No matter how compatible they might be, intimate partners are destined to have conflict from time to time. Some of those arguments can become heated, and often result in hurt or angry feelings that are not always adequately resolved. If those negative interactions become repetitive and buried, they can eventually erode the sacred core that keeps love regenerating.
As long as intimate partners have learned the skills to resolve conflicts, they can learn from each of their struggles and get better at respecting each other’s points of view. But when they do everything they can do resolve their differences, and still find themselves unable to get past them, they may be unaware that they are inadvertently giving voice to the most common underlying enemy of conflict resolution. It is the all-too-human tendency to excuse one’s own behavior and blame the other for the hurt he or she is feeling. It shows up as “asking to be excused for what you’ve done because you didn’t intend to hurt them.”
“I was just angry. I didn’t mean what I said. Why do you take it so personally?”
“Just because I said those things doesn’t mean you can’t be a little more forgiving.”
“I never intended to go at you that way. You triggered me with what you said. When you challenge me that way, I can’t help myself.”
“When you’re hostile, it makes me get angry back. I wouldn’t be that way if you weren’t that way to me first.”
“You’re way too sensitive."
“You’re over-exaggerating. I never said anything that bad.”
“If you really loved me, you’d never be upset just because I get a little carried away once in a while.”
Whether we want to face that truth or not, most of us know exactly how much we are going to hurt our partner before we say what causes that to happen. There have just been too many prior interactions where they’ve told us exactly how they felt after those repetitive fights were over. We just don’t want to remember what they’ve told us because, if we did, we’d have to behave less self-servingly the next time around. If we can just pretend that we really didn’t know what was going to happen this time around, we never have to admit that we just didn’t care enough about our partner in that moment to stop our own behavior.
Once we are only into our own thing and concurrently depersonalizing our partners, they become the invisible enemy and no longer deserve automatic consideration or compassion. It is only when the argument is over and we come to our senses that we may realize what we’ve done. Maybe we truly didn’t mean to hurt our partner, but we certainly put that awareness aside when we wanted to say what we wanted to say.
If we’re willing to admit that we chose to put our own needs above those of our partner in the heat of the moment, we can at least be honest about it. That authentic accountability gives your partner the right to be angry, instead of being expected to forgive you because you “didn’t mean to hurt them.” It really doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to; you did hurt them. You’re accountable for the pain you’ve caused whether you intended to or not. The outcome for your partner is the same.
It would be wonderful if both partners would be honest about their own self-serving behavior in their momentary lack of accountability. It would even be better if they could remember how important their partner’s feelings were before they chose to forget that crucial piece of data. Unfortunately, that’s not what usually happens. Perhaps out of guilt or embarrassment, most partners who have chosen self over the other are more likely to compensate by feeling righteous about what they’ve done. That need to cover their inability to admit their self-serving behavior then leads them to excuse it and, instead, blame their partner for eliciting it.
There’s an additional complication. Once we erase our partners and turn them into people we don’t need to listen to, we are now talking at them, but no longer to them. Dependably, unresolved relationships from our past will pour into that void and our angry rants will be symbolically directed to people who are no longer present. Our current partner becomes the unjustified recipient of unresolved conflicts with people from our past.
In productive conflict, intimate partners do not feign innocence nor try to blame the other for unjust attacks and invalidations. They realize that the drama between them was most likely triggered by words, voice intonations, body language, and facial expressions that may have unearthed unconscious and unresolved memories. They help one another to get to the tap roots from which these old patterns emerged and to separate out who they are from who they became under the pressure of the fight.
“Oh my God, honey, I said things in our fight that have nothing to do with you. I think I was finally telling my mom off for all those times she invalidated me by telling me I didn’t care about her or I would do what she wanted. It was that phrase you used that triggered me, you know, ‘Why can’t you just be nice to me?’ You didn’t deserve the wipeout that followed. It was really meant for her. I’m really sorry.”
“When you started yelling at me, I think I just lost it. It was either give in or destroy you. I used to curl up in a ball when my dad went in to his drunken rage. He used to act as though me and my mom were his servants and we couldn’t do anything right. You raised your voice and came at me. I thought you were going to hit me. I must have decided that you deserved the way I fought back. But I know that you would never get physical like that but, in that moment, I wasn’t sure. I was afraid.”
“I have no business ever talking to you like that. When I’m that mad, I don’t care how you feel or what my words do to you, but I know that somewhere inside, I’m perfectly aware of what you are feeling. When we’re fighting, I just don’t want to see who you really are. I know what I’m doing is wrong. It’s like a demon erupts in me. I just need to win. I’ve got to stop this and I need your help.”
“Don’t forgive me easily any more, okay? My reactions are way out of line. I wouldn’t talk to anyone else the way I did to you last night. There’s something about the way I get cornered, especially when you’re right. It’s always something I don’t want to look at. I get infuriated and just want to hurt you in the moment. That doesn’t make it right.”
Unconscious triggers happen to everyone, but people don’t have to automatically react the way they did in the past. Abused children do not automatically abuse their own children. They realize they may be called upon to be the sacrifice generation but they are willing and committed to make sure inherited negative behaviors don’t run downhill. The first and most important step is to embrace the courage to acknowledge our bad behavior as exactly what it is and not blame someone else for what we chose to do.
Successful relationship partners ideally help one another to be the best people they can be. If you’re in a relationship where you fail your own intent to become your best self, you can see it as a place to practice in the line of fire. But, if no matter how hard you try, you keep slipping back to a person you don’t want to be, blaming your partner will just keep you there.
If you are truly committed to end these negative patterns, you can begin with recognizing when you feel compelled to erase your partner in an argument and what triggers are causing you to do that. If you can, stop the interaction at that point and tell your partner what you are feeling and what he or she is doing that’s making you react the way you are. Stay with the conflict at hand, and let each of you clearly state the other’s position without judgment. Be aware of your partner’s feelings, facial expressions, body language, and vocal intonations. Comment immediately if you feel that either of you are being cornered or beginning to feel defensive.
There is no point in winning an argument with someone you love, only to feel a sickening sense of loss of intimacy when the dust settles. There is almost no greater feeling than knowing your partner would rather give up winning if it means hurting you. You will not be able to make every conflict productive, but you will go a long way towards trusting each other to stay fair in the heat of battle.
Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com