If you hurt me, you hurt yourself.
---my husband’s response when I said something mean
This profound statement reveals how intertwined our lives are when in a relationship.
I was halted. My anger wanted to do damage---and then walk away unscathed, feeling catharsis, feeling right.
This kind of gratification does not exist in a relationship. Hurting him would not lead to my happiness.
In a relationship, every action has a reaction.
Each day, we make choices that have consequences. Thousands of banal micro-choices that have a significant effect on another person; a dish left unwashed, a critical comment, a seductive overture unnoticed, looking at social media while someone is talking to you.
Your partner has an experience of your choices. Their experience is filtered through layers of their past experiences. They make myriad interpretations; I am loved, I am not loved, this person is selfish, I can’t depend on this person…… Profound interpretations---of your banal micro-choices-- are happening inside this person, in their silent, internal dialogue about you.
Your partner now chooses an action.
Perhaps, they fall quiet. Recoil from your touch. Snap at you. Avoid you.
These perceptions, choices and actions form patterns that repeat over time.
The content of the fighting may change, but the pattern remains the same. Couples feel stuck and often, partners blame each other. Our internal narratives, or stories about the relationship, are often epic tales with great villains and tragic victims. As a couple’s therapist, I’ve found that there are rarely clear victims or villains; more commonly, I see a series of cycling actions and reactions with mutual input. The truth is, whatever situation you’re in right now, you probably co-created it.
To say couples are interconnected is not a new concept, yet this notion still proves difficult to execute. In truth, awareness is mental labor. You would need to interrupt your own mental dialogue to consider the experience of your partner. You would need to ask yourself, ‘How will they feel about this banal micro-choice?). It’s fairly common to be self-focused, and rest assured, it is not necessarily clinically narcissistic. I’ve noticed that most people’s infractions were not intentional or malignant, but a benign blindness; an act of omission.
Shelter-at-home has turned our homes into relationship crucibles. There is an increase in domestic violence and a rise in relationship tension, irritability and conflict. However, it’s not easy to get distance from our partner or to break-up. What we can change---is how we fight.
The first step in un-packing a pattern, is identifying your conflict style. Here are some simple questions to get you started.
What is your Conflict Style?
How do I express anger and resentment?
How do I ask for what I want? Do I make demands or requests?
Do things need to be done ‘my way’?
Am I open to other perspectives on what is a ‘right way’?
Do I give my partner space to say no?
Do I ask about my partner’s perspective?
Am I able to tolerate different perspectives?
If not, do I get angry or need to convince my partner toward my perspective?
Am I able to compromise?
Do I tend to persuade or manipulate to get my way?
Do I put my partner’s wishes ahead of mine?
Do I assert my point of view when it’s different?
Do I ask for what I want?
Do I communicate my expectations out loud? Or expect the other to ‘just know’?
Do I teach my partner how to love me?
Do I try avoid my partner’s anger?
Do I change my behavior if I believe my partner will be disappointed?
Do I guess how my partner will react to situations rather than asking directly?
Do I share when I am upset?
Is it hard for me to tolerate differences?
Is it hard for me to tolerate tension?
Am I defensive when my partner expresses feelings?
Do I tend to attack rather than investigate and ask questions?
Do I prepare my next attack while my partner is talking?
Do I use criticism to get what I want?
Do I use criticism to express how I feel?
Do I avoid vulnerability statements? ( i.e. ‘I am sad,’ or ‘I am disappointed.’)
What does an equitable conflict style look like?
This is the starting point for unraveling toxic patterns. A good couple’s therapist will not shame you for using one of these conflict styles. A good couple’s therapist will not take sides. Your therapist would map out your problematic pattern, teach different approaches, and allow you to practice with role-plays. With guidance and support, you and your partner can grow and establish new, unifying patterns.
It is possible to do couples therapy over tele-health and if you’re feeling the heat now, it’s better to get started remotely before the situation escalates. Couples therapy works best when there is still some good will and faith that your partner can change with you.
Dr. Engler's Articles on the Huffington Post:
Should You Get Pre-marital Counseling?
Women's Health Magazine interviews Dr. Engler on the factors to consider.
Why Moving in Together Kills Your Sex Life, and What to Do About It.
Men's Health Magazine interviews Dr. Engler about how to improve your sex life, and reviews her book, "The Men on My Couch."
11 Things That Actually Surprised This Sex Therapist.
BuzzFeed reviews Dr. Engler's new book, "The Women on My Couch."