Susan Harrow

The Body Blog

Stop Fighting! Relationship Repair Without Speaking

Sometimes your lover acts like your worst enemy.

Posted Feb 20, 2010

 Relationship Repair in a FlashSometimes your lover acts like your worst enemy. During a fight this person you love, whom you thought you knew, turns into an alien from another planet. You see their typically mild-mannered self transform into someone you’d want to commit to an insane asylum.

Their words and actions may seem like pure nuttiness, but your partner’s responses are rooted in physiology. What happens, says psychotherapist Nancy Dreyfus, author of Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You love: Relationship Repair in a Flash, is that in the midst of a fight our bodies go into fight or flight mode. Our instincts kick into high alert.

During these moments of elevated chemistry we are actually scanning the environment for danger. Typically, we find it pretty fast. Even within an apology. “When your partner says, ‘I’m sorry,’ we not only hear the words, but the tone beneath them,” says Dreyfus. “If it’s not wholehearted or there is a lingering edge of exasperation, what we hear is ‘You’re my enemy not my friend’.”

Part of this is due to the fact that, according to communication pioneer Professor Albert Mehrabian,"7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken. 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said). 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression." so that even a sincere verbal apology may be contaminated by a small percentage of tension perceived by the listener. When our body is in a state of arousal we’re oriented to scan the environment for danger both auditorially and visually.

What complicates the matter is that when the person who receives the apology isn’t buying it, or feels like it’s just being said to shut them up, the apology itself can ignite a cycle where the person sincerely apologizing feels hopeless. When his apology isn’t accepted, it refuels his anger.

This is one of the reasons Dreyfus created her written flash cards which can help couples who are fighting or at an impasse calm down and get through to each other in less than a minute and turn a mean interaction into a loving one. The flash cards are a series of warm and calming self-aware messages that can be held up in the midst of an argument. For example it may be scary to say, "I'm afraid if I say I'm sorry, you'll make everything all my fault." But holding up the card can neutralize the difficulty.

A written message diffuses all the subterfuge. “We want to connect,” says Dreyfus. “And from a spiritual perspective, we already are. But in these moments of anger and despair we feel like we’re separate." The flash cards close the separation. Since they are free from any "tone" their message is also free of any interpretation beyond the words. "Written messages allow us to more simply align with trusting in our connection," says Dreyfus. "We're willing to trust that a written message has a purity to it that a verbal message doesn’t."
Another reason why the cards work is that they show that the person using them is making a conscious choice vs. reactive one. Since people don't typically have the flashcards at hand when an argument erupts they must dash out of the room, get the book and find a fitting card.

The written message, untainted by questionable voice tones, usually has the unique potential of transcending the survival-based paranoia our fight-or-flight response dictates.

A couple who begged Dreyfus for an emergency session on the day she was leaving town for her book tour, found solace in Dreyfus’ advice – and could have benefited greatly from having the cards at hand. This normally loving couple hadn’t spoken in two days….

On short notice the husband invited to dinner someone who was in town for the day whose approval was important to him. Rather than ask, he informed wife ‘We’re having company for dinner.’ They were experiencing financial hard times and couldn’t afford an extravagant dinner but had some frozen eggplant parmesan on hand. The wife, who reorganized her entire day so she could clean the house and get everything prepared for their guest, neglected to read the instructions on the eggplant and just took it out of the freezer to defrost.

When the husband found out that the dinner would be about thirty minutes late because his wife hadn’t micro-waved the eggplant as the instructions said, he went ballistic. He began screaming and saying “You’re not my friend or wife. A friend would have known how important this was.”

This kind of overreacting is the effect of deep childhood wounding, Dreyfus explained. He took her “laxness” about the meal as an indication that she didn’t care as much about dinner as much as he did. Of course it wasn’t about the food at all, but about a childhood wound around a mother who was never in sync with him.

It was as if he was a healthy toddler screaming for his mother to be attuned to him. Early in life this sub-optimal attunement can be life-threatening if a mother isn’t responding to the needs her infant can’t verbalize. In the present, this unresolved issue was transferred to his wife. The first thing he said in their session to her was “You don’t love me.” Everything she had done was meaningless for him. What he was asking for was someone to read his mind and do things exactly as he would have done them.

This form of fight or flight is rooted in a time when survival depended on a parent being able to mind-read the child’s needs. The wife's "failure" sent the husband into a panic leading him to become enraged and cruel. The wife felt blind-sided as she hadn’t witnessed this kind of behavior from him before. In this instance flashcard #15 could have been an intervention for her. “I am your friend. It is painful when so quickly I become your enemy."

His possible best bet cards to her: #41 "I realize I'm over-reacting. Can you give me a minute to get sane again?" Or #47 "I was just reacting to you as if you were my mother, and I know that you are not." Little can calm your partner down as much as an admission of your own insanity, reports Dreyfus.

Not everyone can rush into Dreyfus’ office during a relationship emergency, but the cards serve as a sort of surrogate therapist always on hand with wise advice to suit the situation. With the help of Talk To Me Like I'm Someone You Love turning enemies back into lovers is just a card away.

Nancy Dreyfus, Psy. D. is a psychotherapist, couples coach and former journalist who gave up a job offer at The New York Times, when she realized that reporting on the grievances of the world was only adding more misery to the planet. She now believes that world peace will only come when we deal with the grievances we have with the person we woke up this morning. She wrote her book, Talk To Me Like I'm Someone You Love: Relationship Repair in a Flash as a guidebook for staying true to oneself in life's messiest moments.

Susan Harrow is the author of Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul. She runs a Media Consultancy where she helps everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs to celebrity chefs, entrepreneurs to authors grow their business through media coaching and the power of PR. For more information please contact Susan.

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