It’s not that what you did was really really bad…it’s that what you did really, really hurt me.
We human creatures are creatures after all. Staying away from danger is what all creatures do by instinct and we have a lot of nerve endings exposed to our loved one. We all have “raw spots” as Dr. Sue Johnson elegantly phrases it. All of us. Some, because of early ravages may have very sensitive places within and it really doesn’t take a lot of threatening or hurtful contact to make us collapse in self protection like a sea anemone.
If we fight about whether “you did something wrong” and “I demand an apology” we are going to spin ourselves up (and away from each other) very quickly. I can try again and again to try to get you to see (and admit) that you did something really, really bad. Yet, you either start to justify yourself or get angry back at me, or both. I get so mad back at you because you refuse to acknowledge what you did. And on it goes.
I believe that the way out of this self perpetuating and exhausting (and dispiriting and lonely) cycle is to shift to a true statement that the other person may be able to hear and respond to in a way that makes them feel safe to you again. That statement would run something like this, “What you did really, really hurt me.” You’ve got to let your partner see where your sensitive places are. Over and over, I have seen, and read about, and spoken to colleagues about intimate partners in stress and conflict who shift their thinking and speaking in this way who settle down. They begin to allow the natural attractive force of their bond to overcome the centrifugal force of the conflict. That shift needs to take time and usually it’s best to do this with the help of a couples therapist. These are ubersensitive places for us. We need to approach them cautiously and with respect. The real stuff down there is (pick one) fragile, scary, raw, threatening…the opposite of comfortable. We’ve got to protect ourselves, and if the sensitivity seems big, then the self-protection will be big too. It’s not easy to say “you hurt me” when the hurt is so deep. It’s way safer to say “what you did is incredibly bad.” That won’t get us closer, though and usually we will need a calm guide to help us find those words – find that emotion and talk about it. That’s why it’s called Emotionally Focused Therapy and not something else.
I was watching some sporting event over the weekend and was jolted alert by a Cadillac ad which carried one of the most offensive messages I had ever heard blurt through my speakers. “A weak man urges compromise,” said the narrator as a brand spanking new, full loaded Caddy rolled into view.
Seriously? Who were the people that cooked up that piece of rancid filet mignon? In my experience, refusal to compromise has led to governments that shut down, rampaging armies that blow across a distant desert and, on a more personal level, couples that explode in pain and acrimony. Compromise is actually a sign of confidence and inner strength. Compromise is a sign of resilience. We all have our ideas of the way our lives should go and what we’d like others to do in order to satisfy our needs. Those things aren’t going to happen much of the time. Why? Because almost always, those other people have different, sometimes incompatible needs. This comes up all the time in mediation. That’s why mediators are so valuable. Two (or more) people with deeply felt and important competing needs are challenged by the necessity of resolving their conflict. How do you think that’s going to work when one or both are thinking, “To compromise is to display weakness”?
Compromise does not mean loss. One of the most inaccurate and destructive adages I have heard (and I have heard it frequently from litigating lawyers) is that, “the best settlement is one in which both sides feel equally bad.” Compromise does not mean you are giving up something that pains you to abandon. Rather, it means that you have chosen to relax your insistence that every element of your collection of needs is so important that you will experience pain upon their relinquishment. That is not true for people who can summon up the resilience to understand that all needs are not based on unbreakable principle and a personal goal may be compromised in order to fulfill the needs of the other person(s). Compromise is not a sign of weakness. Effective mediators are also valuable in that positions which one feels they cannot compromise, can be translated (transformed) into “interests” which can be satisfied in a variety of ways. Positions force us to draw lines in the sand. These positions are always, always, supported by needs and interests which can often be satisfied in ways that will allow the other person(s) to experience acknowledgment of their own needs and interests.
Compromise reflecting weakness? Far from it. Shame on you, Cadillac, for projecting this painful myth. Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
I hear it so often in my office. One partner or the other (usually both) will report that in the height of some nasty fight they escalated into, one of them said something so wounding that the target is still bruised. He or she struggles with how to make sense of a world where they are supposed to be working on their relationship and at the same time things are said which couldn’t feel more destructive. It’s heartbreaking to see the pain that good people can inflict on one another when they have escalated to the outer reaches of their own cycle. It is an inescapable fact that when two people are reacting to each other from the raw and vulnerable places inside – and they are swept up in their cycle of fear, anger and reactivity, they can spin so fast (almost instantaneously) that both feel out of control. It is for sure that these deeply hurtful statements aren’t made during a placid dinner conversation right after, “Please pass the peas.” These missiles that are launched almost always occur when the cycle is spinning so fast, that the centrifugal force of both people’s emotional reactivity throws them to the extreme edge of their experience. So, rather than mull on the thing said, it’s far more helpful to view the statements as symptomatic of a cycle that has gone from “zero to 60” in a nanosceond. The path to healing is to begin to find ways to catch ourselves at the very beginning stages of this emotionally reactive cycle – to slow it down at the outset and step out of this tightly choreographed automatic dance.
Our fights sometimes have the feel of a couple of siblings in the back of the car on an endless road trip. “Johnny, Susie, stop fighting!” The inevitable response is something like: Susie – “He hit me first!” Johnnie – “I did not! She kicked me.” Susie – “That’s because he took my pencil.” Johnny – “Did not!” Susie – “Did too!” Etc. Now this is not to say that the hurt and anger we feel when we are locked in painful conflict with our partner is child-like or immature. Quite the contrary – it seems to go to the core of who we are sometimes. That’s not the point here. If you look at the above scene, you’ll see a circular argument in which each person believes the other person started it…that the other person is the cause of the distress. Of course, the other person thinks that it started with you. In law, partners who are locked into this conflict will go and hire lawyers, who in turn will try to convince a judge that their side is right and the cause of the problem is the other person. I promise you, that in every case that a judge says one person is the cause of the problem, that decision will never, ever, ever convince the other disputant. He or she will just feel screwed – unheard – misunderstood. For good reason, too, because our ongoing conflicts are ultimately circular in causation. We ultimately react to the other person who ultimately reacts to us. By the time the circle is joined, the conflict has a life of its own and the start is about as obscure as trying to find the missing link in the fog of antiquity. The key isn’t who is right. Rather the key is, how can we disengage from this cycle and stop hurting each other and get back on track. Helping with this often difficult task is, by the way, one of the great services a skilled marital therapist can provide.