This Valentine’s Day, we look at not only how to effectively de-escalate arguments, but how to become closer in the process.
Without communication, you don’t have a relationship. What you get is two (or more) people living separate lives in the presence of one another. Communication is like the bridge between two lives. It’s a two-way street that allows you to both give and receive needs, wants, and desires. What I see as a therapist is that most couples having relationship issues are actually having problems with their communication. Ultimately, this comes down to a conscious effort of all people involved to lean into their vulnerability and to disallow their past experiences from dictating their fears and behaviors of the future.
Vulnerability: The Golden Ticket
Have you ever wondered why one moment everything is fine, and the next you’re at level 100 after your loved one said one little comment? That’s because they touched a soft spot, and in order to protect yourself you respond with anger, pushing them away, or intentionally hitting them back in their soft spot. That’s how scary vulnerability is- it can turn us into a version of ourselves we swore we’d never become.
If you’re having difficulty identifying what your soft spot is, try thinking about a time that you felt particularly insecure in your relationship or the least connected to your partner. Next, think a bit deeper about where those thoughts were heading when you felt that lack of connection or insecurity. Common thoughts tend to be things like, “I begin to think that I’m not good enough”, “I start thinking that they don’t need me anymore”, “I feel insecure in my ability to be a good parent”, or “They would be happier with someone else.” Once you have identified the thought or belief about yourself that tends to be at the core of your pain when feeling disconnection, you’ve found your soft spot. This is the fear that becomes activated before you respond to your partner in anger. This is your vulnerability. This is the place in yourself that you must learn to communicate to your loved one, and the part of you that your partner must learn to speak to when they sense you have become hurt.
Now, think about what events have precipitated the activation of your soft spot. Was it your loved one forgetting something you said, the laundry on the floor, seeing them spend more time with coworkers? These are some of your triggers for your soft spot becoming activated. Being aware of these can help you remember that when you feel your blood start to boil, what you may need more than the dishes being done is hearing from your partner that you are loved, appreciated, and seen. You can additionally communicate with your significant other about how it feels when these triggers happen and why it is so difficult for you. Then, it is time to respond to the soft spot. So let’s continue with tools for this piece…
The cardinal rule of responding to the soft spot should be to drop the logical talk. Seriously, it does much more harm than good. I promise it’s not actually about the dishes, so resist the urge to say things like, “But I got home later than usual and you said this to me, so I thought _____.” Or, “But I did the dishes yesterday, so why did I need to do them again? I took the trash out.” Or maybe worse yet, “But you didn’t tell me they needed to be done.” Remember that it doesn’t matter the facts of what happened, what matters is how each of you perceived and felt about it. Because at the end of the day, our reality is felt.
So what can you say? After taking a deep breath and announcing to your partner that you both need to take a pause, you can begin to comfort your partner’s soft spot. The second rule is to remember that two realities can and do exist at the same time. Meaning, comforting your partner’s hurt does not mean that you are admitting to being wrong or dismissing your own hurt, fear, or anger. Your turn to be comforted is coming, because in healthy communication all parties have an opportunity to both listen and be listened to. Keeping this in mind, try to stay focused on the soft spot and comfort this vulnerability as if it is a small child. Aim to be supportive, attentive, and soothing by repeating what your loved one is saying and showing them you see them. For example: “When I did that, you began to feel like you aren’t good enough. I can see that caused you a lot of pain.” This is called validation. You can go a step further by then saying, “You are good enough. You are worthy.” The third step would then be to ask your significant other what you can do to make them feel loved in that moment.
The third rule is to ask for your needs. Our society has somehow developed this awful idea that in a healthy relationship your partner should somehow be so aligned with your needs that they anticipate what you need before you even know. No. That’s called magic. And it has no place in the reality of a relationship. You must ask for what you need. (This is when our vulnerability starts yelling at us, “No! Don’t say that out loud! It sounds dumb! Just suck it up!”) Instead of waiting for your partner to say magic words that will make it all go away, try saying, “When that happened, it made me feel like I’m not good enough for you. And now I’m feeling pretty bad and wondering if you truly are happy with me. Could you reassure me?” (Tip: This rule involves really honing in on what your soft spot is and being able to name it. Refer to the beginning of article.)
Of course for these things to work, everyone needs to be on board. It would hurt pretty bad to open yourself up only to be shut down, so be sure that you both have identified your soft spots and have communicated about what these are.
Did you know that most couples wait about 6 years after a problem emerges to get help? By this point, hurt and pain has compiled, making healing that much harder. Don’t wait too long to seek support. There are counselors in all price ranges. Reach out to me if you need help finding someone. Or, if you are local and interested in setting up a free consultation, I love working with couples and helping them build bonds to last a lifetime. If you can’t tell from the above, I’m just a tad passionate about it!
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!
Emily Wagner, trauma expert and mental health counselor provides education for anyone looking to improve their mental health.