Don’t get frustrated, get curious!
You know how it goes — You and your spouse start off talking about something (what you want for dinner, what happened at work today, … the topic doesn’t even matter) and before you know it, you’re in a fight.
You’re convinced you’ll never get through to him. And, he feels like you always make him the bad guy. The most innocent topic quickly turns harsh and gets very personal with lots of alienating, “You always …” and “You never …”.
This pattern just keeps repeating itself over and over (and over). And the unspoken “Rules of Engagement” are always the same.
Many couples start doubting their relationship when this occurs, taking the ongoing conflict as a sign they’re not “right” for each other. Because surely this terrible, primal, gut-wrenching struggle wouldn’t happen if you two were truly ‘meant for each other,’ right?
Well, actually, when you keep having the same conflict over and over, you probably ARE with the right person.
Sound crazy? Well, it’s true.
You’re with the “right” person when your partner challenges you to resolve old, crippling pain.
Human beings constantly recreate old conflicts … partly because the familiar is comforting (even when it’s unhealthy), but also as an attempt to handle that old situation better in the present tense. Think of it this way: As a baby, you learned to talk and walk via repetition. And after a little ‘try, try, and try again’ … those skills became second nature. As you grew, you learned other things, as well. About managing your world. And, about how to stay safe and/or win someone’s affection, etc.
You learned some of those things “the hard way” because of painful experiences (physically or emotionally). And humans are hard-wired to remember scary or hurtful things more than happy moments, because the brain interprets those difficult moments as a threat to your existence. Therefore, those experiences receive greater mental attention to help you develop defenses against them.
So, yes, … when you saw that amazing stranger across a crowded room (a.k.a. your partner), your mind opened to new wonderful possibilities. Your first experiences together felt intoxicating, like you were absolutely “right” for each other. And you were.
But, along with those new, beautiful, warm feelings of “love” and “home,” you both alsobrought along your own unfinished business.
And it’s that “unfinished business” that’s rearing its ugly head each time you two fall into your particular “fight pattern.” One, or both, of you ends up triggered into re-living your prior painful experiences.
Yes, it sucks! And, of course, you both want it to stop. And, you’re right — it needs to stop.
Surprisingly, though, the first step to ending this pattern is respecting the fact that you two are stuck together. You chose each other (out of all the other people out there) because your issues are well-matched.
You entered the relationship with ideas about how a ‘good’ relationship looks, feel and operates. And, now, you’re trying to force your partner to play by your rules, and vice-versa.
For example, if you were always self-sufficient in your past, you want your dream partner to take care of you now (because it’s really tiring to do everything yourself!). But chances are, he feels like he always had to take care of everyone else, too … and now he wants someone to take care of him. So, he reacts poorly when you act needy (because his mother probably expected HIM to take care of HER).
If you want this hellish cycle of fighting to stop, show yourselves (and each other) a little mercy and know that you both came to this spot honestly. Your backgrounds shaped you this way, and sometimes your worst memories get stirred up without you realizing it. And until you truly address and resolve that “old stuff,” it will just keep repeating and repeating. And will continue to do so until you learn the lesson, shift your mindset, and chose a new behavior or response.
So, when you and your partner start to squabble and you think: Here we go again! — pause and recognize the conflict as a signal that the moment at hand is not just “a fight.”
It’s also an invitation to grow and do something differently. If you don’t like your lines in this play, change them! Don’t follow the usual script. Make a different choice.
PLEASE don’t worry about doing something “right” — just do something different. Break the pattern.
Take a “time-out” to catch your breath before responding. Or, perhaps, simply lower your voice. If you’re a screamer, try speaking in the lowest, calmest register you possibly can. Or, if you usually whisper, speak up. If you usually stand and pace around, sit down. You get the picture.
Let me restate — for change to truly occur, you must first respect that you’re two well-matched contenders, each trying your darndest to get what you want, yet both ending up frustrated. The more you resist the truth of this, the more your toxic pattern will repeat over and over.
Of course, old habits die hard. So, understand that you won’t magically change overnight. You won’t be the first couple who finds themselves right back in a familiar fight. It will take you consciously choosing a new path multiple times before that new way becomes your usual habit.
But, I promise, with lots of “try, try, and try again” practice, a time will come when you notice you feel curious about what you want (and what your partner needs) versus just defensive.
At this point, couples start growing together in powerful ways, finally able to discuss old resentments because neither of you is trying to prove you’re “right” (and the other person is “wrong”). As a couple, you begin to long for a new experience with one another.
You realize that you’re on your way to a deeper, more intimaterelationship. And, isn’t that what you wanted all along?