Have you ever found yourself on either side of this conversation?
A: “You never look up and acknowledge me when I get home. You’re just buried in your phone.”
B: “I didn’t realize I have to greet you every time you walk through the door.”
A: “See, you can’t even acknowledge that I want you to say hello. Did you at least take out the garbage like you said you would this morning?”
B: “You want me to stop what I’m doing to attend to you, after I’ve been out all day attending to everyone else’s problems.”
A: “What do you think I’ve been doing all day? I’ve been working my ass off here, too, organizing, scheduling, running errands, and cleaning everything.”
A: “Right. Now you’re gonna say how lucky I am to have conversations with adults all day.”
B: “Well, how many times have you had to change diapers, use baby talk, and manage tantrums?”
Many of our daily frustrations can easily be placed on those with whom we share our lives and our spaces. These can result in unnecessary arguments and patterns of negative, scripted exchanges. I help people in relationships navigate these interactions so that they feel rewarding and connecting, rather than disconnecting and enraging. With compassionate communication, lovingkindness, and emotional clarity, partners can name their feelings, identify their unmet needs, and make explicit requests.
I like to guide my clients through the following steps to attain these goals:
- Notice physical sensations in your body
- Notice thoughts that come to mind – what stories are you telling yourself?
- Distinguish between what you can take responsibility for and what you’re blaming others for
- Take a deep breath; make the exhale longer than the inhale
- Move your body (jumping jacks, push ups, sweeping, juggle something in your hands, etc.)
- Ask your partner(s) when they are ready to discuss feelings
- Use compassionate communication (observations, feelings, needs, requests); ‘I hear you,’ I understand you,’ ‘Help me understand what you mean,’ ‘I get how you’re feeling.’
Together, we can flip the script on these aggravating conversations. Here’s a modified conversation, one where a partner is silent and unresponsive to your arrival home, and where you engage in self-awareness and empathy to communicate:
A: “Hi Honey, I’m home!”
Met with silence. Notice sensations and emotions that appear because of the lack of response.
A: “Hi Sweetheart, how was your day?”
Silence again. Notice sensations and emotions again. Take a few minutes to set everything down, change into comfortable clothes, acknowledge your feelings. Approach your partner, sit down calmly next to him/her/them, and take a deep breath.
A: “Hi Honey, I hope you’re feeling relaxed after a long day. I noticed when I came in and said hello, I didn’t hear you respond. I tried again and didn’t hear anything. When that happens, I feel invisible. I need to feel wanted and welcomed home. When you call back and I hear your voice, I become calm and feel heard. Would you help my transition home feel more loving?”
There’s a healing power in stating our feelings (“I feel sad…”) and having someone validate those feelings with follow-up statements (“I get why you felt sad when I didn’t respond”). When we acknowledge our feelings and those of others, we are less likely to withdraw and are better able to communicate authentically. We create a safe environment, one where we can be honest and vulnerable with each other. With time, effort, and practice, partners can own their stories, and turn harmful scripts into helpful conversations.
As our climate changes, storms get bigger, wildfires are more destructive, and even wind patterns become more unpredictable. These volatile wind patterns affect airplane travel by causing severe turbulence during flight. When relationships go unattended to – when we get into a routine that forgoes efforts to bolster healthy, secure connections – the climate of the relationship suffers, too. Relational “storms” (read: ruptures) transpire, and increase the turbulence of our partnerships. The chaos of “storms” and “fires” become more frequent and more intense, and often require more resources and a longer recovery time when left unattended.
When we regularly repair and take care of the environment – promote reforestation, limit greenhouse gases, build infrastructure to handle flooding, create codes that protect buildings during hurricanes – our environment can recover, build resilience and even come to thrive. The same goes for our relationships. Comments are not taken personally, and one can tap into compassion for one’s partner to give space lovingly.
This is similar to the analogy of healthy relationships and skyscrapers. Modern skyscrapers are constructed to be resilient to earthquakes. Their seismic dampening systems provide shock absorption and allow the building to sway without collapsing. Our relationships stay stronger and more stable when we foster secure attachment, which provides emotional shock absorption and cushion.
I help people in relationships develop these systems to resolve conflicts, soothe ruptures, and return to healthy foundations. This enables partners to better heal from the emotional ruptures and earthquakes that may occur and develop the enlivening, secure connections we need.
Popular media often conceptualize romantic relationships as one partner being “complete” upon finding a “soulmate.” This has been reinforced with ceremonial practices of pouring wine or sand into one vessel, representing two becoming one. While the sentiment may seem sweet and romantic, it may not be the most effective model for enduring, meaningful relationships.
Perhaps a more effective model is represented by two celestial bodies in orbit. These “relationship” bodies rotate around each other and have a gravitational pull towards each other; they feel a sense of connectedness, belonging, and security. The centrifugal force that drives the bodies away from each other provides independence, individuality, and separateness. When these forces are in balance, the orbit moves smoothly. When there is an imbalance, the two bodies can be pulled together; in this scenario, one body may feel engulfed and suffocated. When imbalance favors centrifugal force away from each other, individuals in a relationship can feel lonely, forgotten, or uncared for. Either version of the imbalance results in a collision of conflict, resentment, and contempt.
In relationships, we can recreate balance through re-establishing our secure connection. When we can remind ourselves that the problem is separate from the individuals involved, we can allow each other to respond rather than react. Through the development of skills of partnership, communication, and independence (e.g., friendships outside relationship, tolerate feelings of loneliness), we can help reset the balance of the celestial bodies in orbit.
I help clients navigate this through a low-volume, slow-moving process in a safe and supportive environment. We avoid discussions of “how it happened” and “who said what”, and instead focus on naming our vulnerabilities (e.g., “I felt sad when I heard you say…”) and offering validation (e.g., “I see how upset you are, and I feel sad as well.”). We work together to re-fortify the emotional bonds that keep us close and safe with each other. This sets the foundation for an enduring, meaningful relationship.
Written by Matthew LeBauer and Jamie Diaz
Is a goat sacrifice and a pilgrimage on your schedule for Valentine’s?
Where does this day come from and what has it become?
How can you show yourself some love on this day?
If these questions catch your ear, then this podcast is for you!
Listen in with host Ben Robbins, sex therapists Indigo Stray Conger, Lisa Thomas and me as we discuss how such a couple-centric holiday came to be and, most importantly, how to enjoy it no matter your relationship status.
Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.
Compassion and kindness are very much like the muscles in our bodies: we need to attend to them regularly to stay emotionally flexible and strong. Recently, I was at a movie, heading for the bathroom; I found myself nervous about walking in front of my friends and blocking their view. I jumped a barrier to eschew walking in front of them, but I landed awkwardly and ended up hurting my foot. That’s the kind of move my body is usually able to handle, but not staying flexible left me open to injury. I’d imagined moving past folks to get to the aisle would inconvenience them, but I didn’t imagine at the time the inconvenience to me of spending weeks with my foot in a boot.
When we stay conscious and intentional in our relationships, we are more flexible to practice compassion and kindness. When we engage in our relationships from a place of compassion and kindness, we stay emotionally flexible and forgiving. We can grant ourselves and others the benefit of the doubt, and assume all parties have positive intentions. The flexibility serves as a cushion or insulation against the annoyances, disappointments or anxiety that could otherwise trigger our anger. By staying emotionally flexible and choosing a conscious response, we avoid the reactivity that spikes our anger and the defensiveness that keeps us rigid.
Had I kept my body limber, I wouldn’t have made myself susceptible to such a silly injury. The same applies in my relationships: when I approach them with compassion and loving kindness, I’m less susceptible to taking things personally and becoming reactive. Are you emotionally rigid or inflexible in your relationships? Do you become angry, do you withdraw, or do you become defensive? How can you practice responding to interactions with compassion? The more emotionally flexible you are, the better you’ll be at taking things in stride and the cycle proves self-reinforcing.
Written by Matthew LeBauer and Jamie Diaz