Couples conflict: try this recipe!
As a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, I often ask couples to consider the importance of resiliency in a successful relationship. Just so we all have the same understanding of what I mean when I write “resiliency,” I’m talking about the ability the bounce back into a healthy balance after encountering a destabilizing event. In the case of most couple conflicts, that means: 1) the degree to which a partner/couple can stay engaged in an intimate and emotional event, 2) the length of time one can stay in the event, and 3) how one responds to the event.
Let’s get one more term cleared up. An “event” can be anything from a comfortable and easy event to a terribly embarrassing or painful moment. For example, an intimate and emotional event can be as simple as an “I love you” at the end of a phone call or as painful and complicated as a partner disclosing to the other that they have been having an affair.
Ok, now that we have our terms defined you are probably wondering, “All right! Just get to the how do I get some of this resiliency stuff?” Fair enough then, I’ll get on with it.
I often find it helpful when describing resiliency to a couple to compare it to a baking pan. Not just any baking pan, a pan with a dozen warm and gooey chocolate chip cookies just waiting to be pulled out of a hot oven. You want the cookies, so to get them out of the oven, you’re going to need some oven gloves, unless you want to burn your hands.
Your resiliency is like the thickness or insulation value of your gloves. The thicker the gloves, more you can stand a hot pan, and the longer you can hold it without burning yourself. Thick-gloved people can handle staying connected during tough times and negotiate through the conflict. Those with thin gloves sometimes wind up dropping the pan before it can be safely set down, ruining the cookies. “Hey, you still haven’t told us how to get this resilience stuff yet, get on with it already…”
While I use multiple tools and techniques when treating couples, one valuable skill is the ability to discern between what I call authentic and counterfeit insulation. Plain and simple, counterfeit insulation doesn’t work and relying on it will cost you cookies. Let’s talk about some common forms of both types of insulation.
Counterfeit Insulation –
Numbing Out – This could be substance abuse, overeating, excessive exercise or a combination of these and many others. Numbing out eliminates the pain of the hot pan, but long after the pan has cooled your hands are still blistered and burnt. You repeat it so many times that eventually your scarred hands can’t even discern if the pan is hot or cold. You become disconnected from reality. You’re HIGH in an altering state. Not knowing if the pan is hot or not you no longer are effective at reacting or relating to new types events. You may do fine with low temperature issues, but anything truly hot will trigger your need to increase consumption and avoid real contact.
Controlling – This is when one partner acts more like a parent toward the other than a partner. Think of it as one partner instructing the other on how to pull a pan out of an oven. This instructing partner is very adamant that the pan is handled only in certain ways. The controller makes sure that only they control how close the hot pan gets to them and for how long, regardless of the needs of their partner. The partner pulling the pan from the oven makes attempts to tell the other that they are starting to feel the heat of the pan, but that request for help is often ignored. While the controlling partner uses a variety of unhealthy tools to maintain power, (e.g. judgment, ridicule, limiting resources, threats,) the levels of resentment which slowly builds in the pan-pulling partner further disconnects them from each other. With the instructing partner controlling when an intimate and emotional event can happen and for how long, each time the controlling experience is repeated (each new event) increases the oven temperature until the pan-pulling partner can no longer bear the heat or just simply burns out.
Rescuing – Imagine now that the instructing partner stops the other partner from taking out the cookies and says, “Now, now, that’s probably too hot for you. Let me get that. I have thick gloves.” This feels quite nice to the other partner – at first. It feels good to be taken care of and protected. Eventually, the instructing partner takes over the whole operation in the name of providing the maximum care and protection possible. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, while the instructing partner gently and lovingly takes over, the pan-pulling partner suddenly realizes that they are out of a job, not part of the process, unchallenged, and with an unheard voice. Relationships with this dynamic don’t last long and can have messy ends.
Authentic Insulation –
Supporting – A big part of being supportive is being present. Unlike the numbing, controlling, and rescuing partners, the supportive partner accepts that they need to position themselves to be supportive of their partner. You can’t be supportive if you are not there. I’m not talking just physically there; I’m talking emotionally there, even when the pan is red hot. For many, this means simply increasing your mindfulness around staying present during hot-pan moments. Two questions that you can ask yourself to develop your mindfulness around being present when hot situations occur are: 1) What do I normally do when I encounter a hot-pan moment? and 2) What could I change about that reaction that would help my partner? (If you don’t know the answers to these questions, try asking your partner). These two questions alone can be a powerful force in relationship building. For others who may find this process challenging, change may require help. Accepting that you would benefit from getting help in developing communication and other relationship strengthening skills may be the next step.
Sharing – Remember, they taught us this in kindergarten. Sharing! Guess what you share? Yourself – your time, your resources, your thoughts, your feelings, your dreams. You might even inconvenience yourself for the sake of your partner now and then. Our Numbing partner, when confronted with a hot pan shares with their numbing agent (substances, eating, etc.) rather than their partner, the Controlling partner keeps things too busy and chaotic to allow for sharing, and the Rescuing partner loses their feeling of importance if they share. Sharing during hot pan moments is when we truly learn about each other. One way to be mindful of having sharing balanced into your relationship is to ask yourself, “If my relationship was a football game, I would (feel/act) like a) the water boy, b) the coach, or c) a player?” Then, be willing to share your thoughts with your partner with a gentle spirit. A partner is more often ready and willing you meet your needs when you can express them in a loving way.
Reacting – That’s great, you were there for your partner, you’ve shared your thoughts, feelings and concerns gently and authentically. You were even able to negotiate a solution that was good with both parties. Little of this good groundwork does any good, however, if our reactions to what we have learned about our partner don’t generate greater levels of support and sharing, both with and from the other partner. “What does that mean,” you ask? How you respond to the information you get from your partner sends very loud messages to them.
Here is a simple pleasant emotional event as an example: A man gives his wife a bouquet of roses. She smiles back and gives him a big hug. The wife’s reaction to the flowers gives the husband a good feeling. He feels competent, secure and connected in that moment. The wife appreciates that he went out of his way for her, leaving her feeling important and valuable.
That was an easy event. How about in a more difficult circumstance? During a high-intensity event, a reaction has exponentially more power to grow or damage the relationship. Take this case for example: A wife who suddenly discovers that her husband is a serial internet pornography viewer. The wife, horrified and confused, reacts to the husband in many ways; attacking him and screaming “pervert,” wondering if her body is inadequate. “How could you do that?” she cries out in agony. How the husband responds to this event may determine the long-term success of their relationship. He can be present with the wife, even with the shame of event. And like it or not, his wife’s discovery has forced sharing some hidden thoughts and feelings. The last step is his reaction to her pain. Maybe he can handle it on his own, he’s always sworn that he could stop if he wanted or needed to but has never tested that theory for more than a few months. Maybe he needs help from a professional trained in both sexual addiction and couples therapy.
Next time you smell the wonderful aroma of fresh-from-the-oven cookies, I hope you are reminded of the value of resiliency within an individual, a couple, and even a family. It’s simple but it’s not easy. Just remember to: 1) make time for each other; 2) make the time count by sharing your thoughts, feelings, dreams and learning about your partner’s; and 3) do something with the new information!