This is the second section of our coverage of the emotional charge and discharge cycle and how it influences fights in marriage.
In the first section we looked at the cycle and how it has the four stages of: 1) our normal day-to-day interactions 2) we have an emotional charge when we get triggered 3) we have a discharge phase and then 4) we return back to our normal day-to-day thinking.
In this section were going to talk about some of the steps that we can take that decrease the likelihood of getting into those really uncomfortable or brutal fights that occur when we tripped over into the danger zone. In marriage and couples counseling, we really don’t spend a lot of time talking about things to do once you’re in the danger zone, because there’s relatively little you can do at that point – other than get the heck out of it as quickly as possible.
Instead we focus on other areas of the relationship to decrease the likelihood of hitting that danger zone. That requires having our thinking and choice available to us… and we have thinking and choice available, we also have one other key cognitive ability available. And that’s our ability to listen. If there’s one single thing I would say makes the greatest difference in avoiding fights and arguments, it’s developing the ability to listen to your partner differently.
Listening in a way they feel heard and they feel like their opinion is being valued. Nearly half of the people I work with say that it’s not really the issue they’re arguing about that makes them so angry. They get angry because they feel like they are not being heard or their opinion is not being valued. So listening is something that’s critically important and as we go through everything else here, I do want to have you just keep that in mind throughout the application of anything else we suggest.
So let’s go ahead and look at the first area where we can take some steps to avoid fights and arguments, and it has to do with addressing the section that I referred to earlier is our normal day-to-day interactions and thinking. I guess we could refer to this as “upgrading normal”… upgrading the baseline of our relationship.
We don’t think about this often, but our relationship tends to have a momentum. It is either moving in a direction of greater connection and greater unification (with our marriage partner) or it’s moving in the opposite direction of feeling more separation and less connection. So relationship momentum is a way to reduce the likelihood of fights and arguments by increasing the overall connection and positive experience with our partner.
This is something I emphasize in couples counseling, because so often couples who come in for counseling are focused solely on ending the fights and arguments, which is certainly important. But, one of the most powerful ways to do that is by focusing on what you want instead… and then looking for opportunities to move in that direction. So that includes things like just increasing your words and your actions that enhance and expand and enrich your relationship.
You can do that by looking for ways to build momentum in your marriage that improve things like, well obviously communication. But, with communication I find there’s another piece that goes hand-in-hand with that and I consider it to be the more important piece. And that’s our experience of connection. Being connected with our partner is almost more and energetic experience. It’s a feeling of connection with another person as our partner… we’re a team… we’re a unit… we’re a couple rather than “me and you”.
But doing things actively each day to increase connection is a huge benefit for then having some reserves in the bank when you get into a disagreement. We can also talk about increasing your ability to see through another perspective; or another way of saying that is having compassion. The more you are able to hear and listen to your partner’s experience, the more they will feel heard and the less likely you will get into a right and wrong debate.
Also increasing tolerance. I mean let’s face it, there are some things we don’t like about our partner and they’re probably not going to change. So being able to be more tolerant of the small things that might not be our preference, but don’t have to build up and annoy us if we can learn to let go of them or not focus on them. And that’s basically what tolerance is. Accepting something the way it is and not letting ourselves be upset about it or try to change it anymore.
Actively acknowledging and appreciating our partner for the things that they just do as part of our marriage is a form of building connection and positive interaction with each other. We all like acknowledgment … we all like appreciation. Finding those things that we may take for granted or we may just not speak to and increasing our acknowledgment of those builds positive momentum in our basic relationship.
Developing “response flexibility”. Now I don’t want to go into this in detail, but basically I said earlier that our brain wants to repeat the same pattern over and over automatically. Response flexibility is developing our awareness of the brain wanting to do that, catching it when it does, and then be able to come back into choice to choose how we respond, rather than just reacting and unconsciously doing the same thing that we’ve done before.
And lastly, having some plans for managing concerns. Plans for managing things that are annoying or difficult between us and our spouse. Most people expect that we will just take care of this on the fly, but having a plan for how you can address differences ahead of time can be really useful to defusing the annoyance.
I have some marriage counseling clients who actually have set specific times. Sometimes they do it once a day. I have a couple of does it once a week. But they report it (having a specified time) allows them to put aside something that’s bothering them until that time to talk about it, because they know that time will be coming. So it doesn’t build up frustration throughout the day or throughout the week, because they know they’ll be able to get to it tonight at eight or the Sunday at six.
So those are some things we can do to build momentum and improve our overall relationship, which decreases the likelihood of arguments. In marriage counseling or therapy, I point out making changes in a relationship has two aspects. There’s an inner game aspect and an outer game aspect.
The owner game are those things that we would be doing that are behaviors or things that would involve discussing coming up with a plan with our partner. So in this case would be looking at things like improving communication and connection, acknowledging and appreciating a partner, and making plans for addressing concerns as being the counter game… the external kinds of things.
Perspective and compassion, increasing tolerance, having more response flexibility, would be more inner game aspects things that we would be doing within ourselves that allow us to have a different experience with our partner and likely affect how we respond and react with our partner.
Next Video: What to do once a disagreement has gotten started.