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A Powerful Way to Improve Our Relationships

Helpful insights into how to be compassionate while remaining assertive.

Key points

  • In a couple, one person always has 100 percent control of 50 percent of the dynamic.
  • In times when we’re triggered or when our partner is acting in a way that’s off, dismissive, or frustrating, we are bound to make mistakes.
  • When we’re triggered by something, we’re not usually great at recognizing it.
  • Having a softer, or simply less ready-to-jump way of responding can help the situation.

Most of the time when I write about couples, I focus on steps individuals can take to feel closer to their partner and more satisfied in the relationship. Because a person can only fully control themselves, I try to illustrate ideas that any one person can enact, which would hopefully lead their partner to respond or shift the winds of the relationship more favorably.

In a couple, one person always has 100 percent control of 50 percent of the dynamic

Our efforts can hold a huge amount of influence, and if and when they don’t, we at least know we showed up as who we wanted to be.

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

The reality is, all of this is easier said than done. In times when we’re triggered or when our partner is acting in a way that’s off, hurtful, dismissive, or frustrating, we are bound to make mistakes. We’re not always going to react the exact way we want to.

While there are helpful tools to use to calm down and ways to react that can help us better handle heated moments, there’s also one idea I would offer that may help any one of us to not take every less-than-ideal interaction between us and our partner so hard: to recognize that there is an entire world going on inside our partner that is totally separate from us.

That’s not to say that our actions don’t have an impact. Of course, they do. But adult relationships are a hotbed for stirring old emotions and implicit memories.

Early attachment patterns affect how our relationship will operate

Just as we may project onto our partner all kinds of thoughts and feelings from our history, (i.e., "She’s pulling away from me." "He doesn’t care how I feel." "They are probably into someone else,") our partner is likely projecting aspects of their own past onto us.

The insecurities and expectations we hold inside us have a lot to do with our own defense systems we’ve built up, which are based on the painful experiences we’ve endured, especially early in our lives. So, when our partner’s reaction doesn’t make sense to us, we may be misinterpreting or they may be being triggered by something deeper, something old inside them that has little, if anything, to do with us.

None of this is to suggest that we should always assume any emotional reaction we or our partner has is solely based on our past. But some can be. And because of that, sometimes, rather than react and pounce all over the present issue, it’s better to give it a little time and space. Take a breath and let your partner do the same.

We have a tendency to personalize so much of what goes on with someone close to us. If they come home from work feeling tired and quiet, we may think they’re being cold or disinterested. If they seem irritable because of some external thing that’s stressing them out, we may think, “Why are they so mad at me? They’re so inconsiderate.”

When we’re triggered by something, we’re not usually that great at recognizing it

We’ve been programmed to feel like all of our reactions are real and make sense right now. But many of our oldest wounds get reopened in a relationship, even (and sometimes especially) when things aren't going well.

One thing that can be helpful is to just be aware of this, to say to ourselves in a situation when our partner’s mood or behavior doesn’t quite make sense to us, “This strong reaction/these intense emotions may not have anything to do with me. There may be something else going on. Instead of being reactive, I’m going to be curious.”

How to get out of this mindset

When we try to relate to our partner or put ourselves in their shoes, we can foster more compassion. Having a softer, or simply less ready-to-jump way of responding can only help the situation. We won’t be able to control how our partner responds, but we create an environment that helps them figure it out independently of the dynamic between us.

We may say something like, “Hey, you seem like you’re going through something or struggling in some way.” Or, “I notice you seem quiet/serious/easily frustrated.”

You can let them know, “I’m here if you want to talk, and am happy to give you space if that’s what you need right now. But I think something else is going on for you, and I’m curious to know what that is.”

If you don’t like the way they’re acting toward you, you can be direct and let them know, “I don’t like the way you’re treating me, and I’m starting to feel bad, so I’m gonna leave for a little while/take a walk/sit in the other room.” This way of communicating is different from putting words into the other person’s mouth or entering into an argument. It’s also not just passively accepting a way of being treated that we don’t like. But it opens a door for the other person to be inquisitive about their own internal world.

Maybe they will open up to us about it, and maybe not. Nevertheless, having this kind of awareness that whatever is happening inside our partner isn’t always about us helps us feel less reactive and more curious ourselves. It’s a genuine and non-dramatic way to take a gentler approach to each other and help avoid falling into destructive patterns where both people wind up acting in ways we later regret.