Do you sometimes think you’ve worked through a conflict with your partner, only to have it come up again and again? Are there times when you believe you’ve settled a disagreement, yet continue to experience negative emotional residue from it?
If you address an issue with your partner in a rational manner, you’re engaged in problem-solving. Assuming you’re not flooded with emotion during this process (which inevitably leads to distorted thinking), you’re ready to employ your best conflict-negotiation skills. You endeavor to make your position as emphatic, as easy to grasp, as possible. And your partner likely wants to do the same. But if you’re each stubbornly convinced that your viewpoint is the only valid one, the matter is unresolvable: You’re doomed to reach a stalemate, maybe feeling even more frustrated with each other than before.
An alternative explanation for relational gridlock, however, goes far deeper. This post is about the inability to resolve conflicts when what’s really “in conflict” is never clearly identified. I'll focus on matters that seem to get resolved, at least superficially, only to get recycled later, and on issues that can't be resolved until couples discuss, with compassion and respect, hurt feelings from their shared past that are closely connected to their current issues. Ultimately, these two focal points are the same—what needs to be rectified aren’t differences in viewpoint but feelings neither party has experienced the other as understanding, or empathizing with.
Even though such a feeling focus could make all the difference in a couple’s troubled relationship, this single best fix for their ongoing quandary involves something very few couples adequately appreciate. It requires entering each other’s “hurt museum," which takes a considerable amount of courage—and a fairly strong, resilient ego—to do.
These are the six vital steps that will help you end your protracted standoffs:
1. Over the course of several days, each of you compiles your own, very personal “hurt museum.”
This list will encompass the partner memories that relate to past experiences of hurt and disappointment. Concentrate on memories that—when, in your mind’s eye, you make them “real” again—remain negatively charged for you, despite efforts you've made to minimize or forgive and forget them. If, at some subterranean level, they continue to fester, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll keep interfering with attempts to resolve conflicts in the present.
When distraught couples hurl everything at each other but the proverbial kitchen sink, these seemingly extraneous incidents are the “everything” that repeatedly comes up. The reason they resurface is that you and your partner have never adequately attended to them. I emphasize the term hurt because it almost always underlies feelings of irritation, anger, and rage—and it’s embedded in a whole host of other emotions. So consider whether the feelings attached to each of your memories links to your feelings of being:
- disregarded or dismissed
- guilty or falsely accused
- victimized or ridiculed
- unimportant or useless
- devalued or worthless
- weak or powerless
- humiliated or shamed
- spurned or rejected
- unloved or unlovable
Linking each event to bothersome feelings is crucial because they constitute the very heart of the matter. It’s harder to argue about feelings and their legitimacy than it is thoughts. If the feeling is authentic, its validity hardly warrants questioning, regardless of what the other person’s conscious intentions may have been. Just as it makes little sense to try to talk someone out of their feelings, it’s equally unproductive to dispute the other person’s motives. So during this process, it’s imperative that neither party debate what the other person actually felt or thought.
While you compose this list, keep it to yourself. It makes little sense to disclose the relics in your hurt museum beforehand, especially because doing so might overload your partner.
2. Limiting yourself to only a single hurt at a time (and probably no more than one or two in any scheduled session), each of you should take turns describing a situation that provoked you. Include what was said, how it was said, and how it affected you.
For example: “When you told me in front of our friends—in a tone I thought was really scornful—that I was being ridiculous for liking a movie you thought was incredibly shallow, it made me feel humiliated, as though everyone there could see me as someone whose husband felt free to mock, even degrade.”
3. The listener whole-heartedly devotes themselves to entering their partner’s reality, imagining the distress their words or actions could have caused them.
The key word here is empathy. Intentional or not, you hurt your partner. It’s not fair to evaluate their emotions as overblown or think that they're too sensitive. Your one obligation is to put yourself in their shoes and endeavor to feel whatever you prompted them to feel. In your role as a sympathetic listener, you’re not to defend yourself, counter-criticize them, or in any way judge them for their reaction.
4. After empathizing with their hurt feelings, validate the meaning they ascribed to the situation—whether it was feeling demeaned, not acknowledged, or respected.
Regardless of how misunderstood by them you yourself may now feel, you still need to honor their experience. Again, this is not the time to explain or justify yourself—or, for that matter, to interrupt them to proclaim your counter-hurts. Although the route to effectively resolving your conflict doesn’t—and shouldn’t—require you to agree with your partner’s reality, you should understand it and be sympathetic toward it.
5. Apologize, not from your head, but your heart, for hurting your partner.
If you think it would help, or if they request it, you might offer some sort of restitution, such as temporarily taking over one of their household chores. The goal is to demonstrate that you’re truly sorry for causing them pain. Granted, if you have a good amount of stored-up, negative emotional residue yourself, this can be extremely challenging. But remember that you’ll have an opportunity to get past hurts off your chest (or heart) when it’s your turn. This mutual exchange of compassion and sympathetic understanding is the best way for both of you to sweep away the emotional debris that’s blocking a more harmonious attachment.
6. Finally, you ask your partner whether your response convinced them that you now fully appreciate why they felt hurt.
Consider, too, that if you’ve merely repeated verbatim what they said to you, they probably won’t think you've truly gotten it. So, you need to restate what they shared in your own words, and make an effort to recreate their world from within your own.
Ask yourself this question: What did it feel like when I felt discounted, degraded, disrespected, or shamed? Only when your partner feels that you appreciate the distress you caused is he or she likely to believe that such a situation won’t happen again. They should feel that it’s safe to make themselves vulnerable again with you, which is the prerequisite for relationship intimacy. When a person is able to expand their awareness of, and sensitivity toward, another’s emotional suffering, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll repeat the same hurtful behavior.
If following these steps doesn’t resolve most of your conflicts with your partner, it’s likely that they didn’t start with your relationship and originated in childhood. Your partner may not be causing your hurt but reactivating, or triggering, unresolved pain from your childhood. If serious emotional abuse occurred in your youth, it may have left you achingly sensitive—and over-reactive—to anything that unconsciously reminds you of these past hurts.
If that’s the case, counseling may be necessary. Or you should find ways to confront, and resolve, the initial source of your hypersensitivity. A plethora of self-help books address this matter: Reclaiming the Inner Child, Becoming Your Own Parent, Reinventing Your Life. In addition, many of my earlier Psychology Today posts deal with ways of healing old childhood wounds.
- The idea for this post—and the evocative term “hurt museum”—were taken from a suggestion made by John Shelton and J. Mark Ackerman in their pioneering Homework in Counseling and Psychotherapy (1974).
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© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.