"Everything is a fight. Sometimes I can't even remember what started it. Before I know it we're both just yelling. I don't know how it got this way."
Sound familiar? By the time I first meet many of my couple clients, fights colored by anger and hostility have become routine. It's not what anybody wanted or chose, and the seeming inability to make a change for the better is discouraging in the extreme.
But this isn't unfixable.
When Stories Collide
Intimacy has a way of calling out our stories. In trying to come close to another person we will encounter parts of ourselves that are afraid of vulnerability, that aren't willing to trust, that are focused on getting (or taking) things we believe we need. And the same thing is happening inside our partner, with their own unique flavor.
When relationships suffer from frequent anger and conflict, it is usually because we are disconnected from our own stories and how they shape our perceptions and inner world. If my story remains untold, I will always be looking at my partner through a lens I don't understand and can't change.
Perception is (Almost) Everything
This study highlights the role of each partner's thinking and perceptions in perpetuating the cycle of anger and conflict. One partner's anger is triggered by the other partner's words and behavior--more importantly, their interpretation of the words and behavior. That anger increases the odds that they'll respond in a way which the other partner also receives negatively, yet again fueling anger.
"Why did she say that?"
"What was he thinking?"
How you answer those questions to yourself has a huge impact on the way you're going to feel about your partner. So it comes back to that lens you're looking through. How does your story color the way you experience this situation? How is your partner's story influencing their present experience?
Building that self-knowledge and self-awareness gives us more power to choose in the midst of triggered emotions. Which is important, because change is made possible only when we take command of our thoughts and actions.
...the cycle of anger may be broken at several points. This requires at least one of the two partners to act mindfully and refuse to participate in the cycle of destructive behavior. - Psychology Today
Preparation & Commitment
Before conflict arises:
Learn your story, your triggers, your desires
Build habits of self-care that address your unique struggles
Get to know your partner's story
Establish what you truly value and want to pursue
Decide what boundaries are best for you & the relationship
When conflict arises:
Take time to check in with your thoughts & emotions
Identify if part of your story is being triggered
Listen & respond > hear & react
Refocus on what you really want and value
Don't wait for your partner to change their behavior first
This of course does not apply to abuse in relationships. A person who is being intentionally and chronically harmed by another cannot improve their situation by thinking positively about their abuser. If you are stuck in an abusive relationship, there is help.
Mike Ensley, MA, LPCC