When your spouse or intimate other has done or said something that upsets you there is the possibility, depending on the size of the affront and the depth of your reaction, that you’ll shut down and stop listening.
This is especially likely if your partner’s tone of voice conveys judgment and derision. You may withdraw for a period of time or retaliate with criticism of your own. Either behavior results in a negative circle of energy and delays understanding and healing. Your suffering, and the suffering of your partner is prolonged. The pain can be enormous, as your partner is the person who holds primary security value in your life.
It is only through conscious awareness of the effect that your anger is having on your partner that you stand a chance of modifying what you do when you’re angry (explode or withdraw) so as to keep your partner engaged and in the frame with you.
It may be that your partner’s affront has been very wounding, and that your anger feels too big to express safely at the time. Here are some practical suggestions that may help:
- Wait until your “heat” has died down enough for you to get a hold of what is happening on a rational and self-reflective level. This process should result in your being able to say to yourself something like, “Oh. I see; I got triggered by what my spouse said and went into an old place in which I felt abandoned and powerless, and wanted to strike out and inflict the kind of pain I experienced. Since I actually love my partner, I don’t want him or her to experience this level of distress, so what I will come back with will be a reasoned illumination of what has happened inside of me, what I surmise has happened inside of my partner, and between us.”
- When you are ready, and your readiness may take a few minutes or a few days, begin a healing process with an invitation such as the following: “I’d like to talk with you about what happened between us recently that caused such upset.” Once you have the green light to have the discussion, make sure that your review of the events is delivered without derisive tone, without judgment, and with the spirit of reconciliation, respect and friendship.
All of this boils down to absorbing and utilizing the concept of emotional intelligence. The concept goes to answer the question, “What is going on in my partner right now?” This is what psychologists refer to as having an Internal Working Model of another person.
The regular use of emotional intelligence has the power to lift us out of our primary preoccupation with our selves and to invest in “the other.” All by itself, the application of this attitude has the power to repair ruptures caused by activations of the red zone. As you employ this approach to healing more regularly, your relationship will develop a sense of its own unique history, providing reassurance that it has the strength to weather storms and emerge stronger than before.
Dr. Gerson practices Couples Therapy in Katonah and in New York City.