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How to Heal After Upsets: A Safe 4-Step Route to Recovery

Effectively talking over past upsets can turn the curses into blessings.

Source: k2015371/Fotosearch

In many relationships, one big, or even a minor, upset can yield days, months, or even years of hurt feelings and harbored resentment. Fortunately, couples therapy is not the only route to relationship repair. With savvy about how to heal by talking together insightfully about upsets, healing can proceed with remarkable rapidity.

The four steps of the routine you’ll be learning below can work their magic in just a few minutes over a minor mishap. For a major mishap, the process is likely to take longer, but the steps are the same. By the end, a well-handled healing routine can even turn the curse into a blessing by converting the mistake into an opportunity for learning and renewed affection.

Some strategies for recovery from arguments make matters worse.

Beware of recovery strategies that lead you further away from each other rather than closer and more affectionately connected. Avoid these six especially common mistaken routes:

  1. Criticism, saying (nicely or harshly) what the other person did wrong, which assumes that the problem was caused by something the other person did rather than a mutual series of mistakes
  2. Blame, pointing fingers at each other to determine whose fault it was. "You shouldn't have..."
  3. Retribution or seeking revenge, to get even. Aiming for equal-opportunity hurting invites further counter-attacks and resentment.
  4. Punishment, in hopes you will “teach him/her a lesson.” Actually, the lesson is likely to be that you are an unsafe person to be connected to.
  5. Humiliation, which attempts to teach the lesson by inducing shame and guilt. “See how much you hurt me!” Victims may evoke pity but they do not attact love.
  6. Say nothing, but bear a grudge, Muzzling yourself may avoid a fight about what happened. “gunnysacking” though makes hurts accumulate and fester. You toss the memory of each hurt into a big gunny sack that you carry invisibly on your shoulders. The sack gets heavier as you fill it with recollections of ever more hurtful interactions. One day suddenly you have had enough. You heave the heavy full gunny sack up, swing it around your shoulder, and “POW!”, you slam the whole bag onto the person you have been mad at, letting the full sack of hurts explode, quite possibly ending with the punch line, “And I’m leaving!”

For an effective post-argument healing dialogue, keep the tone friendly.

To keep the tone cooperative as you take the four-step pathway ahead, wait to talk until you have recuperated from your initial shock or anger.

If anger re-arises, remember that anger is a stop sign so you can keep your energy level in the calm zone.

Use safe sentence starters. Listen well, that is, listen to learn rather than to reject or correct what you hear. Sprinkle plenty of sweeteners, that is, sentence starters that create good vibes, throughout the discussion.

And most of all, remember that mistakes are for learning.

Here’s an example illustrating the four parts of a full healing sequence for undoing the harm from upsetting mishaps and arguments.

Part I: Put together the puzzle pieces of what happened.

You are responsible for saying the blue pieces, and your partner for the red pieces. The blues pieces include what you thought, felt, did, and said in the incident. The red pieces are what the other person thought, felt, did, and said. No one gets to speak about what the other person said, felt, thought. Just put forth the data pieces of your color, that is, about yourself. By putting the red and the blue pieces together into one, you will both be able to see the whole picture of what happened and how come.

Josie felt both hurt and angry when Jim came home from work empty-handed. He’d forgotten to pick up the dry-cleaning on his way home from work even though she had called to remind him. Now she had no dress to wear to the special dinner they were going to that evening.

Josie: When you come home without the dress, my first feeling was panic. I was counting on wearing my black dress to dinner, and I didn’t have any other options.

Jim: I felt like a total idiot as soon as I saw the panic on your face. I had reminded myself to stop at the cleaners when I picked up my briefcase to leave the office and then driving home, I totally spaced out. I was preoccupied with how to solve the computer problem I’d been working on and drove right by the cleaners.

Josie: I know how focused you get when you are trying to think through a problem, so I can picture that. When I panicked though, my panic came out as fury. I went instantly from zero to 100 on the anger speedometer. I felt like I was vomiting anger.

Jim: And when I see anger coming, all my teenage gang years kick back into gear. I haven’t shouted like that in a long time. At least I had enough sense to walk out of the apartment. If I hadn’t gone out for a walk, even though it made us late for dinner, I could have pummeled you like I used to pummel kids who’d jump me on the street.

Part II: Find the Mis.

Once enough puzzle pieces have been put forth that gradually the picture is becoming clear, each of you needs to find your mis. Did you misunderstand something? Was there a misperception? A miscommunication? A simple mistake?

Josie: I can see that I misestimated how likely it would be that you might forget. It was a mistake too that I asked you to pick up the dress without having a backup plan. It’s not like you’ve never forgetten things before.

But I think my biggest miss was misinterpreting you. I immediately thought, “He doesn’t love me. He doesn’t care about me enough to remember to do things he’s said he’ll do. In fact, now that I think about it, I think my fury was like the rage I used to feel when my old alcoholic dad would let me down. He’d always say he was going to pick me up or take me to something, and 90% of the time he’d never show. As a kid, I assumed that was because he didn’t think I mattered that much. He really didn’t love me, or at least not as much as he loved to drink. I’m not so angry now thinking about it as I was when I was a kid. Now I just feel sorry for him. He was so clueless about his alcoholism and how it was destroying him and all of us.”

Jim: And though I’m not an alcoholic, when I go into problem-solving mode I do totally forget everything else going on around me. I can see that my version of ADD, that total hyperfocus I go into, may be helpful at work but it does cause me to let you down. I’ve misestimated how much that hyperfocus can cause me to disappoint you. As to my anger when I first hear you getting mad, I’m just glad I didn’t make the mistake of getting into a slug-it-out fight with you. I could see it coming and for once did just turn and exit so I could cool down.

Josie: Thank you for that. And I’m glad that instead of going into moping, ‘see how much you’ve hurt me’ me mode after my anger explosion, I calmed down too and focused on “OK, what do we do now.”

Jim: Yes! We were lucky too, that the dry cleaning store was not far off our route to the dinner party. I loved that you had the spunk to change clothes in the car. What a wife I have!

Part III: Devise a better system.

On the assumption that the problem is not the people, it’s the problem, the solution to the problem is to find a better system for handling this kind of situation in the future.

Josie: Next time I’m tempted to ask you to do something to me, I’m going to ask myself, ‘Is this something that I’ll be upset about if Jim forgets?’ If it is, I’ll find another solution instead of relying on you. Like, I could this time have worn the dress as it was, ignoring the one stain that really didn’t show that much anyways. Then I could have asked you to bring it to the dry cleaners after the dinner party. That way, if you forgot to pick it up on the way home, no matter; you’d try again the next day to remember to pick it up.

Jim: Thanks Josie. That plan would help me a lot so I'm not so at risk for letting you down when it really counts. At the same time, with hindsight I can see that I need to teach myself to listen to my “little voices.” When you asked me about the cleaners, a little voice in my head had said, “Sometimes you forget to do things on the way home….” I think in the future when I hear that voice I’ll set a reminder on my cell phone that will ding me when I’m supposed to do what I said I’d do. When I’m leaving the office I could set it for instead for 10 minutes, which is how long the drive is to the cleaners, or 15 minutes if you want me to stop at the deli on the way home. Ah, technology. It’s a savior for someone with my kind of ADD, both for when I’m hyper-focused and for when my thinking is scattered and I don’t focus in enough to get started on what I need to be doing.

Part IV: Apologize.

Apologize for your part, ending with what you will aim to do differently next time in a similar circumstance. Ideally, the other will do the same. Sub-optimally but still effective, if you alone do the apologizing, you can pat yourself on the back for being strong and emotionally healthy and having brought at least your side of the incident to full closure.

Apologies work best when they include statements of

  • Regret about what you did that caused harm, i.e., “I’m sorry that I…)
  • Non-intentionality (that you hadn’t meant to cause harm),
  • Learning, i.e., identification of what you would do differently next time.

Josie: So I’m sorry that I set you up for goofing up by asking you to remember to do something so essential. I didn’t do it on purpose and at the same time, I can see that I hadn’t learned from other times when this has happened. I wish the ADD would evaporate. I guess no one's perfect. And I’m especially sorry too that I blew up at you; I don’t want to pop off in anger like that any more. I want to learn to exit like you do, to step back or out of the situation as soon as I feel anger welling up.

Jim: Thanks Josie. I’m sorry for forgetting to stop at the cleaners. I feel terrible that I let you down, which I sure didn’t do on purpose. At the same time, I’m really glad to have thought of the idea for the future of using the app on my cell phone that dings me when there’s something I need to do. Actually, I think it’s maybe dinging me now, telling me … that now's a good time for me to hug you…..

Josie: Ummm…

In sum, to heal after upsets:

  • Keep reminding yourself that mistakes are for learning
  • Keep friendly and respect
  • Engage in seeking insights about your own part in the difficulty. Let your partner discover his or hers.
  • Then put the past in the past and return to enjoying the present.

(c) Susan Heitler, Ph.D.

For an indexed listing of Dr. H's posts, see "Dr. H's Blogposts" on her clinical website.

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