“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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Every marriage needs work. But what happens when a relationship goes flat and one partner is not willing to work on it? Is there hope for that marriage?
Yes, and here’s why.
One person can change the relationship!
Change happens when one partner starts doing something differently.
One reader told me…
“Chuck, we are trapped in that cycle of blaming and defensiveness you talk about. I feel stuck, and powerless, and it hurts because my partner doesn’t want to work on our relationship? I feel so alone.”
That’s really hard and can feel hopeless.
But if you will change the way you communciate, the dynamic of the relationship will change, and something will shift.
And your partner will have to change. Not by force, but willingly.
My experience tells me that at least he will become curious, and he’ll probably end up wanting to work with you toward change.
It’s a principle of the universe. If you change, your partner will have to respond differently.
It’s like when you change your tennis serve, your opponent has to change their response.
Quantum physics claims that, in our interconnected universe, anything you do anywhere impacts everything, everywhere. This is no truer than in relationships.
So here are some steps that are in your power to do, no matter how hurt or powerless you feel.
1. Listen before talking
Helen LaKelly Hunt said in an interview that on average we hear about 17% of what is being said in a conversation.
I believe that. Because as soon as my wife says something that triggers my defenses, I start “reloading”. At that point, I’m not listening to her. I’m listening to me! And I doubt if I even hear 17%!
So start listening to your partner.
How do I do that?
Mirror rather than react.
Use the powerful Imago Dialogue sentence stems to regulate your emotions, listen to every sentence, observe every inflection, and be attuned to every non-verbal message.
“What I hear you saying is…
“Did I get it?”
“Is there more about that?”
Mirror rather than react.
Validate rather than shame.
Be the one who lets go of the need to “be right”.
“While I may see it differently, you make sense; and what makes sense is…”
You don’t have to agree with your partner, but you do have to see that his reality is valid.
“If 6 turns out to be 9, I don’t mind. I don’t mind.” – Jimi Hendrix
If you are looking down at the number 6 and your partner who is across from you is swearing that it’s a 9, you can argue forever about “who’s right”.
Validation says even though I hold my own reality and won’t deny it, I can also see from your perspective why you say it’s a 9. Though I may see it differently, you make sense.
Empathize rather than villainize.
When you mirror rather than react, validate rather than shame, then you can actually empathize with how your partner feels. This is where your relationship is transformed.
“A first I saw you as a disrespectful person who was nagging me. Now I see that you’re upset because you’re in pain, and fearful of losing your connection with me. That changes everything.”
This will cause a shift in your relationship, draining the negativity that would otherwise fill the space between you.
So listen before talking.
2. Be curious rather than critical
One sure way to keep your partner in that uncooperative state is to criticize him for it.
Very often the reason a husband is not open to getting help is because he fears being railroaded into something that feels unsafe.
“But Chuck, I can’t help it. I just open my mouth and all these things I’m not happy about just come flooding out.”
“How can I not be critical when he’s being so difficult?”
This is where you should make curiosity your best friend.
It’s impossible to be curious and critical at the same time.
Being curious is one of the most powerful and pro-active things you can do for your relationship. That’s because curiosity helps regulate your emotions and makes the conversation safe for your partner.
Plus, when you are curious and stay curious you’ll actually find that your partner is far more interesting than you may have thought. That happens when you get curious and stay curious.
Still feel like you need to criticize?
Then it may be that you’re more frightened of intimacy than your partner.
Why do I say that?
I believe you when you say you want to work on the relationship, but you may be unconsciously maintaining your distance by criticism. Why? Your own fear of intimacy.
Whenever there is criticism the relationship is not safe. And distance is assured!
“I want to work on our marriage but you don’t.”
“I want to have sex and you don’t!”
Hey, someone is definitely not going to want to have sex with you if you approach it this way.
So what do I do?
Simply drop the criticism and be curious.
This will change the game!
Get curious about what’s going on and what’s making you feel disconnected. Say to your partner…
“I don’t know what’s wrong but I’d like to learn from you. How could I be the kind of person with whom you’d want to be more romantic, make love, spend more time with?”
If I’m interested in you, really interested in you, not interrogating you, but really interested and curious about what’s inside of you, you’ll open up to me.
And when I listen to you and not try to change you, you’ll start liking me and not react to me.
“Chuck, I did all that, but it didn’t work”.
That’s because his defenses were activated. When that happens, nothing will work. So start over with #1 Listen Before Talking. Refuse to come up against his defenses. Once either of you are defensive, the conversation is no longer safe. So start over, make it safe, stay in dialogue.
Listen before you talk, be curious rather than critical, and things will begin to change!
This final step will seal the deal.
3. Share appreciations rather than complaints
When you’re grateful rather than complaining, negative energy is replaced by positive energy in the space between you.
This will make your partner want to work with you toward a better relationship.
So no matter how you are feeling about your partner, share with him three things you appreciate about him every day. Tell him some of the many things he’s doing well and what it means to you.
“One thing I really appreciate about you is…”
“When I experience that I feel…”
And if possible, relate it to your childhood.
“When I feel that, it reminds me of when I was little and…
But will this really work???
The power of appreciation
There was a wife who went to counseling alone because her husband wasn’t interested in working on the relationship.
The counselor said, “Just tell him three times a day something you appreciate about him and see what happens.”
She said, “There is no way. There is nothing I appreciate about him. There is not one thing I can honestly say I appreciate about that man.”
“Come on, you can think of something.”
“Nope. There’s nothing.”
“Oh come on think about it. Surely there’s something. One thing.”
“Well…I guess you could say he’s good looking…even though to be honest I can’t stand to look at him right now.”
“Well, just start with that. Just tell him.”
So she did. And, to her amazement, there was a surprising openness she hadn’t felt before. That compliment sat rather well with him.
So the next day she said, “You know, I appreciate the way you are with the kids. In our parenting, you bring to the table things that I don’t have. I appreciate that.”
And in those first few days she began to feel a subtle shift in the relationship.
Over the next couple of weeks, as she continued to express appreciation each day, two things began to happen.
First of all, the more things she shared that she appreciated, the more things she saw that she appreciated.
Second, as she shared things she appreciated about him, she began to notice him trying more and more to live up to those things that were being said about him.
And, in time, it completely transformed their relationship!
Affirmation and criticism cannot travel the same narrow pathways at the same time.
So push all the negative energy out of the space between you and your partner and watch your partner change and become open to working on the relationship with you!
Please post your questions and insights below.
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