re supposed to make a lot of noise in order to scare it off. Sometimes in relationships, couples do the same. They wave their arms real big and shout a lot in order to deflect attention away from their fear or hurt. “Anger is more useful than despair,” as The Terminator tells John Connor in the third installment of the series. Except, as Dr. Sue Johnson tells couples in Conversation 3 of her book Hold Me Tight, making a distracting fuss instead of explaining why you’re upset is often counterproductive to the development of your relationship. Instead, she offers a series of steps for couples that will help them stop disagreements before they turn into blow-ups, and to later discuss what they were so upset about and how to deal with that.
Step 1: Ask “Why are we fighting?”
That you and your partner will fight is a given. People, even people who love each other, disagree– and when you throw emotions into the mix, things can get pretty hairy. But if you and your partner can recognize when you’re getting into a fight and grab hold of the snowball before it turns into an avalanche, you’ll be a lot better off.
But before you can stop your fight, you have to be able to recognize the patterns that characterize them. Consider the example of Chloe and Jim. Their counselor asks them to think about a time their partner upset them recently.
Chloe starts: Why didn’t you help me with the dishes the other night? I was the one who made dinner, and I got stuck cleaning up after it, too!
Jim looks blind-sided for a minute: I didn’t know you wanted me to! Besides, I was helping Jason with his homework.
Cloe replies: It wouldn’t have taken you more than 10 minutes to help me clean up. It’s just like you to make an excuse for why you shouldn’t have to help me around the house.
Step 2: Stopping the game
When it doesn’t look like Jim and Chloe are going to slow down on their own, the counselor decides to intervene. He follows the steps laid out by Johnson that begin by stopping the argument (“Stopping the Game”). In the future, it will be up to the partners to recognize when they’re getting into fiery territory and pull themselves back from a screaming match. For instance, instead of rising to Chloe’s accusations, Jim would acknowledge aloud that these look like conditions for a fight, and that instead they should take a minute and then talk about why she’s so upset. (Johnson 124)
Fighting is easy. Its consequences are not, but hitching a ride on that steamroller is so much easier than trying to stop it. “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32 ESV) Think of marriage as a training ground for sanctification. There are exercises in compassion, patience, selflessness, generosity, etc. Take advantage of how your marriage provides limitless opportunities for growing in holiness.
The counselor then has them review the fight and discuss their actions (“Claim Your Own Moves”). Chloe begins by saying she lashed out at Jim for not helping her clean up after she made dinner. Jim follows by saying he reacted defensively by saying she didn’t ask him to help, and attacked by saying she didn’t respect that he was helping their son with homework. After that, Chloe points out she retaliated by saying he always makes excuses when he doesn’t lend a hand. The counselor concludes this step by having them make a summary of their moves– Claire lashes out while Jim retreats into defense mode. (Johnson 125)
Step 3: Discuss your feelings with your spouse
The third step Johnson lays out is called, “Claiming Your Own Feelings.” For this step to work, the couple has to be willing to talk about the feelings behind why they’re fighting. As Chloe acknowledges, she’s not so much mad that Jim didn’t help with the dishes, it’s that he didn’t ask her if she needed help. She says it makes her feel taken for granted when Jim just carries his dishes to the sink then goes into the living room with Jason. In her book, Johnson says it’s helpful for couples if they break their emotions into “parts.”
“Part of me is angry,” Chloe says, “but part of me is hurt, too. I just feel left alone in the kitchen like I’m just here to feed and clean up after you.” (Johnson 125)
Now that they have elaborated on their own feelings, the counselor steers them into “Owning How You Shape Your Partner’s Feelings.” He explains to Jim and Chloe that it’s important they recognize how their own methods of dealing with emotions can knock their partner off balance and trigger deeper attachment fears. (Johnson 125) “When Chloe comes at me sideways like that, I don’t know what to do,” Jim says. “I feel cornered, like I don’t have time to process what she’s saying, so I just shout back.”
When Chloe blindsides Jim, he doesn’t have time to think about what she’s saying. He just knows someone he loves is yelling at him– this produces the combined reaction of anger, hurt, and defensiveness. There’s no possibility for a reasonable discussion about whether Jim should help more in the kitchen; she’s already upset, and now she’s upset him. All they can do is fuel that hurt into yelling.
Step 4: The De-Escalation Process
Johnson suggests couples continue the de-escalation process by “Asking About Your Partner’s Deeper Emotions.” But both partners need to make sure they’ve both cooled off from their disagreement. Like a pie you just pulled out of the oven, if you try to do anything with it immediately, you’re just going to make a mess and burn yourself. Jim turns to Chloe and says, “I’m finally starting to see that you don’t feel that I appreciate you when I don’t ask if you need help. I’m sorry, it’s just I figured you’d ask me if you needed it.”
Chloe takes a minute then replies, “And I see that’s you’re not trying to get out of helping when I yell at you, I’ve just pushed you off balance so bad that all you can do is try to defend yourself.”
Step 5: Share Deeper Emotions
Now that the partners have been polite and asked each other about themselves (kind of like when you call someone because you have a story you’re dying to tell them, but you have to wait and hear about their day first because it’s polite) it’s their turn to tackle the step Johnson calls, “Sharing Your Own Deeper, Softer Emotions.” Talking about feelings is difficult. You have to become vulnerable and trust that your partner will not take advantage of that to belittle you. However, it’s crucial if you want your partner to better understand how you feel when you argue. A great many problems happen in relationships because one partner doesn’t realize the other partner feels that way. And since they can’t read your mind (not even in Nicholas Sparks books, and goodness knows those represent the pinnacle of idealized romance) you have to tell them.
“I hate feeling like I’m just there to wait on you,” Chloe says. “I love cooking and want you to enjoy dinner, but when you just leave your dishes by the sink and head out, it makes me feel unappreciated. Like you don’t want a wife, just a housekeeper. I work really hard to make things nice, and it hurts when you don’t acknowledge that.”
“I had no idea you felt that way,” Jim replies. “You do an awesome job keeping up the house and feeding us. I’m sorry I’m so focused on helping Jason get through Chemistry that I make you feel unappreciated. Sometimes I don’t think to thank people, and that’s something I should work on.”
The better you understand your partner, the better equipped you are to understand what they say and how they react during a fight. As you continue to share, you’ll both be more cognizant of things you say or do that upset your partner, which will help you to prevent arguments and approach them more appropriately when they’re upset. This can be challenging. Sometimes you just won’t understand why something upsets your partner; you’ll be inclined to think they should just get over it. This is not the lesson Christ teaches. Compassion is not something we just do when it’s convenient for us. “…walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-32 ESV)
Step 6: Move forward after a fight
Now that the partners have a better understanding of how the other feels it’s time for Johnson’s last step, “Standing Together.” Sharing their feelings helps ally couples around the cause of preventing future blow-ups. They’re no longer squaring off; now they’re seeing things from the same side. Discussing how they feel during fights help them get a better understanding of what sets them off, and helps them to know what signs of escalation to look for in the future. (Johnson 127)
“They are aware of two crucial elements of de-escalation: first, that how a partner responds at a key moment of conflict and disconnection can be deeply painful and threatening to the other; and second, that a partner’s negative reactions can be desperate attempts to deal with attachment fears.” (Johnson 128)
This does not mean that Chloe and Jim will never fight again. But it does mean they have the tools to practice recognizing the signs of a fight, slowing it down before it gets out of hand, and later discussing what got them so heated to begin with.
Christian Counseling Assistance with Resolution
Tackling arguments is hard. There are so many intense emotions involved and opportunities for sniping and defensiveness. Consider consulting a Christian counselor to help you and your spouse learn how to talk about problems in your relationship. Part of the difficulty of confronting issues in your relationship is that these discussions trigger so many sensitive emotions; just trying to talk about them can lead to a fight. A counselor is able to provide a safe space for discussing your feelings and experiences and provide a point of mediation for objectively discussing what you fight about. They may also be able to offer some insight into what you’re really upset about when you fight with your partner, and show you how to talk about those problems instead. “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” (1 Peter 3:8)
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com -“Couple In Bedroom” by marin
“Young Couple In Bar” by photostock
“Smiling Romantic Young Couple” by photostock
Hold Me Tight: Conversation 3 “Revisiting a rocky moment” adapted from S. Johnson.
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