When couples argue, they often challenge one another with punch and counter-punch attacks. As tempers rise and defenses emerge, partners rapidly stop listening to each other; instead, they invalidate the other’s point of view while simultaneously trying to establish their own. After the battle, one or both may disconnect until a ritual for reuniting is activated, often without true resolution.
All intimate relationships have the capacity to scar and transcend. Scarring occurs when a couple continuously hurts one another without learning or resolving why and how they do so. Transformation happens when partners get past their disagreements and learn to communicate in healthier ways as a result of those resolutions. If scarring lessens and transformation increases, a committed couple will protect their love and increase its depth and importance. They're able to witness that the good times significantly outweigh the bad, and their trust in each other increases.
But when scarring continues and a relationship is “transformation-stagnant,” it will ultimately decay, perhaps beyond repair. The destruction happens more quickly if the insults are particularly hurtful or “below the belt," because such core-damaging behaviors create deeper and more permanent scars. It is crucial for every couple to understand which words or phrases can badly damage, and the harm that may result from these. For love and trust to grow more deeply, couples must commit to erasing trust-breaking insults from their interactions, no matter how angry they feel.
I've worked with intimate partners for four decades and created an exercise to help committed couples identify their “below-the-belt” word, phrases, and behaviors, and recognize how these can damage their relationship. Changing this dynamic results in comfort that can significantly increase the level of trust in the relationship. When both partners know they are safe from these anguishing interactions, they can begin to open up to one another in a whole new way.
Here's what to do:
1. Each partner identifies and recognizes his or her triggers.
All couples have regular disagreements, and in the heat of battle, it’s easy to blur the boundaries between acceptable and destructive comments. To know the difference, a person must know, and stay conscious of, the effects of their words. A common example of a reasonable response to a presumed attack might be something like, “Please stop yelling at me. I get defensive and can’t hear what you’re trying to say.” An alternate and potentially destructive response would be a character assassination like, “You think that raising your voice makes you more powerful? No, it doesn’t. It just makes you a bully.” The first statement tells the other partner that he or she is being offensive in that moment. The last describes a negative personality characteristic, and so the expected defense is sure to escalate the battle.
Certain words or phrases are more negative than others, and are received differently by different people at different times and in different relationships. Some of those comments are simply offensive, while others can evoke memories of deeper heartbreaks from previous relationships. Phrases associated with early trauma, for instance, can evoke more painful reactions than intended.
An angry partner may not realize the depth of pain their words create unless both partners have previously shared their vulnerable places. Many couples tell me that they’re seriously upset when their partner touches upon a heartache from the past that revisits an old wound, yet they have never informed their partner what that trigger is. If you want to help your relationship leave “below-the-belt” behaviors behind, you must be willing to open up to your partner about the unresolved situations from your past.
The first step in changing destructive communication habits is to identify the words and phrases from your past that are examples of these deeper vulnerabilities. Start by thinking of people who hurt you and in what ways. What words or phrases left painful scars? Write them down when you recall them; it might also help to write a little about the situation that produced them. And note anything that you might already feel about yourself that makes you uncomfortable. If your partner unknowingly strikes out at you in one of those areas, it will hurt much more because it will feel like your partner—and you—are against you.
List these examples in as concise a way as you can. Do not be concerned at this time about whether or not they are significant.
2. Anticipating your partner’s responses.
Once you have written down every word or phrase that could deeply wound you again were your partner to express it, put a number beside each of those that reflects your vulnerability level. (The numbers are the way you believe your partner might respond to you with each item on your list.)
When you have finished, put all the statements that have a 1 by them on a separate list, those that have a 2 on the next list, and so on. You are creating separate categories to help you differentiate those experiences which might be safer to share first, and those you need to withhold until you feel safer. It is important for you and your partner to learn trust over time.
3. Sharing with your partner.
When you and your partner have each completed the first two steps, you are ready to begin the sharing process. Start with the words or phrases that fall within the first category that you listed under the number 1. These vulnerable confessions are both awkward and anxiety-producing; commit to receiving them in a respectful and honoring manner.
You should alternate sharing one thing from your first list. Tell your partner which word or phrase is difficult for you, and share any background that may help him or her understand your strong response. It is important for each listener not to judge, invalidate, or defend his or her reason for using that word or phrase. It is also helpful for each partner to write down what is shared for reference later.
4. Signals for practice.
Agree on benign signals to gently let the other partner know if he or she is inadvertently forgetting or breaking your agreement once an argument begins. The signals should be simple and recognizable. Just holding a hand to your heart or crossing your arms may be enough.
When you begin to agree, and the words and phrases from your first list disappear from your conflicts, you are ready to do the same for items from your next, more vulnerable list: those that have the number 2 after them. As you move through each more vulnerable set of items and experiences, you will find that caring for each other through each new level makes the next easier to resolve.
You may have to help each other when you begin these exercises. When painful words or phrases are used for a long time, many partners become so allergic to them that their responses are quick, extremely dismissive, and untrusting. Give one another a break and more chances to make mistakes. If your hearts are in the right place, you will eventually build trust and more openness.
Once you and your partner have been able to share all five levels of vulnerability and you have a conscious awareness of what each means to the other, you will no longer want to justify your words or actions—even when you are legitimately and understandably angry. You’ll automatically feel deeply remorseful when you realize how much you’ve hurt the other, and those feelings will help you get back on track.
When couples achieve this level of awareness and understanding, they find that other areas of their relationship also become more satisfying. The trust they have achieved through letting each other “in” at this level becomes the foundation of future willingness to risk more openness and emotional intimacy. When you know that your partner “has your back,” a much deeper trust can develop.
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