From Bitter to Better: 3 Keys to Calmer Relationships

Bitter Fight Between Angry Cartoon CoupleIn the heat of an argument, an angry couple can temporarily lose sight of what they really want: happiness for their loved one and themselves. That desire for closeness somehow gets lost amidst the resentments, pride, and anger of the moment.

These moments are often triggered by small issues. But the conflicts create big injuries that just keep compounding the hurt. Below are three keys I have found necessary to begin to get things back on track for the couples I work with.

Key #1: Stop Making Things Worse, Take a Time Out

Usually, before we can work on the “big issues”, we’ve got to diffuse the back-and-forth bickering that keeps you stuck in anger and resentment. The first key then is to stop making things worse than they already are. And one way to do this is to take a time out.

When do you take a time out? When you notice your…

  • Voice is louder
  • Body is tense
  • Thoughts are telling you why the other person is bad, or wrong, or that this just isn’t fair or right

that’s when you need to politely excuse yourself for a few minutes, tell your partner you’ll be back to talk when you feel less stressed, and then leave the room.

Why do time outs work? It’s simple. When we are angry, we are not real smart. We act up and say things that are a little bit dumber. Our IQ seems to drop. But the time out gives you a chance to calm down and actually think:

  1. Is my reaction making things better or worse?
  2. What do I really want right now that I’m not getting?
  3. What’s the most effective way to get what I want? Will yelling, criticizing or intimidating work?

Note: It’s very important is to take the time out early in the conversation. And you’ll want to talk to your partner and let him or her know that you’ll be doing this when things get tense. Here’s a booklet I wrote, Using Time Outs to Regain Self-Control that teaches how to do them well.

Key #2: See a Bit of Truth in Your Partner’s Point of View

Dr. David Burns refers to this as seeing a kernel of truth in what the other person is saying. Every criticism or opinion usually has a small bit of truth. Put yourself in his or her shoes.

Why does this work? First, it’s almost impossible to stay angry with someone when you can see a little bit of where they’re coming from. That’s the power of empathy. It’s like a super strong fire-retardant: just a little bit lowers some big flames. So you feel a bit saner and better almost right away.

Second, the other person is disarmed. The energy to fight dwindles when he/she realizes that you’re actually listening to them. A genuine conversation can suddenly break out.

You might be saying, “That’s crazy, I’m not going to get rolled over and just give in.” Well, I’m not asking you to. But I am asking you to consider changing the experience from one of righteous anger to one where you might connect and talk.

Blaming CoupleKey #3: Speak Your Truth, but Leave Out the Judgment

I’m referring to a very specific kind of judgment: not the factual and non-emotional observation, but the kind when what your real goal is an attempt at getting the other to change. The kind that is really a way to blame.

Here’s an example: “You know honey, I really feel the way you wasted your last paycheck was unfair to me.” Hmm…, no swear words, even had the word “honey” in it, which sounds really friendly, right? Wrong. The speaker has called the person wasteful, unfair, and calls these judgments feelings. These are opinions, not feelings (real feelings the speaker had were probably more like irritation, sadness, and hurt).

And the listener will predictably fight fire with fire and let his partner know that she was unfair when she did fill-in-the-blank and that she has a right to spend her money the way she wants.

Think of it this way: when you start thinking about how the other person should change then that’s probably going to come out at blame and criticism. In that moment, the problem is him or her. That stance is a sure path to inspire more resentment, anger, and emotional distance.

The patients who do better in their relationships learn to do something else: they speak their feelings, but own them. You can do this too. Take responsibility for what you feel, and for what you can change. Do this in the spirit of being effective and making progress. Do it to make change easier for the other person.

Bottom Line: You Own Your Relationship Experience

There are specific choices and behaviors that can let you create the kind of relationship that you want. It takes practice and skill. It can be learned. Moment by moment, conversation by conversation. You always have the choice to decide how to respond. What you say and do next is entirely under your control.

Deep down, you may already know this. You probably often use this kind of wise control in many aspects of your life. Sadly, it’s common that when it comes to the most important relationships, couples get into the habit of forgetting how to do this, and instead get caught up in the drama and righteous anger of the moment.

Are you ready to try something different? Something that might work better, to connect you with the one you love and honor the kind of person and the kind of relationship you want?

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