Is your marriage stuck in a vicious cycle of blaming and defensiveness? Here’s why that happens, and what to do about it.
Marriages get stuck in this kind of destructive cycle because of what we call “symbiosis”.
Symbiosis is living together as if you are one. It’s another way of saying “being dependent on one another”. But this kind of dependence goes way overboard and is not healthy.
In the romantic stage symbiosis is pleasurable, because I’m under the illusion that my partner and I are the same.
We think alike. We feel alike. We don’t need words to understand each other. We feel like we’ve truly found our soulmate.
But after the love chemicals wear off and the power struggle stage begins, symbiosis is painful.
Symbiosis is painful because I discover that my partner is an “other” person with their own needs, desires, hurts, experiences, and perspective.
That’s when I get stuck in my own self-absorption. So does my partner.
– I can only see my reality.
– I believe my reality is the only true description of reality.
– One of us is right and the other is wrong.
– “You and I are one, and I’m the one!”
Whenever I discover that my partner is different, my reality is challenged, and I can feel deeply betrayed.
That’s when the blaming and defensive cycle begins.
Here’s an example of symbiosis with two realities colliding.
SHE:“Make sure when you load the dishwasher you face the dishes inward, put all the silverware sorted in the tray, and don’t turn it on until it’s full so we don’t waste energy.”
HE:“You know it really doesn’t matter which way they are facing. They’ll get clean either way. And just put the silverware in there. We can sort it when we put it away. And really it doesn’t use that much energy.”
SHE:“You never listen to me!!”
HE : “You’re always telling me what to do!!”
Wow, Sandy and I have had that kind of exchange countless times! How about you?
So how do I break out of this cycle of blaming and defensiveness?
Differentiation is the process that helps us get unstuck.
Differentiation is when you begin to see and accept your partner as different, as an “other” person.
Differentiation is when you can hold your reality and your partner’s reality at the same time.
The Couple’s Dialogue is a powerful tool that can help a couple experience differentiation.
Here’s what it might look like in the example above.
HE: Mirrors and validates his partner’s desire to have the dishes face inward, the silverware sorted, and the dishwasher full before being used.
In that safe context where he has regulated his own reactions, he sees that her perspective really does make sense. And he lets her know that he gets it.
SHE: Having her reality validated, she feels safe and is open to seeing his reality.
She mirrors and validates his view that the dishes will get clean facing inward or outward. That the silverware can be sorted just as easily after they’re clean. And that having a few empty spaces in the dishwasher is not a huge expense.
Although she sees it differently, his view makes sense to her.
In the process, she realizes that there is really no right or wrong way to do it – just different ways.
She lets him know she gets it.
HE and SHE: They both feel safe and validated. As a result they both are now are open to new ways of washing the dishes.
Neither are holding on to their view for dear life. Neither are driven to prove themselves right.
Differentiation dissolves the symbiosis and self-absorption.
And, bingo, the blaming and defensiveness stops!
Watch the video below as Genevieve and Mike demonstrate the Couples Dialogue. Notice what happens to Genevieve when she feels validated by Mike.
This is how you do it friends!
Let’s turn symbiosis and self-absorption into healthy differentiation and deeper connection…
…and stop the blaming and defensiveness!
Let me know if I can help. I’ve been doing lots of Skype calls with couples over the past few weeks. I’d love to help coach you if you need it. Click here to find out more.
Post your comments below in the comment section. Share your insights and questions. See you next week!
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A “Caring Behavior” is something your partner has expressed to you that makes her or him feel loved.
In last week’s post, Katie made a “Behavior Change Request” of Frank. That request pointed to a “Caring Behavior” – something that, when done, makes Katie feel loved.
Her request was, “Next month, will you choose one weekend and plan something for us to do together?”
When Frank gave up his weekend golf to plan a suprise weekend with Katie, it was a positive experience for them both.
Katie felt loved, and her response made Frank feel like he could move closer to her.
It doesn’t help to just close your exits. You must redirect that energy into the relationship in a way that works for you both. That’s when reconnection can occur.
How about you in your relationship? Perhaps you can relate to Frank?
Is it scary for you to think about giving up something you love on a slim chance that you might be able to make your partner feel loved?
I can relate!
So begin with small steps.
There was wife who would go jogging every day at lunch, and then again after work. She learned that jogging was an exit – a way she was avoiding intimacy.
A small step for her was to continue jogging during her lunch break, but stop jogging in the evening in order to spend that time with her husband.
She didn’t give up jogging altogether. She just turned some of that energy back into the relationship. They spent time using some of the Dialogue tools they were learning in therapy. It was a step in the right direction.
So closing the exits is not about giving up something. It’s about getting the love you’ve always wanted!
Instead of leaving the relationship, identify your defenses, call your exits what they are, close them, and redirect all that good energy into your relationship.
You’ll be glad you did!
Need help? Reach out to me. I do coaching with couples all over the world through video conferencing.
If you haven’t already, please subscribe to my weekly post in the form below. My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning!
Your Imago (latin for image) is someone who has the positive and negative traits of your parents. Science tells us that we’re drawn to, and fall in love with someone who matches this unconscious image of your early caretakers.
Your Imago is someone who will activate those old wounds from childhood in a way that is similar to how you were wounded while growing up with your parents.
Katie’s unconscious relationship agenda was to marry Frank so those old wounds could be activated.
Why? So they can be healed. Of course all this is going on unconsciously.
In Katie’s case, when Frank “left her” to play golf, it triggered those old wounds of abandonment she felt when her parents “left her” for other interests.
Katie was now doing an adult version of those earlier childhood defenses – feeling abandoned and unleashing her anger toward Frank.
The fear of rejection or abandonment she felt went much deeper, and it was based on that timeless unconscious pain of abandonment or rejection she experienced in childhood.
A childhood where the work, goals, hobbies, and aspirations of her parents always seemed to be more important than she was.
The 90/10 Principle tells us that approximately 90% of our upset in a relationship is from history. 10% is from the present.
So Frank was relieved that his choice to play golf on the weekends was not the source of Katie’s upset. It was only the trigger.
3. Make a Behavior Change Request that will bring healing
As Frank was able to empathize with Katie’s fear of abandonment, I encouraged Katie to make a “Behavior Change Request”. Something that Frank could do that would be helpful to her in this frustration she experiences.
A Behavior Change Request is something tangible that Frank can do to meet a deep need Katie has. It’s a caring behavior that makes Katie feel loved and sets their direction as a couple toward healing and growth.
It’s only effective in the context of a safe Dialogue where Katie can be vulnerable enough to ask for it.
If our defenses are in place, a change request, even if granted, will NOT have the same powerful healing effect.
Katie’s Behavior Change Request went something like this…
“Next month will you choose one weekend and plan something for us to do together?”
And because Frank validated and empathized with Katie and was not reactive toward her, he was more than willing to do this.
As a matter of fact he was excited about the potential of being more connected with Katie. He hadn’t had any hope that this could happen before.
Do you think this might be why he was on the golf course so much?
Could that have been the way he dealt with his own pain as he lived with the same feelings of disconnection that Katie had.
Katie’s first Behavior Change Request met a need she had in a powerful way and brought healing.
And equally important, it set them both on a direction toward a deeper and more stable connection with each other.
Want to know what Frank’s issue was? Stay tuned next week!
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“My husband’s destructive anger is wrecking our family! I can’t deal with his abuse any longer!”
Tears filled Gina’s eyes as she explained what her husband Gary’s anger was doing to her.
This began a 7 step journey that transformed Gary’s destructive anger into passionate love.
Recently, in an argument over how to deal with one of their children, Gary blew up at Gina and put his fist through the wall.
Gary had not previously been physically violent toward Gina or their three children. But there were repeated times of yelling and name-calling.
And now Gary had literally hit the wall. Where was it going to end?
Gina was not only concerned for her own safety, but was really afraid of what this anger would do to their kids.
In our first session, we began a structured dialogue that helped Gary and Gina take seven steps toward dealing with abusive anger.
1. Set a boundary against uncontrolled anger.
It was very important for Gina to say to Gary that uncontrolled anger is not ok. Gina must realize she does not have to tolerate it, and must be empowered to leave the abusive situation in any way necessary. This may include getting a restraining order.
There are cases of emotional and physical abuse where the first step is for the victim to separate from the abusive partner and get professional help.
Gina communicated this boundary in a Dialogue where Gary mirrored and validated her concern.
It was very important that this boundary be communicated to Gary in a safe way. The Couples Dialogue helped him receive and accept it rather than feel judged by it.
In Gary’s case, he was ready to get help, and fully accepted Gina’s boundary.
For Gary and Gina, this act of violence was a wake up call to get help.
Both of them were eagerly seeking change.
They invited me to continue to facilitate this process of transforming anger into passionate love.
This is a pledge to stop all negative comments, criticisms, and uncontrolled expressions of anger.
It is something I ask all my clients to sign whether violent anger is an issue or not.
Because nothing can happen in a relationship unless it is safe.
And it will never be safe if the tiniest bit of negativity is allowed in the space between the couple.
Negativity in a relationship is like putting a drop of raw sewage into a glass of pure drinking water.
Would you drink it even if I assured you it contained only a drop of sewage? 🙂
Of course not! Because, even with a drop of bacteria infested sewage, it’s no longer safe to drink.
In the same way, when a drop of criticism or unbridled anger is deposited into the space between a couple, it’s no longer safe to for either partner to open up to each other.
Going forward Gary and Gina weren’t perfect, but this commitment to zero negativity was a good start down the right path.
3. Avoid assigning labels to each other.
“My partner is abusive!”
“My husband is a narcissist!”
“My wife has Borderline Personality Disorder!”
Labeling like this produces enough negative energy to keep a person permanently bound in the role assigned to them.
People live up to what we say about them.
It’s important to drop the labels.
And here’s another reason why.
Gary and Gina are just two partners doing the best they can to manage their anxiety.
What do you mean?
When couples feel disconnected, the result is always anxiety.
The human mind cannot handle anxiety for more than a few seconds. To cope we turn it into either anger or depression.
So most people are not what we tend to label them. They’re just trying to manage their anxiety the best they can. Obviously some better than others.
Of course there are true narcissists and there are violent aggressors that are unsafe people period.
But in many cases where a someone claims their partner is a narcissist, it is a label unfairly assigned.
During the Dialogue process, we often find that the “so-called narcissist” is perfectly capable of empathizing with his or her partner. It’s just that the relationship had never been safe enough for that to happen.
It’s the growth challenge of marriage that changes us from self-absorbed individuals into differentiated individuals capable of intimate connection.
In many cases people are self-absorbed because they’ve never stepped up to the “growth challenge” that every marriage presents.
Therefore it’s important not to label.
The Couples Dialogue process helps you reimage your partner as someone who is simply trying to manage their own anxiety the best they can.
Some do it by exploding anger outwardly. Others by internalizing anger and becoming depressed.
4. Listen to anger’s “cry for help”.
As Gina mirrored Gary’s angry feelings, she learned that his anger was a cover for deeper emotions he was experiencing.
Usually anger is not about what you say it’s about. It’s a way to protect yourself from your more vulnerable feelings.
Like the tip of an iceberg, anger can be used to cover deeper emotions that we my not be conscious of.
Gina and Gary’s big blow up was not really about differences over child discipline. It was about Gary not feeling important in the process.
And at the very core was Gary’s hidden fear of losing his connection with Gina.
As a child, Gary experienced feelings of abandonment from his early caretakers. Unknowingly, he had brought these wounds into his marriage.
When he felt Gina withdrawing from him, his deep fear of abandonment was triggered.
In an unconscious reaction he would then use anger to mask these feelings of abandonment.
This in turn caused Gina to move even further from Gary.
But Chuck, that doesn’t make sense. If Gary wanted to be connected with Gina, why would he yell and punch the wall?
Why do kids throw temper tantrums?
To get the attention of the parent they fear won’t be available to them when they need it most.
Gary was doing an “adult version” of this kind of behavior.
So how does Gina “listen to anger’s cry for help” and begin to understand Gary’s real emotion behind anger?
It was through the structured Couples Dialogue that Gina felt safe enough to listen and validate Gary.
And in the context of that safety, Gary got in touch with the fear of abandonment that was driving his explosive anger.
And then, as we’ll see later, things went even deeper…
5. Stay present rather than retreating.
As Gina stayed present and listened to Gary, this had a powerful calming effect on him.
It was Gina’s withdrawal that triggered the fear and anger in Gary.
Most every day we walk our dog, Brie, in the neighborhood. There is a cat about a block away that Brie loves to chase. It goes like this.
The cat sees Brie and takes off. When Brie sees the cat take off, she begins pursuit until she reaches the end of her leash. And then it’s all we can do to hold her back. We should have gone to dog training school.
One day the cat saw Brie, and instead of running, he sat down in the driveway and began licking his paw.
Brie was really troubled. And stood perfectly still. Why?
We discovered that Brie will only chase if the cat retreats. If the cat doesn’t run, Brie waits.
In the same way, Gina’s running away was one of the triggers for Gary to pursue her in anger.
A dramatic change occurred when she remained present for Gary. His anger was diffused and he was able to express his fear in a safe dialogue.
Gina was able to empathize with Gary’s feeling of abandonment, and that was when everything changed.
Continuing to be curious in the Dialogue, Gina found out Gary’s hidden fear.
Recently she had became more involved in her work as a school teacher. This meant more social engagement with her coworkers as well.
As Gary saw her having fun with people that had more in common with her than he did, Gary feared that one day she wouldn’t need him and would leave him for good.
So the anger wasn’t about the differences they had in parenting. It was about Gary’s deep fear of being left alone.
Very often the problem you’re arguing about is not the problem. It goes much deeper.
Both Gina and Gary got in touch with the real issue which was Gary’s hidden fear.
This happened because Gina stayed present and curious in the process.
6. Use your anger as a signal to stop and dialogue.
The Couples Dialogue slows things down, enabling you to talk about your anger rather than exploding it.
Anger does not have to be unhealthy. It doesn’t have to turn into destructive aggression.
Anger can be an incredibly useful emotion.
Anger serves as a stoplight – a signal that something is not right and you need to STOP.
Gary learned to recognize when he was angry by noticing the sensations in his body.
Sensations like a tensed body, clenched teeth, restlessness, or increased intensity of speech were the cues that helped him realize he was angry.
If we can recognize anger before it’s expressed, it can be a signal to stop and use our safe conversation skills to talk about it.
If we heed anger’s warning, it’s possible to return to love and connection. If we ignore its warning, our relationship will suffer.
It’s a choice we have to make.
7. Channel anger’s energy into passionate love.
Anger and passionate love are opposite expressions of the same energy.
When anger’s negative energy gets redirected in a safe conversation it transforms into passionate love.
Gary took steps to moderate his anger, by talking it out rather than acting it out.
Gina stretched in order to be present with Gary rather than withdrawing and triggering his feelings of abandonment.
What happened as a result?
Anger was transformed into passionate love.
I saw evidence of this in the parking lot of my office after our last session as Gary and Gina stood by their car for what seemed like forever in a passionate hug and prolonged kiss.
As people watched them, I thought, “They have no idea what’s behind this. If they only knew…”
Gary and Gina not only learned to deal with destructive anger, but all of their feelings of love and passion returned.
That’s because anger’s negative energy can be channeled in the opposite direction. And passionate love can be reborn.
2. Avoiding conflict keeps you from getting the love you want.
Why did I avoid conflict?
Because I feared intimacy.
This strategy of avoidance helped me survive a childhood, where I often felt smothered and controlled.
As a child, connection and attachment was not a pleasurable experience.
So, in my adult relationship, I feared intimacy because it was tantamount to intrusion and absorption and control.
And yet what I craved more than anything was that very intimacy I was missing by avoiding conflict.
Wow! Talking about a dilemma!
I craved connection with Sandy. And yet I avoided the conflict that could lead us to that connection.
If conflict is handled well, it can lead you to a deeper connection and to getting the love you want.
We get married because we have found someone who will help us finish our childhood, by healing and recovering parts of ourselves lost along the way.
We know intuitively that this person is the key to feeling fully alive and whole again.
So marriage makes a lot of sense.
The problem is that conflict is what catalyzes the healing and growth that results in wholeness and full-aliveness.
So, if I’m avoiding conflict, I’m missing out on the whole deal.
I realized that Sandy and I did not feel connected. And by continuing to avoid conflict I was settling for less, willing to live in that disconnected state.
And it doesn’t end there. If you don’t address this it will get worse.
The partner who is avoiding intimacy will look for substitutes for that intimacy in things outside the marriage.
Things that bring a temporary feeling of being alive but it doesn’t last.
In my case, I was first driven to pursue my career with passion.
Nothing wrong with that in itself, but when it’s a replacement for the real intimacy missing in your marriage, it always turns out to be an empty illusion.
The more I would seek my full-aliveness in work…you guessed it.
The more Sandy would feel abandoned.
And although she was careful not to criticize, her negative feelings came through.
I just wasn’t measuring up!
And it was true.
What a wife needs most is to feel connected with her husband. And that feeling of connection was not there.
When the glory my career accomplishments faded, I turned to my lifelong love affair with music and my guitar became the new “mistress”.
Then it was my infatuation with road biking…
…all good things, but all empty in the end.
When we’re in a marriage that doesn’t feel connected, we look for exits that we think can fill the emptiness and loneliness.
But they don’t really work. And the pattern continues.
Experts tell us that only 10% of married couples report having a truly satisfying relationship.
We were one of that 90% – staying married, but not happy campers.
The 90% settles for either a “silent divorce” where they remain together in agony and in separate lives…
…or they settle for a “parallel marriage” where they are relatively happy together, but most of their needs are being met outside the relationship through things like work, hobbies, social causes, sports, gaming, etc.
This is where we were.
But thanks to Sandy we didn’t settle there!
What did Sandy do? She talked about it.
And I’m glad she did, rather than settling for less.
I so admire her for that. She was able to identify what was missing in our marriage, and that is the reason we are where we are today.
So speak up. But do it in the context of a Safe Conversation so transformation of your relationship can occur.
Our marriage was transformed the day I realized that full-aliveness doesn’t come through all the things I was seeking outside our relationship.
Full-aliveness comes with safety, connection and passion in my relationship with Sandy.
Like Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, I realized that everything I needed was right here with me all along.
But how did this change happen?
3. The “Commitment Dialogue” helps the “avoider” stay present and heal the one who feels abandoned.
Nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe.
One drop of negativity renders a conversation unsafe and therefore nothing transformational can happen.
Whenever someone withdraws from a conversation, the conversation is unsafe.
Whenever someone criticizes someone (even so called “constructive criticism”), the conversation is unsafe.
And did I say that nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe?
Ok, so how did you get to a Safe Conversation that brought about this change in you and Sandy?
The most powerful tool we found is called the Commitment Dialogue from Imago Couples Therapy.
Here’s how it went for Sandy and me.
After I integrated the first two insights I’ve shared above, i.e.,
1. My avoidance was hurting Sandy at the deepest level, not because I was evil, but because neither of us were conscious of the childhood wound of abandonment that was so painful.
2. My avoidance was ripping me off from the experience of full-aliveness in my relationship with Sandy.
I was ready to do…
3. The Commitment Dialogue.
Here is a summary of what happened:
Chuck made an appointment to dialogue with Sandy.
Chuck began with the sentence stem, “One activity I use to avoid connecting with you is…” And I talked about how I withdraw when I feel criticized.
Sandy mirrored using the stem, “What I hear you saying is..” She checked for accuracy by asking, “Did I get it?” And then she remained curious by asking, “Is there more about that?”
Chuck continued with more details that went deeper into his childhood.
BTW: Curiosity helped Sandy regulate her reactive emotions, and made it safe for Chuck to access his feelings.
(As a result, several new insights dropped out of my unconscious mind, helping Sandy to better see and know the real me. And it helped me to see me too :-).
Can you see how it would have shut things down if Sandy had allowed feelings of abandonment to cause her to react rather than remain curious?
Did I say nothing can happen in a relationship that’s not safe?)
Sandy summarized what Chuck said and then VALIDATED it, using the stem “Chuck, what you’re saying makes sense, and what makes sense about it is…
Then she EMPATHIZED with Chuck saying, “I can imagine that it feels…”
Chuck finished the dialogue by saying, “I’m committing today to keep talking about this with words, rather than acting it out and withdrawing from conflict.”
At this point the new paradigm was integrated, a shift occurred, and Chuck transformed fundamentally into an “engager” rather than an “avoider”.
It’s not perfect, but it is truly a fundamental shift that has changed everything.
Now when I feel criticized or controlled, I’m working toward facing it and talking about it rather than avoiding it.
That new area of growth for me is hard. But it enables me to be present with Sandy when she needs it most.
When I do that, it brings healing for her.
The area of growth for her is learning to communicate her feelings in a safe way with zero negativity.
And of course that means healing for me.
And that makes it much easier to stay present with her and deepen our connection.
The old cycle of criticism and withdrawal is being replaced with one of safety and connection.
This new partnership of healing and growth is a “win-win” to say the least.
Share you insights and questions below…and, if you haven’t already, be sure to…
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If that’s true then your partner is only the trigger.
The source of your reaction might be a childhood wound, frustration or need of which you’re not even conscious.
This means you might be blaming your partner for a frustration they are triggering, but in reality that is not where the pain is actually coming from.
I think I would want to know this, if it is indeed true.
It sounds complicated and mysterious but really it isn’t.
And there is a solution. Keep reading.
The final sign that my relationship is tanking is…
Stonewalling = Rather than talk about our problems, I’m too hopeless to even try.
“Just forget it.”
You stonewall when it’s just too painful to even hope that things could ever change.
There’s a fatal sense of resignation that is palpable when partners are stonewalling.
Some see stonewalling as a way to keep the peace.
But things that aren’t talked out always get acted out.
In one way or another.
Sometimes a partner will stuff it until it blows like a volcano.
Others will stuff it until it severs the feeling of connection completely.
Then they don’t even care to resolve it.
That’s when stonewalling becomes your lifestyle.
You’re no longer living with your partner; you’re only living with his or her defenses. Yikes.
Stonewalling may avoid conflict temporarily but it won’t help you reconnect.
Is there a better way?
"So, what is the answer, Chuck? How do I eliminate these destructive patterns from my relationship?"
Imago Couples Dialogue
This is the tool I use with couples every week in many different forms.
(Click here to print out this tool for your own use.)
Everything we do in Imago Relationship Therapy is based on this basic and powerful approach.
It’s more than a communication tool.Communication isn’t your only problem. You can communicate and still not feel connected.
It’s more than conflict resolution.You can even resolve your problem but still not feel connected. As a matter of fact, if you’re just talking about your problem, you may never solve THE problem, which is not feeling connected.
It’s more than active listening. It’s listening in a way that leads to differentiation – seeing your partner’s reality as valid, and empathizing in a way that transforms how you see your partner while making it safe for you to connect.
Imago Couples Dialogue can help you transform your relationship.
You can turn...
CRITICISM into healthy self-expression that results in connection.
CONTEMPT into a safe connection where romance is rekindled.
DEFENSIVENESS into a conscious awareness of my own part in the problem, and that my partner is not the villain I thought she was.
STONEWALLING into a new hope that I can be heard and validated by my partner, and that he can be with me in my pain and in my fear.
Wow! I want that.
Here’s how the dialogue works.
There are thee parts: Mirroring, Validation and Empathy.
Mirroring slows things way down.
Mirroring involves taking turns talking, where one talks and the other listens.
It seems awkward and wooden at first but keep going because it works.
If you’re the one listening, after your partner gives a few sentences about their concern, repeat what was said in your own words. Then ask, “Did I get it?” Then ask, “Is there more about that?”
Those questions help you stay curious and regulate your own reactions.
Let her continue talking until she feel completely heard.
MIRRORING says to your partner, “You matter. I see you. You’re worth being heard and understood.”
After your partner says everything needed to be said, SUMMARIZE it, to once again make sure you got it.
Then the next step is Validation.
To validate what your partner said simply complete this sentence:
“What you said makes sense. And what makes sense about it is…”
VALIDATION says to your partner, “Even though I may see things differently, you make sense.”
Did you get that part about “I may see things differently”?
That’s right. Don’t let your need to be right sabotage the dialogue that will help you connect.
Here’s the point: Your partner IS different!
Your partner is not what you project on him or what you expect her to be.
That’s romantic fantasy.
Now you’re in reality.
A real relationship with ANOTHER person. Did you get that? an “other” person. Different from you. Wow!
Though the Dialogue process what you discover is she’s not what you thought she was.
But now you’re curious and exploring her, rather that playing tug of war with her.
And you find that, although there is brokenness and scars and sensitivities you didn’t know about, she really is beautiful and fascinating in all that brokenness.
Now you’re on your way t0 connecting!
You empathize by finishing these kinds of statements with what you now see and understand.
“Given all that, I imagine you feel…”
“Are those the feelings?”
Empathizing says to your partner,
“I know what it’s like to experience your pain or fear or joy.”
“And I’m present with you in that feeling.”
Keep going in this Dialogue until you see a breakthrough in your relationship.
So, if you see some of these predictors of doom in your relationship,
the Couples Dialogue can help you address and eliminate them, and bring you into a deeper connection with each other.
Are you tired of angry outbursts and walking on eggshells in your relationship?
Are conflicts keeping you from the closeness you want?
Here is a powerful tool that will help you diffuse relationship land mines before they blow you apart.
Conflicts always start when our relationship becomes unsafe.
Often couples will think their relationship is safe but they don’t realize when safety has taken a hike.
Here’s an important thing to remember.
Safety leaves the room as soon as either of you blows up or clams up.
Your conversation becomes unsafe not only when you BLOW UP but also when you CLAM UP.
We know safety is jeopardized when someone blows up in anger and goes off the rails,“But, come on Chuck, I clam up to keep the peace.”
What kind of peace is that if you’re walking on eggshells?
You’re not keeping the peace, you’re just delaying the war.
Connection cannot happen in a relationship that is made unsafe by someone clamming up and not sharing what they are really feeling.
Here’s a great tool called "The Left Hand Column" that can help you see a conflict coming and stop it in its tracks!
This exercise, developed by Chris Argyris, helps to identify the hidden parts of a conversation that cause you trouble.
Let’s dive into it. Here we go!
Grab your partner and do this together if possible.
If that’s not possible right now, just do your part and you can involve your partner later.
1. Together identify a conversation that became unsafe.
Remember how to tell when a conversation is no longer safe?
Did I say that safety is at risk when someone blows up OR clams up? Oh yes I did.
So take a moment to identify your conversation.
Look for one where you or your partner went silent about what was really going on.
2. Together write down what was said in the Right Hand Column.
Each of you write down the conversation as it happened on your own sheet.
Draw a line down the middle forming two columns.
Label the columns appropriately, “Left Hand Column” and “Right Hand Column” at the top. This is important for the next step.
Then make sure you agree on the details about how the conversation actually went. This also is important for the next step.
My own case in point.
Here’s an example of a heated conversation my lovely wife Sandy and I had one Saturday morning.
Wow Chuck, that conversation does look like it could be heated. That’s right. Why would I give you an example of one not charged with emotion and conflict?:-) What’s the fun in that?
You can tell when you read it, there were obviously feelings that weren’t shared.
That’s what goes into the Left Hand Column.
OK. After you have each written the conversation down in the right hand column on your own page go to step 3.
3. Fill in your in your own left hand column.
…that is what you thought or felt but did not say.
Do this separately.
1. What kinds of things did you not say? Why?
2. What was at the heart of the conversation that was not spoken?
3. How did your unspoken motives affect the conversation?
Ah, now the truth comes out. The truth of what you were thinking and feeling but didn’t say.
Don’t be afraid to be totally honest. After all you’re partner is not seeing what you’re writing. At least not right now.
The goal is to be able to talk about it in a safe way without triggered reactions, and you both listen and validate each other.
I’m going to coach you on how to do that. How to do what?
How to communicate a potentially hurtful message to your partner.
And just as important, I’ll help your partner listen to what you have to say without reacting.
But first, here's the ugly truth behind my own conversation with Sandy. Yikes!
You can read it below.
I put it under those Right Hand Column items so you can catch the flow of how it went,
or actually how it didn’t go because NONE of these things were said in the conversation.
But do you think we weren’t aware of that?
Of course we were!
Neither of us were happy, but neither of us wanted a fight either, so what did we do?
We stuffed it. Setting land mines to sabotage our relationship down the road.
Here's the ugly truth in Chuck and Sandy's left hand column.
SANDY: “Honey could you fix the fence?”
SANDY’S LHC: “Why do I always have to initiate getting things done around here?”
CHUCK: “I fixed it last weekend or didn’t you notice?”
CHUCK’S LHC: “She’s never satisfied.”
SANDY: “You nailed a board over it. It’s not fixed.”
SANDY’S LHC: “Are you kidding?! Why couldn’t I have married someone with some useful skills?”
CHUCK: Look, you don’t have to worry about the dog getting out. We can redo it later. But for now it’s fixed.
CHUCK’S LHC: “I’m so sick of her being so controlling. I’m not doing that today. I just want to watch the game.”
SANDY: “Fine. I’ll just call a contractor.”
SANDY’S LHC: “I’ll show you. I don’t even need you. Everyone else gets your time but you can’t be there for me.”
CHUCK: “Fine. You do that.”
CHUCK’S LHC: “I’m never good enough. So why even try?”
Couples with this kind of tension feel stuck. I know we did.
We’re stuck and walking on egg shells because saying what we really feel could start World War III.
But to NOT say what we really feel guarantees that we continue to feel disconnected, walking on eggshells and even resentful of each other.
So what’s the key?
4. Share your Left Hand Column with each other using safe conversation skills.
1. Make a commitment to share your frustrations with each other rather than carrying them around waiting for them to detonate.
2. Use safe conversations skills to talk about it: a dialogue process where one person talks and one person listens. Then you switch positions.
3. Get to know your partner at a deeper level where you begin to see the fear and pain that is behind their hurtful words.
Empathy for your partner will help you regulate your reaction and keep the conversation safe.
It will also begin the healing process for your partner.
And when the conversation is safe you can connect with each other.
When you’re connected with each other, working out problems is a cinch.
Here’s how it worked for Sandy and me.
SANDY:“After our conversation, I felt frustrated. Can we have an appointment to dialogue?”
That word “appointment” for us is a signal that we need to stop and process that Left Hand Column using our safe conversation skills.
I agreed to the appointment.
SANDY:“When we talked about the fence I felt myself getting angry. I began to feel like I have to initiate everything that gets done around here.”
CHUCK: (mirrors) “What I hear you saying is that when we talked about the fence you began feeling angry, and like you’re the only one who initiates getting work done.”
Mirroring does two things.
1. It helps you keep your emotions regulated.
Instead of being critical and reactive, it helps you become curious about your partner.
This helps keep it safe for them.
You can’t be curious and critical at the same time.
2. And mirroring says to your partner, “You matter.” “I see you.” “You’re worth listening to.” “What you think and feel matters to me”.
This also helps make the conversation super safe.
After I mirrored those first sentences, I asked two key questions to help Sandy go deeper if possible, to get more in touch with how she feels and what she fears.
Because behind every frustration is a desire, a deep need for something that will bring healing.
CHUCK:“Did I get it?”
SANDY:“Yes, that’s it.”
Then the final question that helps your partner go deeper.
CHUCK:“Is there more about that?”
Then Sandy went deeper and the dialogue helped me see several things that I didn’t know about her before. Even after three decades of marriage. (amazing huh?)
– She feels alone when she thinks I’m not interested in maintaining the house.
– Her home is an extension of her identity. So when the fence is broken, she feels broken. This was a game changer for me. Now everything in her Left Hand Column made total sense.
My feelings of being controlled and feeling inadequate just evaporated as I entered her world and saw her reality.
And yes, I did get to share my frustrations in a way that did the same thing for her, enabling her to see my vulnerability when I feel controlled or inadequate.
This process is what we call differentiation and it enables us to connect deeply.
And did I say this already?
When you and your partner feel connected, solving a problem is never a problem.
So what happened with the fence?
Realizing what it would do for her, I got excited, hired a contractor, worked with him on the design, and we rebuilt an entire section of the fence.
Sandy felt loved and I felt like her hero. A true win-win.
Being aware of her need for me to initiate projects around the house stretches me and causes me to grow.
I’m far from perfect, but I’m a whole lot better than I used to be.
And if we do have a frustrating event, we have more confidence than ever that we can work through it and stay connected!
It’s my hope that you too will have this same confidence, and with tools like these you’ll be able to stop a relationship conflict dead in it’s tracks.
Questions or comments? Please post them below.
And if you have a positive experience with the Left Hand Column Exercise, please tell us about it below and let everyone learn from your experience.
Let me send you a free communication tool!
If you’ll subscribe to Relationship Resources below, I’ll send you a dialogue tool that will take you step by step in “How To Mirror A Frustration”, the process that Sandy and I used in the example above.
Free Communication Tool
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MIRRORING - VALIDATION - EMPATHY
3 steps to getting past the all the blaming and defensiveness.
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