Have you ever been having an emotionally charged discussion with your partner and say something they took and twisted, contorted, and stretched into a statement that sounded nothing like what you intended when you spoke it? What the heck with that?! It leaves you standing there with your mouth open, asking “How did you get THAT out of what I just said?”
Many times we share our feelings with great sensitivity and the best of intentions and our partners are just picking up something totally different than what we’re laying down. Our intelligent, reasonable, and otherwise understanding significant other just turns into some seemingly crazy person who hears one thing and apparently understands something completely different; and furthermore, uses what we said to attack us! It’s like we’ve been sucked into some alternate universe.
When this happens, here’s what’s often going on: we are rolling along, in tandem with our partner, moving forward in our relationship together, when suddenly, one of us feels threatened or uncomfortable with something and WHAM! Forward motion comes to an abrupt halt and the threatened partner says something that sort of sideswipes the other partner emotionally. The sideswiped partner justifiably feels attacked and begins to defend their emotional position with a statement something like, “Calm down; you’re over-reacting. I didn’t mean anything by this.” Which of course causes us to defend our emotional position even further by explaining how we don’t buy that; “You’re always saying this and it hurts me!” And then the conflict is on. The conversation revolves around each person defending their point and trying to convince the other of how they need to change to make the situation better. Which of course just goes around and around and ends in no real resolution whatsoever. Each partner finally feels massive frustration and just agrees to disagree. Ultimately, the issue is swept under the rug until another day when the bell rings on the next round of this fight. We just keep going over and around the same issue time and again. Sound familiar?
It’s in the part where each person is defending their position in the argument that the crazy misunderstandings often occur. When we perceive that we’re being attacked or threatened, our response is to fall into the “fight or flight” response. Unconsciously, our brain goes into automatic pilot to protect us by one of five emotional “fight or flight” responses – attack, run, freeze, hide, or submit. It’s when we’re in this state of feeling mortally attacked that we’re focused on watching out for a.) More details to support our argument that our partner really is attacking us; and b.) Details that we can morph into our persuasive argument for the change
we’d like to see in our partner that will make us feel safe again. There’s just one problem with this approach. Our perception of being attacked is often based in our past and not necessarily in the relationship we’re involved in at the moment. Thus the crazy misunderstandings. Often when we’re in this state, we’re hearing scary things that stir up fears of past hurts or vulnerabilities and we take that ball and run with it to protect ourselves. We hear something that smacks of danger out of something that was said in an effort to facilitate understanding our partner’s feelings and not at all as an attack.
So what do we do with all of this? The key to resolving these emotionally charged issues in our relationships is to learn and employ a different style of communication whereby we hear our partner out completely. Even when we feel attacked, we try to hold on to our defensive feelings until our partner has been able to express all of their emotion about this issue to us. In other words, we need to not defend our position. We just let our partner express their emotions and do our best to hear, understand, and validate what they are feeling. And then we need our partner to reciprocate and allow us to express all that we are feeling on the topic, while not defending their position. We’ll need our partner to allow us to feel heard, understood, and validated. In short, we need to try and stay out of the “fight or flight” response. In maintaining feelings of emotional safety we allow each other to experience the conflict from the other’s emotional perspective. Once we can truly feel and understand how something we did or said caused our partner’s uncomfortableness, it’s much easier for us to work together with our partner toward growth in our relationship.
You may need the assistance of a therapist to fully grasp this new style of communication, but the results will amaze you. It takes so much of the “craziness” out of your relationship conflicts and facilitates growth for each partner; thus inviting your relationship to move forward again to the next level.
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