Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

Vulnerability Can Be Disarming

Breaking the defensive cycle once and for all

Arguments don't end when one person overpowers another. Submission to an intimidator might interrupt the heat of the battle, but at best, it's a temporary truce, not a permanent resolution. Even with a truce, there is generally a not-so-subtle tension that is present in the relationship because conflict has been driven underground. Bringing out the big guns—threats, name-calling, insults, loud yelling—always exacts a painfully high price. While you may win the battle for temporary dominance, you will, in all likelihood, lose the war. The “victory” will  involve a diminishment of trust, good will, caring and respect.

To move toward resolution during times of distress and conflict, it’s necessary to do the one thing we desire most to avoid: get vulnerable. The peace of understanding will not come as a result of efforts to get our partner to stop fighting and start listening. It will be much more likely to come as a result of the openness that arises out of a willingness to disarm ourselves of our verbal defenses. This requires us to  give our partner (who probably looks more like an opponent at this point) the receptivity and honesty that we want him or her to give us. This kind of vulnerability takes trust and courage. We must put down our own sword and shield even at those times when we most fear counterattack. To do so does not mean to put yourself in harm's way, but rather that to speak from the truth of our present experience, rather than focusing on our partner's part in the breakdown, and trying to get them to see things our way.

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For years, I reacted to Charlie's unsolicited criticism of me by counter-attacks of criticism, judgment, and blame. Not surprisingly, he countered my counter attack with another, as did I,  and we became locked into a closed loop that rarely came to any real resolution. Neither of us ever felt accepted or understood. We were each convinced that we were right and had no interest in hearing each other’s take on the “truth”. It wasn't until I stopped saying, "You never listen to me" and "You always have to be right" that the impasse between us began to dissolve. Instead, I said, " I really want us to understand each other and it's so painful for me when we don't connect."  By revealing my own frustration and pain rather than “correcting” Charlie’s responses, the tension between us softened and we were better able to hear each other.

Personal disarmament is the act of standing undefended, and speaking the feelings, usually fear or pain, that underlie our anger and the impulses to protect ourselves with aggression or other defensive maneuvers. The more I practiced, the less fearful I felt, and the more natural it became for me to drop my guard. I found that courageous honesty almost always brings forth more of the same from the other person. But regardless of how our partner responds to us, undefended communication is itself a transformative gift to ourselves as well as to our relationship. In honoring our truth, we are deepening the development of self-trust, self-worth, and self-respect, while simultaneously bringing greater honesty and integrity into our relationship. I have learned the most from those who have lived their own advice. When we “walk the talk” and give what we desire to receive, the process always becomes it’s own reward.

Vulnerability provides us with direct  access to our own heart and the deeper truth of our own experience. It brings us into greater integrity with who we are. Speaking from vulnerability connects us with ourselves and creates a safe climate for our mutual love and tenderness to blossom. That’s a success in and of itself. The gift to our partner is the open-heartedness that gives them access to our underlying feelings of warmth, care, and affection as well as access to their own similar feelings towards us that their anger and fear have obscured from them. I’ve seen from my own experience how interrupting the cycle of defensiveness can break long-standing destructive argumentative patterns. There’s no denying that disarming yourself can feel like very risky business, but continuing to reinforce the cycle has risks as well. What’s your choice?

 

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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