Fighting isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I prefer some fighting to never fighting. Fighting can be destructive and disconnecting when it happens constantly and if it gets too escalated. Some fighting can also help couples get things out rather than holding them in. That doesn’t mean things are being resolved, but you are trying to resolve them.When couples withdraw from one-another, it’s like fighting only it’s silent. It can be worse than fighting because there is little attempt to resolve things and the bad feelings are still there, just underneath the surface.
The next step is to slow things down – I mean turn your automatic reactions to slow motion. This can give you the space to figure out what your vulnerable feelings are underneath – the ones that are driving your need to protect yourself and put up your defenses. Normally your partner can take in and hear your vulnerable feelings much more readily and with more empathy than when you have up a protective shield of anger or frustration. I know it might sound unrealistic or ridiculous to learn to put down the ‘shield’ or that I’m saying that anger is not allowed. Really, it’s simply helping you and your partner to truly hear each other with love and empathy so that you can bond again and feel safe and close together. Putting down the shield is the fastest way to get there. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a really good reason to be angry, but generally in order to stop the negative reactive cycle, we need to slow down into vulnerability and express that directly – which certainly takes courage.
Take some time, breath, and be gentle with yourself as you ask yourself what your vulnerable feelings are underneath your need to protect yourself. Validate and have compassion for all of your feelings, including the reactive ones – the anger and frustration, as well as the more soft ones, like hurt, disconnection, feeling alone, or anxiety and fear. See if after working with yourself a little, you can go back to your partner and say ‘I really want to try and do something different – to be vulnerable – but I’m scared you might judge me or criticize me or get defensive.’ First get your partner’s buy-in that you are going to be vulnerable and that you need them to listen. Then see if you can share a little bit of vulnerability.
This process I’m describing can be hard for partners to do on their own in the beginning because sometimes the couple’s ‘negative cycle’ is so stuck and hard to get out of that it’s hard for both of you to just soften and put down defenses. That’s totally understandable. That’s when having a couples therapist there to make sure that those vulnerable interactions go well can be a huge help. The therapist comes in, takes the reins, puts up guard rails, and makes sure that each sharing interaction between you is vulnerable and safe and that you partner is truly listening. The therapist coaches, re-directs, validates, and gently interrupts if the conversation is veering towards the negative cycle. This enables couples to have a temporary safe place where they know the therapist is rooting for the relationship and is not going to let the couple fight or withdraw from each other in the same way they might do on their own. Instead the therapist works hard to help re-direct conversations in a way that will feel healing and bonding to the couple. This results in (through baby-steps) turning the negative cycle into a positive one while having time to build traction and emotional trust again between the partners.