When your spouse or partner presents you with something they’re struggling with, and you happen to be part of that struggle, what do you do? When your partner complains or protests or even attacks, s/he is most often saying, “I’m hurt. Pay attention to that.”
If you are like most of us, in the heat of conflict it’s easy to become defensive, argue, or cross complain. And then, of course, it’s “on.” Deep feelings become triggered, and no matter how small the initial complaint, things get too hot, too fast. You’ve taken it personally. You’ve let your partner’s complaint stand as a comment against who you are, and why should you tolerate that? You fight back, because this is what our brain is wired to do–it’s a survival mechanism, serving to keep us alive. But in this case it’s overkill.
After many of these dramas, it seems as if the two of you can’t stop yourselves from fighting about small stuff; sometimes, you can’t even remember what it was all about. All you know is that it hurt, for both of you, and you feel stuck.
What if you could remain grounded, listen calmly, and simply get curious without owning your partner’s problem? What if it were not yours to solve? What if you could feel empathy for your partner rather than resentment? Now, even though your partner has a right to self-expression, I’m not saying to sit back and pretend you’re a punching bag. And I’m not suggesting you take any form of abuse. It’s fair enough to say, “I’d like to listen to you, but right now your anger is making it impossible for me to be present with you.”
To handle your feelings while remaining open to those of your partner requires strength, compassion, dedication, and patience. It is not easy, and does not come naturally for most of us. Even the most dedicated of my couples have struggled to remain on this path.
When we get close enough to another person to commit to an intimate relationship, we are offering our hearts to each other, in varying degrees of vulnerability. The more open we are, the richer the possibilities for the healing power of love to reach us, and the easier it is to get hurt, missed, overlooked, or rejected.
We tend to seek out a partner who will stir up in us just enough of the old wounding so that we have another opportunity to understand the wound, to re-enact it, and possibly to heal it. If you have lasted together beyond the initial phase of blissful infatuation, consider that you have come to each other with a deep purpose.
When your partner becomes triggered by something you said or did and comes to you in pain and defensiveness, try this: Listen to them, but also tune into yourself. What’s happening inside? Are you leaning forward in preparation to fight back? Are you ready to retreat? Are you closing up the gates? Ask yourself: Am I ready to listen to my partner? Can I manage my feelings right now? Can I be present and not look for solutions? As I feel myself getting tight, can I increase my breath by thirty percent? Can I feel into my partner’s pain enough to realize that I am probably not the original offender? Can I get to the point of asking questions?
If you can do even some of these things, you are offering your partner the opportunity to come forward safely, you open yourself to knowing your partner more deeply, and you’re giving yourself a break from the stress of being or trying to fix the problem. You are establishing the foundation for increased safety, and therefore a deeper level of intimacy.