“Through the fire all that remains is gold.” —Anonymous
Adam was a student of relationships: he had them down pat, or so he thought. Then he met Zoe. She was an attorney and didn’t suffer fools. She shot from the hip and he loved it. It was like a cool drink of water finding someone who seemed to know who she was. Little did he know that this was the good and the bad news. They were soon married, but not long after, conflicts began to erupt. At first they were about simple things, like household chores, but they began to escalate over time to personal attacks that left them feeling alienated and angry. Adam wanted to compromise—there was none of that in Zoe’s world. It was her way or no way according to Adam. She saw him as the victim and as a result thought he was weak. When she asserted herself Adam would become defensive, then she would withdraw into frustration and anger creating a deadly silence that could last for days. When they came to my office for couples therapy, they had not spoken to each other in a week.
As we began to unravel the mysterious elements of what made their relationship tick, we realized that they had not developed an ability to work through negative states. Negative thinking is a normal part of all relationships, but it’s what we do with it that matters. Adam and Zoe did not need to eliminate the negative as much as they needed to find better ways to work it out. So we began a process of what to do when negative material came up.
Here is what we found:
1. There is no right way or perfect world. No two people are alike—disagreement, conflict and negative emotions are to be expected. Dialing back their expectations to realistic eliminated a ton of conflict right off the bat. They recognized that perfection was not the goal but they could strive toward an easier, more efficient way of creating good feelings. Zoe learned that even though Adam was not who she originally thought he was, he was not bad either. They learned to step back when they started to think negatively and instead think about what they needed from one another as a part of working toward that sweet spot of agreement. Finding a problem solving technique that included listening and compromise was the key to breaking down their negative cycle.
2. Problem solving 101? Their negative emotion was blocking their rational thinking. Anger caused their brain to move from their frontal lobe (where rational thought resides) to the amygdala in the primitive part of our brain which specializes in survival. They were tyrannizing one another with anger and criticism, leading to inevitable withdrawal and the insertion of even more pain. They understood that nothing rational or positive could be accomplished when they were angry. They needed to cool off first and think about what they were trying to say. I had them try to tell me what their partner’s position was. With some practice at acknowledging and being able to express their feelings they were able to find out more about what they wanted from each other.
3. Expressing needs without criticism. It seemed that everything they said was an indictment of the other one’s position or their right to it. Expressing what they wanted from each other was very difficult for them to do in the heat of battle. Eventually they understood what each of their positions were, which resulted in being able to avoid the anger that resulted from the critical tone in their conflicts. As they practiced empathy they could see how it helped put them back on track with their frontal rational brain.
4. Look for what is underneath the negativity. Negativity was not their friend. As we began putting problem solving skills together it emerged that underneath everything was a darker force. Devaluation was their killer. Zoe initially thought that Adam was the bomb, and he could do nothing wrong. Over time, his insecurities, inconsistencies, foibles and flaws emerged. Zoe was in shock. How could she have married this guy? He was so yucky and insecure. She berated him for his difficulties. She felt embarrassed when they went out with friends. Adam’s dream girl had become a nightmare of criticism and contempt. John Gottman, author of The 7 Principles of a Happy Marriage, explains that when criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling are present it often leads to divorce. Adam and Zoe were definitely heading that way. They had to learn that underneath their anger was a fear of commitment and intimacy. They struggled to find a path toward acceptance and compassion. The breakthrough for them came when they understood their fear of intimacy was just that, a fear, and they didn’t have to give into it by being defensive and negative.
5. Just because you think it doesn’t mean you have to say it. Negative feelings have to be tested, understood and reflected on before they are said. How to put a negative into a positive is the goal. Don’t suppress it but don’t express it is the watchword for the negative. Find out what it means first and then put in a way that you think the other person might hear and understand. The point is to communicate. Negative thoughts trigger bigger defenses, so what’s the point?
6. Take a time out. Think about what your anger and feelings are telling you about what you want, need and what is really important to you. Then in a measured and calm way express your needs to your mate without criticism or contempt. It is not important to express your feelings if all they are going to do is hurt the other person. What is important about anger and feelings are how they inform couples about what they want and need. There is a lot said about the need to express feelings, and I often hear this in couple sessions. Feelings are ever-present so we can’t eliminate them, but we can learn from them. They tell us who we are and what is important to us. Sometimes demanding to express our feelings is a justification for wanting to retaliate for feeling hurt by the other person. Our anger and our feelings belong to us, we own them. What is important is to listen to our feelings so we can determine what we want to say and how to say it, so it goes all the way in.
7. Convert criticism into a complaint and a complaint into a request. Criticism is a negative but complaints can be very positive, especially when they are in the form of a request. Complaints are a way of making no sound like yes. A complaint put in the form of a request is a way of helping the other person to succeed. We can ask that in the future could they do it another way. This provides a pathway for a better outcome next time around. Criticism is like being painted into a corner. You have done something bad and there is no way out.
Adam and Zoe learned how to turn negative thinking into wants, needs and requests. This made them think about what they wanted from each other but also what was important to each of them apart from one another. There is a lot to be said for taking time to think and consider our feelings to see what they can tell us about ourselves. They also learned that, when in doubt, fall back on your sense of humor: it’s a good way to cut the tension and turn the conversation into a more positive process.