HOW DO YOU RESPOND WHEN YOUR PARTNER QUESTIONS YOUR INTENTIONS?
Do you get angry? Defensive?
One of the big reasons we struggle with
relationship conflict is due to the misunderstanding caused by the intention
vs. impact battle.
In Dr. Gottman’s Love Lab, the research team
asked couples, “What were your intentions when you said…”
Sometimes a partner would say something nice
and the intention was clear.
Other times a partner would criticize their
partner’s character for doing something they didn’t like. Even under those
poorly constructed statements, the intention was their partner would hear it,
take the advice, and make positive changes.
“The intention [of the partner] was always
positive, even when the impact [on their partner] was negative.” – Dr. Gottman
on The Armchair Expert
Recently, my partner and I got into a conflict
about her claiming that I was fibbing to her. I told her I skimmed a group
texting conversation and when I summarized, she felt I was B.S.ing her.
This pissed me off because I knew I skimmed
the text and gathered the jist about the conversation.
The reality is, like you, I know myself by
every thought and experience I have. My partner (and everyone else) knows me
only through my actions, words, and behavior.
So when she mentioned I fibbed, I reacted
defensively. I argued with her over my intent.
The problem is, she was arguing with me about
the negative impact I had on her by what she heard me say.
She started as the speaker and me as the
listener. I had to put my intentions battle to the side, and validate the
impact using non-defensive listening skills. Then we switched roles and I
explained my experience and intent. As the listener, she validated this.
At this point, it became clear that some of
the word choices we used when communicating with each other confused the other
person. The reality was, we were on different pages. Our two brains were in
different frames of mind trying to communicate with each other.
And, like a no brainer, we struggled.
When it comes to conflicts in relationships,
remember two things:
The speaker and listener have an equal responsibility to keep
the conversation constructive and positive, even when expressing difficult
feelings. She could have assumed positive intent and I could have responded to
the longing in her initial statement. This would have prevented the minorconflict from escalating.
When you feel misunderstood remember that you have to do or say
something for others to know how you feel. They can’t read your mind (even if you want them to).
This is why slowing down and using the speaker-listener technique saves so many
couples from the brink of a disastrous conflict. When it’s done well, it gets
the relationship back on track.
P.S. Healthy relationships include two partners who value each other’s well-being and may unintentionally negatively impact each other from time-to-time. This is why healthy conflict resolution skills are vital to creating a secure-functioning relationship.
HOW TO GET OUT OF A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR DIGNITY INTACT
Learning how to get out of a toxic relationship and not go back is
one of the best things you can do for yourself. Ending it isn’t as easy as you
If you’re at the point where you know you need to learn how to
get out of a toxic relationship, well, you overcame a huge step. But now, it’s
the time to take action. Get yourself out of the relationship. But like I said
before, it is easier said than done.
So, if you’re feeling stuck at this point, don’t. I have a
couple ways for you to get yourself out of the relationship in a healthy way
and maybe with your dignity intact. You may be leaving a toxic relationship,
but you don’t want to bring that toxicity with you on your way out the door.
How to get out of a toxic relationship
I had a bad string of relationships where I just couldn’t seem
to break the pattern of being with someone who didn’t respect me. Of course, it
wasn’t just them. In essence, I didn’t respect myself because I allowed them to
treat me this way. Now, you’ve probably received advice from people and most of
them say, “just end it.” But is it that simple? Of course, it’s not.
Firstly, people with toxic partners don’t necessarily realize it
until much later on in the relationship. Secondly, when you have feelings for
someone, ending the relationship is hard to do even when you know it’s the
right thing. Doing what’s good for you isn’t always easy. You need to end the
#1 Accept your part in the relationship. It takes two to
tango, right? What I’m trying to say is you need to accept your role in the
relationship. Though you may not have done things that you think were as bad as
your partner, you’re certainly not blameless.
Reflect and think about your behavior. But also make a
commitment to yourself that you won’t let yourself get sucked back into an
#2 Stop making excuses. I know it’s hard to leave a
relationship. Honestly, most of us stay in unhealthy relationships because we
become accustomed to them. Simply, we’re comfortable. But stop making excuses
as to why you’re in the relationship. You need to ask yourself some
questions. Do I want to spend time with x? Do I feel good after
spending time with x? Do I genuinely like x? These are simple yet
important questions to answer yourself.
#3 What are the benefits? Even the shitty
relationships have some benefits. There’s a reason why you’re staying with this
person. Now, you need to figure out what those reasons are before you try
figuring out how to get out of a toxic relationship. Maybe they make you feel
attractive or is a good parent towards your children. There are reasons why we
stay with people who are inherently bad for us. Figure out what those reasons
#4 Fill those benefits. You’re staying with this person for
specific reasons, right? But you do know that they’re not the only person that
can provide you with those benefits. You have the power to give those positive
feelings to yourself. This is where self-reflection and self-love come in. Find
alternative ways to make yourself feel whole.
#5 Stop all contact. Yes, I know, this is going to be
really hard. But you have to do this. If you really want out
of the relationship, then be very strict regarding the contact you have with
your ex. If you have children with them, then you’ll have to have contact, but
keep it at a minimum. If you’re single, well, then just cut them out, and do it
#6 Surround yourself with love. You need to make
sure you’re surrounded by a strong support system that loves you. This will
help you when you’re experiencing hard moments after leaving your toxic
relationship. When you’re surrounded with support, the likelihood of going back
to them reduces. You’re able to start living a healthy life.
#7 Remember your value. Through all of this, remember who you
are and what you’re worth. It’s easy to go back to a toxic relationship when
you forget what you’re worth. To leave a toxic relationship, you need to always
remember what you can offer and who you are.
Of course, you’re going to have moments where you’re going to
miss your ex, but just because you miss them doesn’t mean they were good for
#8 Focus on your emotional states. You’re probably
going through various emotions. One day you’re sad, the other you’re angry.
This is all normal when you’re planning on leaving a relationship. But you need
to be able to recognize the emotion and where it’s coming from. That way, you
understand your feelings in hopes of being able to express them openly.
#9 Express your feelings. You still may be
with your partner or just recently broke up with them. Whatever state your
relationship is in, it’s important to express your feelings. If you avoid
expressing your emotions, they’ll build up and you’ll resent your partner. If
you want to leave the relationship in a positive way, repressing your feelings
won’t help you.
#10 You’re going to go through self-healing. As much as we try
to push these feelings down, many of the adult problems we suffer from are due
to childhood trauma. Now, rid yourself of the shame that we have when leaving a
toxic relationship, dig down deep within yourself.
Look at what brought you to get involved in a toxic relationship.
If you look hard enough, you’ll find the answer.
#11 Forgive your ex. This isn’t for them, this is for you.
If you want to fully move on from your partner and leave the relationship, then
you need to forgive them and their part of the relationship. If you’re holding
feelings of anger, sadness, or regret, then you’re only going to hurt yourself.
In order to completely leave the relationship, you’ll have to let go.
Otherwise, you’ll still mentally be connected to them.Now that you know how to get out of a toxic relationship, what are you
waiting for? It’s time to move onto something healthy and new.
WHAT IS A TOXIC RELATIONSHIP? 16 SIGNS TO RECOGNIZE IT AND GET OUT
The person you thought would be your partner is slowly becoming your worst nightmare. It is time to stop wondering what a toxic relationship is and get out.
I would love to say
that I’ve no personal experience to answer the ‘what is a toxic relationship’
question and that all my previous dating experiences have been a walk in the
park. Of course, that would be lying. In reality, I come from a long history of
failed relationships—most of them toxic.
Either the guy was
using me, manipulating or degrading me, or my self-esteem was so low that I
chose to stick around. Those were definitely dark times.
In those moments, it’s
hard to think about what you deserve and how to get it. If anything, you assume
this is the best you’re going to get. That’s really the saddest part. You
16 answers to the
question: What is a toxic relationship?
In my first serious
relationship, I dated someone who you would call a verbally abusive alcoholic.
In the beginning, it was fun, but there were clear warning signs I ignored. And
trust me, there are always signs. The only difference is
whether you’re paying attention to them or not. And this just gets worse if
you’re not sure what a toxic relationship is in the first place.
No matter how much you
love your partner, keep your eyes open for the signs. If not, you run the risk
of losing yourself. Coming back to your normal self isn’t easy. If you’re not
sure what is a toxic relationship or what it looks like, well, here are the
signs to help you figure it out.
Not all relationships
are healthy ones.
aggressive. I think we’re all
guilty of being passive-aggressive at times. It’s not easy talking openly about
your feelings and emotions. But if passive-aggression is their middle name,
it’s time to take a second look at your relationship. Not talking about your
feelings is a sign of immaturity, and can lead down a dangerous road.
#2 Jealousy. A little bit of jealousy isn’t necessarily
bad. Unfortunately, the line is very thin, and people assume excessive jealousy
as a positive trait. If you can’t leave the house without them becoming
jealous, or if they’re searching your phone for an incriminating text or
picture, you’re in trouble.
#3 The blame
game. I’m all too familiar
with the blame game. My ex would give me percentages of how
much I’m to blame versus him. Can you believe it? Natasha, in this
fight, you’re 80% to blame; I’m 20%. If your partner never takes
responsibility for their actions and blames everything on you, that’s toxicity
at its best.
#4 Avoidance. You basically tolerate each other’s presence,
which is pretty messed up considering you’re in a relationship. What will
happen if you get married? You won’t spend time with your spouse? Avoidance is
the first sign that the relationship has run its course.
#5 You don’t feel like
yourself. You can’t make the
jokes you’d normally make or watch TV without feeling like you’re doing
something wrong. And you’re not doing anything wrong; you’re yourself. But if
your partner doesn’t appreciate who you are, they’ll try to change you. And
this is what’s happening.
#6 Arguing. It’s normal for couples to argue. Don’t think
because you argue you’re in a toxic relationship. But there’s a difference
between arguing and communicating and straight-up yelling
without any resolution. If they’re just yelling at you, it’s not going to get
vibes. People underestimate
the power of energy. Every animal on this earth is made up of energy. If you’re
constantly feeling uncomfortable or anxious around your partner, there’s a
reason why. You’re reacting to the energy they’re giving out. Negative energy
emotionally drains you and breaks you down.
#8 You only make them happy. When you’re with your partner, they don’t care
about your happiness. Instead, you spend most of your time trying to please
them. You eat what they want, do what they want; you’re basically their
personal slave. They don’t ask you how your day was or what you’d like
#9 You can’t
grow. When someone grows in
a relationship, that’s a positive thing. You want your partner to grow and
develop, and you want to do the same. If you want more, but your partner likes
things the way they are, well, that’s not good. They’re holding you back from
achieving your life goals because they don’t want to develop.
#10 You don’t feel
like fighting for the relationship. When two people love each other, they’ll go above and beyond to
make things work. They will fight as hard as they can for the relationship. But
with you, you stopped caring a long time ago and so did your partner. You feel
like there’s no point; the relationship isn’t going anywhere.
#11 You’re not
happy. When was the last time
you laughed with your partner? When was the last time you felt really happy
by their side? You’ll know when you’re in a toxic relationship because you
won’t be happy anymore. Something inside of you is telling you to move on for a
#12 The drama never
ends. But really, it never
ends. Every day there’s something wrong in their life, and it’s usually around
something you did wrong, even if you did nothing! They live for the drama
because it distracts them from their own failures.
#13 You never do
anything right. At least in their eyes.
Everything you do comes with criticism and loads of it. At the end of the day,
you feel like a complete failure and unworthy of their love. But that’s not
true. They’re not worthy of your love and affection since they don’t appreciate
#14 You feel like the
worst version of you. When
you’re with someone you love, they usually bring out the best in you. And
that’s when you know you’re with the right person. But if you’re becoming
someone you don’t recognize, you need to think hard about your relationship. Is
this really someone you want to be with?
#15 Your friends and
family don’t like them. Listen, I know you don’t want people to dislike someone you
chose to be with, but sometimes your friends and family are right. If they tell
you that you’ve changed and your partner is toxic, listen. Your friends and
family love you and want the best for you.
#16 They’re stuck in
the past. Instead of thinking
about their future with you, they constantly remind you about the past. “The
good times you had,” runs out of their mouth often, and it makes you wonder if
they’re enjoying the relationship now. But they’re not; they’re stuck in the
After reading the
signs, what do you think? Can you answer what is a toxic relationship? If you
feel that you are in one, it’s time for you to make a change.
7 ASSUMPTIONS WE NEED TO STOP MAKING ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE
Never underestimate a person’s challenges. Everyone is struggling. Some are just better at hiding it than others.
Too often we judge people too quickly, or too subjectively. We tell ourselves stories about them without thinking it through—our perceptions and biases get the best of us. I was reminded of this today when I received the following in an email (I’m sharing this with permission):
“…I learned the hard way that a smile can hide so much—that when you look at a person you never know what their story is or what’s truly going on in their life. This harsh reality became evident to me this morning when I found out one of my top students—always straight A’s, a positive attitude, and a smile on her face—died by suicide last night. Why? Nobody seems to know. And it’s killing me inside.”
Talk about a reality check, right?
What we tell ourselves about others—what we think we know—is often far from the truth.
And with that in mind, I’m sitting here reflecting on all the little things we have to stop assuming about other people, for their sake and ours…
We need to stop assuming that the happiest people are simply the ones who smile the most. – Behind the polite smiles and greetings people give you, some are hurting and lonely. Don’t just come and go. See them. Care. Share. Listen. Love. We can’t always see people’s pain, but they can always feel our kindness. So be kinder than necessary.
We need to stop assuming that the people we love and respect won’t disappoint us. – When we expect perfection we tend to overlook goodness. And the truth is, no one is perfect. At times, the confident lose confidence, the patient misplace their patience, the generous act selfish, and the informed second-guess what they know. It happens to all of us too. We make mistakes, we lose our tempers, and we get caught off guard. We stumble, we slip, and we fall sometimes. But that’s the worst of it… we have our moments. Most of the time we’re pretty darn good, despite our flaws. So treat the people you love accordingly—give them the space to be human.
We need to stop assuming that the people who are doing things differently are doing things wrong. – We all take different roads seeking fulfillment, joy, and success. Just because someone isn’t on your road, doesn’t mean they are lost.
We need to stop assuming that the people we disagree with don’t deserve our compassion and kindness. – The exact opposite is true. The way we treat people we strongly disagree with is a report card on what we’ve learned about love, compassion, kindness and humility.
We need to stop assuming that we can’t trust people we don’t know. – Some people build too many walls in their lives and not enough bridges. Don’t be one of them. Open yourself up. Take small chances on people. Let them prove your doubts wrong, gradually, over time.
We need to stop assuming that the rude people of the world are personally targeting us. – We can’t take things too personally, even if it seems personal. Rarely do people do things because of us. They do things because of them. And there is a huge amount of freedom that comes to us when we detach from other people’s behaviors. So just remember, the way others treat you is their problem, how you react is yours.
We need to stop assuming that other people are our reason for being unhappy, unsuccessful, etc. – We may not be able control all the things people say and do to us, but we can decide not to be reduced by them. We can choose to forgive, or we can choose to forget. We can choose to stay, or we can choose to go. We can choose whatever helps us grow. There’s always a positive choice to make. Thus, the only real, lasting conflict you will ever have in your life won’t be with others, but with yourself… and how you choose to respond… and the daily rituals you choose to follow.
Dealing with People Who Deeply Offend Us
Some of the points above (like numbers 4 and 6 for example) potentially require a willingness to cordially deal with people who yell at us, interrupt us, cut us off in traffic, talk about terribly distasteful things, and so forth.
These people violate the way we think people should behave. And sometimes their behavior deeply offends us.
But if we let these people get to us, again and again, we will be upset and offended far too often.
So what can we do?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but here are two strategies Angel and I often recommend:
Be bigger, think bigger. – Imagine a two-year-old who doesn’t get what she wants at this moment. She throws a temper tantrum! This small, momentary problem is enormous in her little mind because she lacks perspective on the situation. But as adults, we know better. We realize that there are dozens of other things that 2-year-old could do to be happy. Sure, that’s easy for us to say—we have a bigger perspective, right? But when someone offends us, we suddenly have a little perspective again—this small, momentary offense seems enormous, and it makes us want to scream. We throw the equivalent of a two-year-old’s temper tantrum. However, if we think bigger, we can see that this small thing matters very little in the grand scheme of things. It’s not worth our energy. So always remind yourself to be bigger, think bigger, and broaden your perspective.
Mentally hug them and wish them better days. – This little trick can positively change the way we see people who offend us. Let’s say someone has just said something unpleasant to us. How dare they! Who do they think they are? They have no consideration for our feelings! But of course, with a heated reaction like this, we’re not having any consideration for their feelings either—they may be suffering inside in unimaginable ways. By remembering this, we can try to show them empathy, and realize that their behavior is likely driven by some kind of inner pain. They are being unpleasant as a coping mechanism for their pain. And so, mentally, we can give them a hug. We can have compassion for this broken person, because we all have been broken and in pain at some point too. We’re the same in many ways. Sometimes we need a hug, some extra compassion, and a little unexpected love.
Try one of these strategies the next time someone offends you. And then smile and breathe, armed with the comforting knowledge that there’s no reason to let someone else’s behavior turn you into someone you aren’t.
How have your judgments and expectations of others affected your life and relationships?
HOW WE USED THE AFTERMATH OF A FIGHT TO REPAIR OUR RELATIONSHIP
My partner and I got into a huge fight about our cat’s litter box.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but hear me out.
We both said things we didn’t mean. She told me I didn’t care about our cat and that my work mattered more to me than the well-being of Miss Rexy. I told her she was irresponsible for sleeping in and leaving the litter box to me as she bolted out the door late for work.
How could we get mad at that face, right?
As John Gottman’s research has shown, it’s not what you fight about that matters, but how you repair when your inevitable differences in personality, perspective, and needs collide.
If you don’t process these conflicts, then you may both find yourselves feeling disrespected, lonely, and neglected—drifting away from each other like two ships without anchors.
According to Julie Gottman, when couples come to therapy, partners “often sit side-by-side like enemy ships, war-torn but still afloat. Many have fired rounds at each other, and there’s been damage done.”
Often these wounds are left open. They’re so painful that we tell ourselves “never again will I let my partner see that vulnerable side of me.”
The problem is no matter how much we want to suppress our hurt feelings, they don’t go away. The avoidant strategy of “just get over it and move on” only works temporarily, at best. In fact, this approach to conflict is often a learned response from the internalized belief that no one will ever be there for you when you need them, so it’s better not to even attempt to discuss things.
As humans, we struggle to let go of a memory until we’ve emotionally digested it. It’s likely this has led to our survival as a species. Our brains remain hypervigilant to the things we deem unsafe.
According to neuroscientist Evan Gordan, our brain is constantly scanning the world around us, asking: Is it safe or dangerous right now?
With significant unresolved problems, it becomes nearly impossible to make the safe emotional connection necessary for a secure relationship.
As a result, we often perpetuate insecurity in our relationship, even over things like a cat’s litter box, because we don’t feel safe enough to express our deeper, more vulnerable emotions like sadness, hurt, loneliness, fear of abandonment or rejection, and shame of not being “enough” or being “too much.”
Instead, our partners see a different side of us. They see our anger, jealousy, resentment, and frustration. We hide our softer emotions behind a mask of the harder, more reactive emotions as our poor communication habits continue to wreak havoc on our emotional connection, making it harder for our partner to hear our longing for love and connection.
The good news is learning how to process regrettable incidents makes it easier for us to reconnect and ultimately grow.
In the Love Lab, John Gottman noticed that couples who were able to process past hurtful events were able to build a relationship as strong as steel. Discussing the regrettable incident became the fire through which they forged a stronger bond.
Am I ready to process this regrettable incident? According to Julie Gottman, “processing” means that you can talk about the incident without getting back into it again.
Have my emotions been calm today and can I have a calm conversation about this incident? It’s helpful to think of watching this incident on your TV. This can help create some emotional distance necessary to discuss what occurred.
Am I willing to speak from my experience without trying to persuade my partner?
Am I willing to ATTUNE to my partner’s feelings and what the event meant to them?
Are we in a distraction free space where we can be fully present with each other?
When my partner and I are both able to respond yes to all of these questions, we begin processing our regrettable incident using the five steps outlined below. For a more detailed version, purchase your copy of The Aftermath of a Fight Guide here.
Step 1: Express How You Felt During This Event
The goal of this step is to only list the feelings you felt during this event. Do not share why you felt this way and do not comment on your partner’s feelings.
My partner went first and explained that when we fought over the litter box, she felt angry, unloved, not cared about, and overwhelmed.
I shared that I felt misunderstood, unappreciated, and taken for granted, and that these feelings had made me stubborn.
For a list of feelings, you can use the “I Feel…” deck in the Gottman Card Decks App here or The Aftermath of a Fight Guide here.
Step 2: Share Your Realities and Validate Each Other
The next step is to choose a speaker and a listener. As the speaker, your goal is to share your own reality of what occurred during the regrettable event. Focus on using “I” statements and what you noticed (“I heard…,” not “you told me”) and what you needed during the event. Avoid criticizing your partner.
As the listener, focus on seeking to understand your partner’s unique experience. Then summarize what you heard them say, not what you believed they meant, and validate their experience by saying things like, “When I see things from your perspective, it makes perfect sense why you were so upset.”
After you validate your partner’s experience, ask them, “Did I get it right?”
If not, ask them to share what you’re not understanding and continue to validate until they say yes. As Julie Gottman reminds us, “Validation doesn’t mean you agree, but that you can understand even a part of your partner’s experience of the incident.”
It’s also important to ask, “Is there more to this for you?” This may uncover deeper meanings or other aspects of this event that they have yet to discuss. Remember, the goal is to make your partner feel completely understood. This makes them feel safe and loved, which makes it easier for you to repair and build a stronger connection.
Then switch roles. Do not move onto the next step until both partners feel understood.
My partner started as the speaker and shared that she felt overwhelmed because her cat who had been in her family for 13 years was dying, and she was probably going to have to put her down soon. She also felt unloved and angry because, from her perspective, I had refused to clean the litter box and instead chose finishing work over caring for our cat.
Even though I really wanted to defend myself as my partner was sharing, I bit my tongue and focused on truly understanding her experience. I reflected what I heard back to her: “So you felt overwhelmed because you are facing the tough decision of when to put your beloved cat down after so many years. I also hear that you noticed I was working and telling you I did not have time to clean the litter box, which caused you to feel like I didn’t care about Rexy. Is that correct?”
After my partner agreed that I had it right, I asked her, “Is there more to this?” After a few more exchanges, she felt like I completely understood her experience and we switched roles.
I shared how I felt unappreciated because I had done many other things to help with Rexy, including taking her to the vet while my partner was at work. I also felt my “working hours” were taken for granted since my office is in our home and that I was expected to drop everything I was doing to do what my partner wanted in that moment. I also mentioned to my partner that she probably was unaware that I had 15-minutes to finish two important emails before I needed to leave for my personal therapy session across town.
My partner validated my experience and I felt she completely understood me.
Step 3: Disclose Your Triggers
Beneath difficult conflicts, even silly things like a litter box, are emotional triggers. These sensitivities stem from personal histories and often make minor events quickly transform into major blowups.
During this step, take turns as a speaker and listener and disclose what triggered a big reaction in you. Add any previous experiences of when you felt similar in the past, including during your early history or childhood, and share that with your partner, so your partner can understand this sensitivity.
My partner shared that she felt helpless and alone, something she knows all too well. Ever since high school, she’s been one of the primary caregivers for her father who has severe Parkinson’s disease. With her mother and brother on the other side of the country, she has felt alone and abandoned in the moments when she needed her family most. She shared that the idea of losing our cat and not caring for her well during these last days of her life stirred up these deeper feelings.
I validated her triggers, and since I’ve sat next to my partner while she has cried over this very thing many times before. I understood what she meant and shared that understanding with her.
I then shared my triggers, which include a sensitivity to feeling disrespected or like my needs don’t matter. As an anxious lover, I’ve often neglected my personal needs over the needs of others. Because of this, I have often ended up feeling inadequate and like my needs don’t matter. Over time, this has made me wary. When my partner requested that I stop working and instantly take care of our cat, I felt like my needs didn’t matter.
My partner asked more questions about this sensitivity and learned more about my history of not asking for what I need and the difficulty I’ve had in asserting my boundaries. She came to understand that this is something I’ve spent years of therapy working on.
Step 4: Take Ownership for Your Role
If we lived in a perfect world, it’s unlikely this regrettable incident would have even occurred because we would have already felt emotionally calm, connected to each other, and fully accepted and loved.
Unfortunately, we get stressed and feel unappreciated by our partner, which makes it easier for us to have regrettable incidents. It’s helpful to acknowledge the things that set us up for miscommunicating with each other, take ownership, and apologize.
This step is about taking responsibility for your part in the conflict. My partner shared that she had been stressed, irritable, and overly sensitive lately. She then mentioned that she regretted how critical she was of me and how she spoke to me. She then apologized for overreacting and attacking me.
I shared that I had been turning away more and had been very preoccupied with work and running on empty lately. I regretted responding defensively and accusing my partner of being lazy. I then apologized for being defensive and attacking my partner’s character.
We both accepted each other’s apologies and acknowledged that things got out of hand.
If the apologies are not accepted when you are doing this with your partner, each of you should say what you still need.
Step 5: Preventative Planning
Have an open conversation with your partner and share one thing you could do to make discussing this issue better next time, and then share one thing you think your partner can do to make it better. Remember to make this a positive and actionable request, such as “I need to know more about what has been stressing you out lately,” not “I need you to stop being a jerk.”
It’s important to ask, “What do we need to do to put this incident to rest so we can move on?”
Focus on what you can agree on together.
My partner and I agreed to get back in the habit of our stress reducing conversation, so we can continue to check in with each other about our cat and the stress we’ve both been holding inside recently.
Conflict as an Opportunity for Intimacy
Every conflict, even the regrettable ones, offers an opportunity for a deeper understanding of each other. While this fight about a litter box seems silly, it highlights how often little things can become big things because of the underlying feelings and meanings beneath.
The problem with these incidents is that we do not repair or take proactive steps to prevent them from escalating in the future. Going through The Aftermath of a Fight Guide has been something my partner and I have had to do time and time again.
Even Julie Gottman admits that she and her husband, John Gottman, have “been married for nearly 30 years with too many [regrettable incidents] to count!”
Constructing a great relationship is hard work and requires growth from both partners. At times this will mean processing difficult events and tolerating discomfort. The good news is these regrettable incidents, when processed, can be used to build a stronger and more meaningful relationship.
5 TIPS TO STRESS-PROOF YOUR MARRIAGE THIS HOLIDAY SEASON
When I was a kid, I was giddy when the holiday season came around. I opened presents, ate candy canes, and snuggled with my dogs near the fireplace.
But as an adult, the holidays come with a fair amount of stress. I found there was less fun and more planning, like how you’re going to visit family, what food you’re going to cook, saving money for gifts, going shopping, and so much more.
It’s not uncommon for couples to feel overwhelmed or disconnected during the holiday season, especially if one or both partners feel triggered by certain events. The added stress can create tension and highlight relationship difficulties during a time when it is important to stay connected and feel loved.
Having a plan and sticking to it is one of the most effective ways to eliminate stress and spend more time having fun and enjoying each other’s company.
Take the Stress out of Holiday Preparations and Decisions
The holiday season can leave a partner feeling unappreciated or resentful for doing all the shopping and cooking, or it can lead to another partner feeling pressured into doing things their partner’s way. But the holidays are a time to come together as a team and create a sense of balance. Try to follow this template toward creating a holiday plan:
1. List out all the chores and responsibilities that require attention. This will give you an objective view for determining who should be in charge of what.
2. Add three columns to the list: one for you, one for your partner, and one for both of you.
3. Read the list together. Talk about each other’s perception of how holiday responsibilities were handled in the past, and discuss how you would like them handled this year.
4. Go through the items that are easy to assign this year and choose who is responsible (you, your partner, or both), check the appropriate task and partner on the list, and set aside the tasks that may need to be talked through for later.
5. For the items you didn’t assign, take the time to ask each other open-ended questions about the task and the difficulties associated with it. Truly listen to what your partner likes and doesn’t like, which is an opportunity to learn something new about your partner and their preferences and concerns.
Then, after both partners feel understood, determine how you’d like to proceed this year, and compromise when needed so that both of you feel comfortable with your plans. You can cover a lot of different kinds of tasks, including cooking and cleaning duties, shopping, travel plans, and holiday traditions that you’d both like to include in your festivities.
Partner A’s List
Partner B’s List
Organizing the grocery list
Call family & see who is bringing what for dinner
The goal here is to find win-win solutions that put your partner’s needs on par with your own. Your partner may agree with you or may suggest something else.
Sometimes you may have to do a task together, but that can be helpful if both of you don’t enjoy something that still needs to get done.
Work together to find a solution for this year that satisfies both of your needs. Then decide who is responsible, assign the task, and note the date that it needs to be completed by.
Now you have a better idea of who does what and when, which should already relieve a great deal of stress.
Dr. John Gottman’s research discovered that a purely equal division of tasks isn’t what matters (keeping score can lead to resentment), but instead that each partner feels like responsibilities are balanced. And, of course, modify plans if necessary. If your partner feels overwhelmed, then see if you can help out by taking on some of their tasks, and remember to support each other.
De-stress with Your Spouse
Throughout the holidays, try to take time to have a Stress-Reducing Conversation, which allows you talk about your stressful feelings and thoughts without actually discussing your marriage or any issues you may have with your partner.
Ask some open-ended questions about how they’re feeling this holiday season, but don’t try to problem solve. Instead, truly listen to your partner’s concerns and express empathy.
If you have this conversation every day this season, it can’t help but make your spirits bright.
Another way to relieve stress is to offer compliments, gratitude, and appreciation to your partner, which can help your partner stay connected to you.
Make an extra effort to notice the small things your partner does such as grocery shopping, wrapping gifts, taking out the trash, or making time for just you, and verbalize your appreciation. Small acts of gratitude will help uplift your spirits.
If you cultivate an attitude of gratitude around your partner and loved ones during the holidays, everyone should feel more comfortable, appreciated, and emotionally satisfied.
Take a few moments this holiday season and plan three little surprises for your spouse. This could be:
A short and sweet love note slipped into their wallet or purse
Filling up a hot bath for them to relax in at after a long stressful day (bonus if you join)
Dance to holiday music in your home
Take Time to Connect with Your Partner
Most importantly, try to schedule some time for just you and your partner to connect. It may be difficult to get away from family and friends during a busy holiday season, but making intentional efforts to spend a few hours or an evening together will help you feel more loved and stress-free.
Sneak off to give each other a quick massage.
Find a mistletoe to passionately kiss under
Give each other personalized gifts before the holiday.
Snuggle while watching a holiday movie
Hold hands while taking an evening walk
If you follow these tips throughout the holiday season, it may bring you closer to feeling that sense of fun, excitement, and wonder that I once felt as a kid. While planning isn’t as fun as decorating and opening gifts, having a solid plan you can rely on enables you and your partner to spend less time stressing and more time enjoying the holiday season.
Relationships often start with plenty of demonstrations of affection and appreciation for one another. There is a sense of “this person gets me and accepts me for who I am”. The infatuation makes you want to attend to even the silliest requests from your partner. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, your partners request feels like demands that can’t be met. You feel confused and hurt that no matter what you do it’s never good enough to please them.
At first you chalk it up to some stress that has been going on in your lives. Soon you realize that your partner is constantly criticizing and blaming you. And things like this happen:
5 Things a Hard to Please Person Does
There is always an “if you just…then I would…” bargaining/ blaming statement happening. The bargaining portion serves the purpose of pretending you have a choice in behavior – you can do this or have the consequences. The blaming serves to keep you responsible for their behavior and entitlement. Their frustration that something isn’t to their liking is usually your fault for not following “the correct steps”. It is a trap that you constantly fall into because you want to “get it right”.
Their expectation can’t ever be achieved. Even when you do what they want the response is that you didn’t do exactly how they wanted, you took too long or you have to do more now. The standards are constantly changing. They might take over the task without letting you try, which causes insecurity and resentment for you.
You feel invalidated in your feelings and needs. If you express disagreement or disappointment you are met with “I didn’t mean it that way, so you shouldn’t feel that way.”
Every argument ends with you giving up and letting them have their way as if it was a game they need to win.
They compare the relationship and/or you to their ideal model. This idealization might come from someone in their lives (parents, former partner) or from beliefs about relationships. In any case you always lose since you’ll never be as good as their vision.
Now that you can safely identify that your partner can’t be pleased you are left with a question: Why? You have been blamed for their dissatisfaction for so long that it is hard to imagine other reasons for such mind games and control. Before you lose all hope of happiness it can be helpful to understand why.
The possible reasons:
High anxiety: Your partner could have a high level of anxiety that is alleviated through taking control of situations and people – especially you. Notice that you are not the only target of their criticism. There is a constant hyper-vigilance about what is going on around them and how they need to make it right. People with high anxiety are very critical of themselves as well as others. The dissatisfaction is due to a high standard that basically no one can achieve for being so idealized. There is a belief that anything and everything can always be better than it is.
“Your partner could have a high level of anxiety that is alleviated through taking control of situations and people – especially you.”
The world is unsafe: Critical people might have learned that the world is unsafe and you must be always on the offense and defense to not get hurt. The critical and controlling behaviors are to keep them with the upper hand in life. In this case you will notice a “winning behavior” – a need to be always right and “win” arguments no matter what.
Resentment: Something might have happened in the relationship that triggered the dissatisfaction. Your partner has resentments towards you that they neither express nor let go. This is a passive-aggressive (though it feels very aggressive to you) way of dealing with conflict that has to be addressed.
Role models: Dysfunctional role models of what a relationship looks like can cause your spouse to not know how else to interact with you. Experiencing negative role models also has a side-effect of leading him or her to try and maintain control of the relationship so they are not hurt like their parents.
Finally, we get to the part that concerns you: What can you do about it? Resolving conflict always takes both partners engaging in the work. You also have responsibility to change the situation.
What you can do about it:
Accept that you have responsibility: You have been reinforcing this behavior by trying to please your spouse at any cost. Every time you give in and do what they want you are sending the message that it is OK to hurt you that way. However, responsibility doesn’t mean blame. It is not your fault that your partner became critical and possibly abusive. Accept that you have been enabling the behavior and use the knowledge to change interactions.
Set reasonable boundaries: It is OK for partners to make requests, but not demands. Set a boundary of what you are willing to work with your partner and how you expect to be asked to attend to their needs. Don’t allow name calling, shaming or invalidation of your feelings. If needed take time out to cool off and re-engage in discussion later.
THE COUPLE’S GUIDE TO FIGHTING BETTER: FOCUS ON THE ISSUE
Love can be a battleground of mistakes, misunderstandings, and conflicts. Oftentimes when we want to discuss a specific conflict with our partners, we also want the floor to discuss EVERY conflict with our partner; every one of their 617 boneheaded mistakes. After all, we are an “expert” analyst of our partner’s behavior and personality disorders.
Meet Jasmine. Jasmine is a full-time employed mother of two. She’s married to Brian, a hard working business owner with 64 employees. Jasmine and Brian strive to be a super couple; the kind of couple that exhausts themselves trying to do it all.
Their childhood upbringing has taught both of them to be overachieving perfectionists who put a lot of pressure on themselves to be “happily married.”
Most of this pressure comes from Jasmine. She wants the best orgasms, a passionate sex life, millions in the bank account, and two adorable and successful kids. All this weight causes a lot of problems with Brian.
In her mind, Brian doesn’t help out with the children or house nearly enough. He doesn’t dedicate enough time to their relationship and he isn’t making enough money. Needless to say, Jasmine’s Love Laws puts Brian in Relationship Jail pretty frequently. As a result, she shames him. She makes him feel inadequate. She treats him this way so much that he has started to spend more time working than he does at home.
For Brian, work is a safe haven from the war at home. As Jasmine starts to realize their relationship is in trouble, she devours books on healthy relationships like a fat kid at a cupcake store. She heard about John Gottman’s famous State of the Union meeting that was created to resolve relationship conflicts. So she schedules a meeting to “talk” with Brian about their current conflicts.
Because she’s so eager to start the meeting, Jasmine takes the lead as the speaker. She tells Brian the role of the listener according to what she can remember: “just listen to me and don’t get defensive.”
Unfortunately Jasmine hits Brian so hard with criticism that his helmet in the football game of love pops right off. This leaves him vulnerable to a siege of attacks from his lover, who brings up every issue under the sun. His lack of help with the children. His lack of effort in keeping the house clean. His routine sexual performance that feels more like clockwork and less like lovemaking.
Hearing all this makes Brian feel inadequate. Something back in his childhood made him sensitive about that feeling. His body floods with negative emotions. Despite trying to do his best to “listen,” he emotionally shuts down to calm his anxiety.
Jasmine notices this and hits him even harder. “You never listen to me.” “What is wrong with you?”
By now, this relationship is on the road to the Hell, whether it be divorce or infidelity. But there are many lessons we can learn from this.
Pick One Issue and Be Specific
Instead of bringing up every issue under the sun, focus on one particular issue and stay on topic. Be detailed. Instead of saying, “you never help out around the house,” say, “It makes me feel abandoned when I feel like it is my responsibility to vacuum the house every week. On top of that, I have other chores I feel like I have to do to keep this house running. Would you be able to vacuum every other week for me?”
Telling someone they make you feel insecure gives them no feedback to change their behavior. However, telling your partner that you feel insecure when they make fun of you in front of your friends will allow them to fix that specific situation.
By focusing on one issue and the specific emotions it causes you (not your partner’s flaws), both of you can come together to fix that specific situation by changing both the meaning of the situation and each other’s behavior.
Avoid Your Partner’s Triggers
Lastly, be aware of your partner’s triggers. No one grows up without emotional scars. These lasting flaws can escalate conflict quickly. Tom Bradbury, a UCLA psychologist, calls these enduring vulnerabilities.
Imagine your partner’s weaknesses are tattooed on their forehead. What might your partner’s weaknesses and insecurities be? When they get blamed, do they immediately become defensive? Do they hate being lectured because it makes them feel inadequate?
Brian’s vulnerabilities of not providing enough make him feel inadequate. It causes him to close off from his relationship and the things he cares about. When his trigger is hit, it’s easier to become numb than to feel the pain of all his past traumas rising in the present.
Your partner’s childhood baggage may be a source of problems in your relationship but it is unrealistic to expect that he or she will fix them immediately. Prodding or insisting them to “change” will only worsen the situation.
What you can do is prevent a particular vulnerability from causing friction by acknowledging it and working around it with compassion. If you know your boyfriend is sensitive about feeling left out, be kind when suggesting that he should stay at home so you can go out with your friends for a girl’s night. You could say something like “I love going out with my friends and you because we always have a good time. But would it be okay if I just went out with them tonight? I’d like to catch up with them on a more intimate level.”
Or maybe your girlfriend is a tad messy, and resents her childhood upbringing of rigid house rules. She may even appreciate a break when it comes to her messy clothes on the chair in the bedroom.
During my own relationship conflicts, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that my partner is learning to work with my insecurities, just like I am with hers. Love isn’t always a comfortable ride. But having a partner who will drive around your potholes, while still addressing the underlying issues, is a partner you should keep.
Tough marriage conflicts can turn into a perfect storm.
They can flood the streets of love with the sewage of personal attacks. From what I’ve learned, beating up a loved one is never a fair fight. You know their deepest vulnerabilities, their most important values. This gives you the power to structure what you say in a way that cuts them down with a machete of words.
Have you ever wondered why we do this? Why we intentionally hurt the one we love? Have you ever wondered why we shut down and become “emotionally unavailable” to our partners when they confront us on something that could improve our marriage?
The problem with intense conversations is that they confront the beliefs we hold about our relationship, ourselves, and our partners.
So when something threatens to contradict the beliefs we hold about how things are, our bodies flood with chemicals that increase our heart rate. Our bodies prime to run away or fight and defend our point.
This Happens in Three Stages
Stage 1: We feel shocked by our partner’s comments, actions, or lack thereof. Maybe they are blaming us or accusing us of doing something we didn’t. Either way, our bodies become tense as we experience something we didn’t expect.
Stage 2: We can’t calm down. As our insides flood, we become anxious. We feel as if our life is at stake. The more flooded we feel, the more likely we turn into a reptile. Emotionally flooded people and reptiles have two characteristics: they lack a sense of humor, and they eat each other.
Our heart rate skyrockets and our automatic instinctive reactive emotions take control of our thoughts and actions. The notion of “choosing” is erroneous because the section of our brain that chooses, our neocortex, is no longer in control. The idea of fighting fair is abandoned because reptiles never fight fair.
Stage 3: Emotional Shutdown If we continue to become flooded without resolve, we eventually become numb to our hurt. It becomes so overwhelming that we block it out completely. According to John Gottman’s research, men tend to become emotionally hijacked easier and stay flooded longer. Since we struggle to soothe ourselves and calm down, we withdraw and go ice-cold to protect ourselves.
From my own experiences, doing so has brought a sense of relief in the heat of a fight. The only problem is that shutting down only makes my partner’s heart rate increase, causing them to flood more. This only escalates the conflict.
Emotional flooding is a major reason why humans suck at tough relationship conversations. In fact, John Gottman’s research indicates that repeated flooding in marriages is a predictor of divorce. Flooding again and again, changes The Story of Us causing us to start to see our partners in a negative light. That light guides us towards the path of betrayal or singlehood.
So how can we not lose it during relationship conflicts? Here are the six steps I use and teach my clients:
The Marriage Conflicts Peace Treaty
Step 1: Awareness. I become aware that I feel like I am under attack by my partner. Sometimes I use the Instant Heart Rate Iphone App to notice how elevated my heart rate is. During emotional flooding, our heart rate can jump up to 20 or 30 beats per minute. My average heart rate is 65 BPM,1 so if my heart rate jumps to the 80’s while I am sitting down and having a conversation, I know my body feels like it is in a war zone.
You can also feel this in your body. You’ll feel overwhelmed. Anxious. You might desire to attack your partner. Be aware of how your body feels.
Step 2: Assert my Flooding. Once I have the awareness I am flooded, I tell my partner that we have to stop talking because I feel like I am going to start attacking her. This isn’t easy to do, but it prevents me from eating her vulnerabilities alive. You can say things like, “I’m losing it.” “I’m flooded and want to attack you.” “I’m getting upset.”
Step 3: Schedule a time to continue the conversation. This is vital if my partner brought up the argument. When I first learned to assert my flooding, I would get the space I need, but I would avoid the conversation next time I saw my partner. Over the following weeks, she would stew over her unresolved problem and tension between us would increase until we fought about it again.
Committing to your partner to continue the conversation allows them to calm down and realize that you can’t control your emotions in the present moment. But they know when you can, you want to solve the problem at hand.
Step 4: Non-negotiated distance. It’s your responsibility to calm yourself down and take care of your flooded state. This is non-negotiable with your partner. You need your space, otherwise your words and actions are going to nuke the love right out of the relationship. John Gottman’s research states that we should take a 20 minute break and emotionally distance ourselves from the conflict.
I go on a 25-minute walk while listening to my favorite songs. Other people play video games or find challenging tasks that consumes their cognitive awareness.
During this time, it’s vital that you think good thoughts about your partner. It’s very easy to stay in your defensive state and stew over feeling righteous, replaying wounding words your partner said, or allow yourself to feel like a victim. The problem is this only escalates flooding. Instead, ask yourself what is good and true about your significant other. Focusing on the good will not only soothe your emotions, you’ll also realize that they are not out to eat you alive!
Step 5: Note triggers. Ask yourself what caused yourself to turn into a reptile. Was it a word your partner said? A way your partner moved? By noting the triggers that cause your flooding, you can help them learn how to discuss uncomfortable topics without drowning you in your own emotions.
FYI – If you know your partner’s triggers, it’s your responsibility to not be a dick. Don’t push those buttons.
Step 6: Soothe each other. Before you bring up the topic of discussion, talk with your partner about what caused you to flood. Thank them for allowing you to take space to keep the relationship intact.
“I’m thankful you let me stop before I said things I regretted.” “I felt triggered when you mentioned that you needed more space. I think I fear being abandoned by you.”
Battling and becoming aware of our instinctual reactions that cause a perfect storm in love is not easy, but the more times you practice the six steps above, the easier it will become. The healthier and happier your relationship will become. Remember, when emotions become tense, love becomes nonsense. If you want your marriage to last, give it the space it needs to breathe when the fire gets too hot.
For reference. The average 30 year old man’s heart rate is 76. It’s 82 for women of the same age. ↩
Unsolvable conflict doesn’t necessarily mean
that your relationship is doomed to fail though.
It actually means the opposite. That is, if
you manage conflict constructively.
Unsolvable conflict is defined as conflict
between partners that is reoccurring with no long-term resolution. These
unsolvable conflicts are rooted in fundamental differences or needs of the
partners in the couple.
Couples who fail to build a bridge between
these differences tend to attack the core of who each partner is.
On the other hand, couples who use humor,
clear communication, and affection to navigate their unsolvable conflict often
leave the conflict feeling closer and more emotionally connected to one
another, despite not having a resolution.
“You don’t have to
resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive.” – Dr.
Here’s an example:
Susanne and Kit have reoccurring conflicts
over how much time to spend together. Susanne would complain about not being
loved or cared for because Kit wouldn’t spend more time with her and Kit would
whine about being smothered by how much time they already spent together. This
fundamental difference in closeness and autonomy collided like tectonic plates.
As they each fought for what they needed and dismissed what their partner
needed, the foundation of their relationship became shaky.
When they were given the tools to explore this
challenging topic, Susanne and Kit truly listened to each other and began to
honor their unique differences. They learned how to manage this unsolvable
problem by proactively discussing it in their weekly relationship meeting. They
began to intentionally make space for we-time and me-time.
With the right tools, they were able to
transform a problem that led to fights that got out of control into something
that was manageable and honored both their needs. Not to mention, both partners
have a deeper felt sense of being known.
Sadly we are often taught that if there is
unsolvable conflict in our relationship that it isn’t going to work.
To change this message and teach you the
skills to healthily navigate conflict, even the unsolvable ones, I decided to
be part of Briana MacWilliam’s Relationship Rescue course.
Briana and I spent an hour talking deeply
about unsolvable conflict, but we also tackle a ton of other important conflict
topics, such as:
Four Horsemen of relationship conflict
to approach conflict in a healthy and effective way
importance of being mindful of the way you navigate conflict conversations
techniques you can use for effective conflict management
main differences seen between happy vs unhappy couples and how they
so much more!
Briana’s course is available for enrollment until Dec. 1, and believe me when I say that
there is a bunch of helpful information in there for couples (and individuals)
when it comes to really enhancing and healing your relationship.