Last week, I was meeting with a couple fresh off a really damaging fight. She had gotten angry and threatening; he had shut down; she had continued to escalate in the hopes of getting a response. The escalation had led to some ugly comments, from which they were still recovering.
It’s a fairly common pattern. When we want to be heard, it seems logical to speak louder, maybe even to yell. But I’ve found in my therapy practice and in my life that speaking softly, from the deepest emotion, is what works.
Let’s say your partner forgot to do something he should have known was important to you. You’re feeling hurt and disappointed. He walks through the front door, and you let him have it. “How could you have forgotten? What kind of husband are you?”
If he’s like most people, the attack will prompt a fight or flight response. He’ll either engage, and then you’re having it out, or he’ll disengage to protect himself and then you’re stuck trying to pull him back in. Either way, it’s not so great for the relationship.
The trick is how to speak from the underlying emotion. Speak softly, from the place of hurt and disappointment, and you’re likely to get a very different response. Instead of triggering fight or flight, you’re likely to receive empathy. At heart, your partner cares that you feel bad, and so if you can express that without attacking, you’re likely to get what you need.
The reason it’s so hard to do that, to speak from the underlying emotion, is that it feels so unprotected, so vulnerable. It feels risky. “If I say that I’m hurt and sad,” we might reason, “I’ll sound like a little kid. I’ll sound silly. I want to be heard. Shouldn’t I just be able to speak louder? After all, he messed up. He deserves to really hear it.”
The problem is, he won’t really hear it. What he’ll hear is, “She’s furious. I need to protect myself.” He’ll hear that Charlie Brown teacher wah-wah-wah. He goes on guard, and from that position, it’s much less likely that he’ll connect with your feelings. He’s too concerned with his own. When both partners are in self-protective mode, communication can get pretty distorted.
So next time something’s gone wrong with your partner, take a deep breath and remind yourself that he truly has your best interests at heart. He just happened to screw up. Happens to the best of us. If you speak softly and clearly, he’ll care. Really, he will.
Couple fighting photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 28 Dec 2012