Every relationship suffers from ups and downs. It’s how we deal with those ups and downs that counts. In particular, it’s how long we stay in fight-or-flight mode.
At the most combative level, we all like to be (a) in the right, and (b) well-protected. If someone puts us in the wrong, and/or makes us feel vulnerable, we may find it difficult to avoid responding in kind. The trouble is , then there are two people putting each other in the wrong, or making each other feel vulnerable. The argument will tend to escalate.
At a less combative level, we might choose to close the situation down and disengage (e.g. by walking away). This is less damaging than fighting, but has its own problems. For instance, if the other person is sensitive to abandonment, then our withdrawal can stimulate an unstable reaction. A fight may continue, albeit at a distance.
In between fight (leaning in) and flight (leaning away) is presence (standing still). The ability to be present with one another is rare in relationships. But the effect on both parties is very peaceful.
As individuals, we don’t control other people. We can choose to be present, but we can’t force another person to do the same. In presence, we sit with an absence of anger, and an absence of fear.
THE ECHO OF AN ARGUMENT
For a while afterwards, if we have had an argument, the echo of that argument will resonate around our bodies and our minds. We will play the situation over and over in our heads. Much of this replaying is born of insecurity. We want to know what went wrong, so that we can know how to put ourselves back in the right, and be secure again.
More than that, we want to repair the rupture, so that the other person can be at peace, and so that we can be viewed as OK by the other. Almost always, we try to repair ruptures too soon. If we do this, we are in danger of jumping back in to justify ourselves, and an argument will restart. We need to let enough time pass.
After a while, we will feel that it’s time to try re-engagement. We may send an ‘olive branch’, a sign of peace, to test how the land lies. If the other replies peacefully, then we know we are on safer ground. If the old argument returns, then we know there is more healing to do.
Healing a relationship is a bit like healing a wound. In the rough and tumble of daily life, we will inevitably hurt each other. The repair of a wound is mainly the job of the body that is hurt. The other can help to provide suitable conditions, but at the end of the day each body repairs its own wounds.
If each party blames the other persistently, then neither party will heal. This is because, to heal, we need to tend to our own wounds first, so that we are strong enough to reengage on decent terms.
The most common error in relationships is the continued blaming of each other. These relationships stay combative, as neither person has the skill to de-escalate their own fight-or-flight response.
The antidote to persistent arguments, is the ability to self-sooth. If a person has the skill and resources to calm themselves down, then they have no need to enlist others to do it for them. They can continue life calmly, even after arguments.
We learn self-soothing from our early carers. When we are hurt, we absorb their response. If they show empathy, then we internalise it, and learn to have empathy for ourselves. In adulthood, we can self-sooth. If that was missing from our early carers, then we will have difficulty self-soothing in adulthood. Arguments will feel worse, and be more damaging to us.
Self-soothing can be learned in adulthood, but it is difficult. We are working with a damaged system, and it is a bit like a mechanic converting a badly-designed car engine. We have to be creative. But it is possible. I have worked with a number of counselling clients to develop the ability to self-soothe.
TIPS FOR PERSONAL RECOVERY
If you have relationship difficulties, and want to work on yourself, you are welcome to get in touch with me and we can set up some sessions.
In the meantime, here are some suggestions for self-development:
- Try to notice yourself mindfully before you get too upset. Many people don’t spot their ‘fightiness’ until it is too late, and they are already in the middle of an argument. It is a great skill, to notice your own mood changes as they are happening. It is the first step to mastering your behaviour.
- Try to learn a language of peaceful communication. Many people don’t really have the linguistic repertoire to be gentle, so they jump clumsily in and stir things up. Learn to start with quietly saying how you feel. Instead of ‘you always abandon me!’, (which is a blaming projection), learn to say ‘I feel abandoned’, which is a gentle statement.
- Develop a self-soothing routine. Many people don’t really have a set of things they do to calm down. Maybe their early carers didn’t give them a very good training in self-soothing. It can be very simple. For example, we can take a 5-minute time out, and/or have an agreement with a friend to contact them when stressed. We can also use counselling for this purpose. A weekly session can act as a great self-soothing exercise. And working with a good counsellor can teach us, by example and interaction, self-soothing skills.
- All relationships have ups and downs
- If we react by fighting, it can be very destructive
- If we react by running away, it can also be harmful
- If we can be peacefully present, the relationship has a chance
- Arguments have echoes, and we need to give each other time to heal
- Blaming the other doesn’t work
- Learning to self-sooth enables us to continue life calmly