In the midst of feeling upset, many women use absolute words like “always” or “never” to express their concerns.

This is how Hank describes what it feels like to hear these words:

Hey guys, have you ever heard this?: “You never buy me flowers." Or, “I always have to remind you to bring your dishes back to the kitchen”

What is it about women and absolutes? OK, just so I’m not accused of doing the same thing myself, let me clarify: Not all women use unfair absolutes. And I’m sure some men do it also. But I will say this: In my experience, my partner does it much more frequently than I, and it’s no fun being on the receiving end.

When I hear these absolute words, I think, “What about all the times I did buy you flowers and I did remember our anniversary? Where did those experiences go? You acknowledge them in the moment, but they don’t seem to have registered in any meaningful way. They certainly don’t get retained in a way that affects what you say to me when you’re upset. In those moments, it seems any pretense of fairness and accuracy fly out the window. Why is that?

Yana:

Hank, I actually appreciate you bringing this up even though I'm squirming because, yes, I've done “absolute speak” at times. Thing is, it’s no fun being on the delivery end of this, either. When I do it, I am feeling alone and separate from you. I think, “How could he have forgotten?” So if we can address this and decrease discomfort for both of us, I’m all for it.

Additionally, reacting in this way escalates the very dynamic I am upset with you for. I stop being couple orientated and see “Hank” as the enemy of our relationship. At those times I am feeling especially powerless and young but I cover that over with a shaming voice and an accusatory “what’s wrong with you ” attitude. I ‘m embarrassed (afterwards) for being like that, but at the time when I am caught up in my feelings, it’s the only option I see. Next thing I know the words are out of my mouth and then you get triggered as well.

Hank:

Well, it’s reassuring to know you distort things for a reason, and not because you really believe I never buy you flowers or never take my dishes to the sink. It isn’t so much the shaming tone that upsets me, as it is the utter untruth of what you’re saying. The kind of things that are being forgotten don’t just stem from judgment calls (like whether or not I raised my voice to you. That’s something we might legitimately disagree about). But the “Absolute-speak” is often about real life, unmistakable events (e.g. my handing flowers to you) that seem to have vanished from your memory as you criticize me in all-too-general terms.

Yana:

Boy, can I relate to what you just said. Being misunderstood is a huge trigger for me too. I think there are two components to the “why” this happens in me.

Emotionally I am hurt that you have forgotten something important to me, especially if we have invested previous time discussing and negotiating the issue. In the extreme, if I’m feeling particularly insecure, I can wonder if I have lost your love and caring.  More benignly, if you are just distracted and aren’t taking me into consideration, I feel hurt – but I don’t express it with vulnerability by telling you how I feel, instead I get pissed off and blame you.

The second explanation goes beyond me personally. It has to do with how we humans react to stress and threat. You developed a university-level Evolutionary Psychology course and taught it for many years, Hank. You are well versed on this subject. Here is my understanding of how this problem may be playing out in that context.

Part of why I don’t have access to memories of your positive behavior may be rooted in the negatively bias and how we evolved to react to a possible threat. We are predisposed to notice negative stimuli in our environment because that gives us an edge on being prepared and defensive. Women typically will overlook small expressions or feelings of dissidence or conflict because we need cooperation and harmony to carry on our role of nurturer. But when the sense of threat heightens, a woman is barely able to keep Mama Bear from coming out. When I think you have forgotten my needs or don’t care about me, I feel vulnerable and alone. That stress, if I can’t self-sooth in that moment, activates my lizard brain (limbic system), and everything in me rallies to protect myself. In that flurry, I forget about the times you have been loving and considerate towards me.

Hank:

A negativity bias is all well-and good, and all humans may indeed be predisposed to notice threatening and negative events for evolutionary reasons. But this ain’t the Pleistocene Age. Can’t you point them out to me forthrightly without lying – and it is that, technically – about the total absence of good events. Is there no filter? What would it require for you (or any woman) to say, “It really hurts me that you didn’t buy me flowers for my birthday. I’ve made it clear repeatedly how much they mean to me and when you don’t do it, I feel unimportant and ignored.” How do you gain ground by adding the gratuitous (and untrue) statement, “You NEVER buy me flowers.”

I don’t know what to do. Do I try to correct you? Do I show you receipts from the florist dated on your birthday? Has reason fled the arena? I’m feeling bad enough that I forgot to buy you flowers and I’m trying to stay adult, keep out of defensive mode, look for a way to make it up to you and acknowledge your feelings, and then you hit me with an utterly unfair generalization. I want to fess up to a crime I’ve committed, but when you also throw in the Lindberg kidnapping and the Jimmy Hoffa murder, you’ve lost me.

Are you saying that in that moment you truly don’t know that I’ve ever bought you flowers? Is that the problem?

Yana:

I can see that this is upsetting to you and you really want me to change this behavior. I would like this too, but truly, it often happens so fast that I can’t catch it.

When I let myself get that upset (maybe there were issues earlier in the day I let build up rather than address), I am not in touch with all the things you do to provide for me. And, to answer the question of what you can do, as you know, “touch” is often the key for me. Debating, using logic to try and convince me when I am launched in a strong emotion is likely to escalate the conflict.

Hank and Yana:

Want to know how to calm down, rather than escalate the conflict, when you and your partner have been triggered?

Here are some steps many couples have found useful in de-escalating a situation such as the one above. Practice this in minor conflicts so the steps become natural and automatic when you need them to temper a situation when one or both of you is fired up.

Action Steps:

  1. Guys, of the two you, you are less triggered. That means you have more flexibility. Try seeing your partner’s outburst as a sign of insecurity—even if it looks like an attack. Let them get it out without your reacting.
  2. Recognize that your partner is in an upset state and they are much more in touch with feelings than how it happened. Cut them some slack for the time being and don’t take their words personally.
  3. Make eye contact. This helps sooth and emotionally regulate both of you and also reestablishes a secure attachment.
  4. If you have experience with a mindfulness practice- go into it now. If not, listen to the sound of your breathing as a way of distancing from your agitated thoughts.
  5. Offer some touch. You may think touch is the last thing you want to risk giving. Studies shows, however, that touch calms down the limbic system and can sooth both partners. If you can also use soothing words “It’s ok, honey” or “I love you,” that’s a bonus.
  6. Reflect back what you heard your partner say. This doesn’t mean you agree with them—only that you were paying attention. “So I hear you feel that not only did I forgot you this time, but that I always forget you. Did I get you?”
  7. Finally, give some empathy—offering just one or two emotions. “You must feel scared and lonely."

Whatever the conflict, whoever is less triggered should follow the above steps.

At this point, particularly if you have practice using reflective listening (repeating back to your partner what you heard them say), this little ritual of calm responses reassures the person who is fired up. They have your attention, feel heard and validated, and they are more likely to see that they have been exaggerating the bad.

This is one example of the positive ways in which couples can “co-regulate,” a term that refers to the way people in intimate relationships influence each others emotional state.http://bit.ly/2nhq91d

John Gottman, a leading researcher in relationships, found in his “Love Lab” that with positive and negative remarks:

The magic ratio is 5:1. In other words, as long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative, the relationship is likely to be stable.http://bit.ly/2nntcCb

Practice expressing gratitude once or twice a day where each of you expresses three things about the other you appreciate. This can begin to repair the damage of unconscious negative interactions, help restore the 5:1 ratio and may even start to put some currency back in the love bank account.

About the Author

Hank Davis, Ph.D., Yana Hoffman, C.C.D.C

 Yana Hoffman, C.C.D.C., and Hank Davis, Ph.D., work as a team at Trillium Counselling in Guelph, Ontario.

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