Did you know that if a conversation between partners starts harshly or with a judgment, only 4% of any attempts to repair it will succeed?
That, and the following article, comes from the rich body of research Drs. John and Julie Gottman obtained in 30 years of studying couples. The hundreds therapy sessions I’ve conducted absolutely back it up, so I’m going to share a few traps to avoid – and their remedies — if you want to maximize your chance to be heard.
Trap #1: “I feel like you…”
Gah! Don’t say that! Just don’t!
1980’s pop psychology preached that everything will be fine if you speak in “I Statements,” and talk about feelings because feelings can’t be false. This engendered a Statement Tsunami that confused feelings with thoughts and judgments, producing statements like “I feel like you’re a cold-hearted bitch,” and the indignant follow-up “but that’s how I FEEL!”
Honey, that ain’t a feeling, it’s a judgment, and a sure-fire way to make your partner defensive. Feelings are sensations like “cold,” “hungry,” “awake,” or emotions like “sad,” “excited,” or “confused.” It’s far more effective to say, “I felt sad when you raised your voice” or “I was disappointed when you said you forgot.”
Trap #2: … by zombies
Do you want me to roll my eyes so hard I get a concussion? Use passive voice. It’s usually a passive-aggressive way of blaming your partner without naming them.
“It wasn’t well-articulated.”
“That’s what I was told.”
Protip: if you can end a sentence with “by zombies” and be grammatically correct, it’s probably passive voice.
“It wasn’t well articulated by zombies.”
“That’s what I was told by zombies.”
Even Stephen King, who writes 471,485-word tomes like The Stand, loathes passive voice. Many people fall into the trap of thinking passive voice sounds more official because it involves more words, or that it does not imply fault because it implies rather than states a subject. Leave passive voice for legal depositions or medical charts, and leave the zombies out of your relationships!
Trap #3: Barf-Bag Intimacy
Brilliant author Terry Real coined that phrase, and I think of it every time that someone insists that speaking about their feelings doesn’t let them “get it all out.” I promise you will not explode if you don’t get to tell your partner every cruel judgment you’ve made about them when you were upset. Think heroin is addictive? Try righteous indignation!
Own your shit. Sometimes it is effective to share context with our partners, and you can do it effectively.
“When I didn’t hear from you, I assumed you forgot, and I got angry.”
“When you said that, I interpreted it to mean you don’t care, and I really spiraled.”
“I was worried that we’d get into a fight if I said something.”
See how that owns what’s projection and interpretation?
Once things get tough, partners can get scared to take ownership of their mind’s twists and turns, fearing that their partner will assume their interpretations are willfull, conscious, and deliberate. It’s important to address the ground rules before the conversation, and mutually agree that our minds can be rapidly reactive jerks when attachment anxieties show up!
Trap #4: Tutoring Your Partner
“You’re being defensive.”
“That wasn’t a feeling.”
Or my favorite, a triple-whammy: “I felt like that was said defensively.” YOWZA! A judgment dressed up like a feeling, passive voice, and correcting your partner! Who’s coming back to that conversation?
Remember, when emotions run high, we are faster to spot potential injuries than successes. Agree ahead of time to say something like “Ouch” or “Could you say that again?” Sometimes couples I’ve worked with for years struggle to stay effective when they’re getting worked up. It’s not lack of intelligence or effort – it’s the lizard-brain, where survival instincts live, hijacking the cortex, so you don’t have as many verbal resources as you might when you’re talking about low-stakes topics over an espresso.
Trap #5: Letting Anxiety to Fix Rule You
When we’re in conflict, we can become so desperate to fix the situation that we refuse to end the conversation – even if we’re well past our threshold for effectiveness. If someone’s pulse is over 100, their partner is just whistling Dixie. The flooded, overwhelmed partner is not in a state to absorb new information. They’re in fight or flight, which will not lead to a productive outcome! Effective couples take breaks.
That doesn’t mean letting them walk away without a promise to reconvene. It means agreeing in advance what a break would mean: which rooms you go to, or if one of you goes on a walk, checking back in 20 minutes (or 5, or 30), and then resuming the conversation or picking a time the next day to resume it.
Do you see yourself in one or all five of these traps? We all know saying “don’t freak out” is the world’s crappiest insurance policy, so I won’t do that. Freak out if you must. Then splash some cold water on your face, make a mug of tea, and be honest with yourself: are you more effective tackling the hardest or smallest hurdle first? Talk to your partner, pick one remedy to start, and go from there. One blog post isn’t going to fix cycles that took years to cement. And remember, if you struggle on your own, there are counselors like me who cuss, make zombie jokes, and still employ evidence-based methods for fighting fair and loving bravely.
Content provided by Women Belong member Nikki M Lancaster