If you’ve ever been in the middle of a painful breakdown with your partner and felt overwhelmed with rage, fear, pain, despair, or some combination of the above, you’re not alone. Even couples that share good relationships can occasionally experience feelings like this. At these times, it can also seem that turning this situation into a “learning opportunity” just isn’t going to happen, and the best that we can hope for is to do enough damage control to prevent things from falling into the “catastrophic” category. And even doing that is no small feat.
This is not to say that we should try to avoid doing or saying things that could cause upsets. Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. What it does mean is that whatever we do, it is important that we take the steps that are necessary to bring about an outcome with an increase in goodwill between us, even if uncomfortable feelings arise. Our response to distressing situations should not add suffering to an already painful situation. Doing so may require self-restraint. Until we have developed enough inner strength to resist the temptation to indulge ourselves with defensive or aggressive reactions in the face of provocation, our responses to the conflict will probably just add fuel to the fire.
Fortunately, the opportunities to practice truth-talk and committed listening present themselves continually. It’s helpful first to identify the nature of our work so that we can become more attuned to opportunities that show up in our daily experience. Many of the people with whom we have worked have commented that once they realize what their work is, they notice that chances for practice present themselves on an ongoing basis. Whether they are just noticing those that have always been there, or whether there actually are more of these situations after the commitment to learning is made, is any body’s guess. A more important question has to do with how we respond when they show up.
Creating a successful partnership does take work. It is not for the faint of heart. Despite our hopes that our partner (or we) will change overnight, instant transformation tends to be a rare occurrence. The process tends to be incremental rather than instantaneous. Relationship building can feel like we’re standing near a very hot fire. And then there are times when we feel that we are standing IN the fire.
If we have used our time wisely and practiced on the small breakdowns, we can improve our ability to address upsets rather than reinforce defensive habits. Then, we will be much more likely to minimize damage and bring about positive outcomes, even when we’re in the midst of the hottest fires. And when big breakdowns do occur, rather than defaulting to defensive patterns, we will respond with effective efforts that are much more likely to bring about reconciliation.
When we hold our goal as the fulfillment of both of our needs, rather than the satisfaction of our own desires, there is a shift not only in the outcome of our interaction but in the quality of our relationship. Our relationship is no longer based upon zero-sum thinking where there are winners and losers but becomes about defining “winning” as a function of mutual satisfaction.
And if you think that such thinking is unrealistic in the “real world”, think again. Or better still try it out and see for yourself whether we’re talking about a fantasy or a genuine possibility.