What is your first reaction when your spouse has reacted negatively to you, either by distancing or attacking, for no apparent reason?
If you have a belly button you have probably reacted with one or more of these moves. In fact as you read this list admit the ones that have become second nature to you, almost like an uncomfortable, comfort zone.
- Snap back
- Drink too much
- Defend yourself
- Use contempt
- Bring the kids into it
- Irritate your mate by a reactive choice that you make.
- Slam doors etc.
- Diagnose them
- Walk out without taking a time-out
- Escape to work or play.
- Be sarcastic and/or condescending.
- Rehearse the ways they are a total jerk
I would like to introduce you to Diane, a most unusual woman. I met her over the phone. David and I had been hosts of The Rich Buhler Show for a week. It was a radio program where people could phone in and ask questions or make comments based on the theme of the day.
Diane called in that day with a most compelling story. She and her husband had had a major disagreement. Neither of them was open to the other’s perspective. They just defended their own at a louder and louder volume. Mouths were flapping but ears and hearts were closed. In fact Diane’s husband was so upset that he slammed the door and left for work without so much as acknowledging her or even saying “good-bye.”
Diane’s ego was bruised and steam starting coming out of her ears. “How dare he!” “Who does he think he is?” “What an arrogant close minded ——————.” You get to fill in the blank.
Yet Diane was no spring chicken. She had survived a very nasty divorce and years later had met her current husband, a man who she loved deeply.
Also in the interim between marriages Diane had discovered how much Jesus loved her and she had developed a deep personal faith.
So here she was faced with a real dilemma. She well knew how to react. She and her ex had polished and fine-tuned that skill set. Yet she was at a loss to think of how in the world her faith walk could keep her out of the minefields of reactivity. So she started to pray and ask God for wisdom beyond her own.
The strangest thought came into her mind. Her first reaction was “no way!” and then she shifted to “why not?”
She just knew that she was to get some sheets of paper and cut them until she had 100 pieces. On each piece she was to write down something that she valued about her husband.
I related to Diane immediately when she told us that it took her one hour to come up with the first ten because she was so upset. Yet after the first ten it seemed to get easier. One characteristic would remind her of the next one.
She actually persisted and filled each piece of paper. She had to cancel an appointment to make it happen. Then she put the pieces in a box, wrapped the box and even decorated it with a bow. Her words were “ I was finally in a peaceful state.”
Later when her husband came home from work he was cool and distant. He did not maintain eye contact and instead seemed to look beyond her. He did respond to her questions yet his tone was terse and his answers were short. There was a tension in the air.
When they sat down to eat dinner Diane had the present in the center of the table. She looked at her husband and his head was down as if focused on a world far away. She reached out and touched his hand. Then she said these words.
“I am very sad about what transpired between us this morning. I can handle a disagreement. The injury for me came in the abandonment.”
Her husband started to interrupt her and she asked him to let her finish her thought.
She continued, “I thought about our relationship a lot today and I decided to give you this gift. You can choose to open it before or after dinner. Which would you prefer?”
He said he would like to open it before dinner so Diane gave it to him. He was dumbfounded when he opened it and saw different size pieces of cut up paper inside. Then he noticed that there was writing on each piece of paper and he pulled some out and began to read them.
“I love your laugh.”
“I value how hard you work without complaining.”
“I find you so handsome.”
By the time he got to the thirtieth piece of paper, the tension between them had evaporated and he had tears in his eyes.
When relating this story to David and I, Diane summed up this incident with some profound words.
“This moment transformed how we as a couple looked at conflict. From that day on our disagreements were only about differing perspectives. The underlying issue had been decided. We were valuable. We were loved. We were respected. We were liked.
Disagreement just meant that we were not seeing things the same way.”
As a marriage and family therapist I want my clients to adopt a similar mindset with regard to conflict. I want them to be aware of how important they are in determining where the conflict goes next.
• If they are either an attacker or a person who distances, I want them to be aware that they are terrified of speaking their own truth and they are afraid of conflict.
• If they choose in a moment of conflict to speak about their mate’s reality, (as if they know what that is), rather than owning their own, they are effectively putting gasoline on a wildfire. Our responsibility is to be vulnerable about our perspective and feelings and not about our mate’s.
• If they attack or distance, they are demonstrating a very deep belief. In their world, love and conflict cannot coexist. Conflict means that love will be abandoned. Where did they learn that destructive distortion?
• In a marriage of two intelligent people conflict is to be expected. It just means that you both care.
• The disagreement must be separated from the person. You love the person and you disagree about the issue.
How are you doing in this area? Moving towards connection in a moment of disconnection is a move that opens the door to health and healing.
When your mate reacts poorly, as they will at times, a very important question faces you.
Will I step out of my comfort zone towards healing or
Will I react and stay in my uncomfortable, comfort zone?
Until our next Conscious Lover’s Blog…