My first argument with David began as we attempted to make the bed. Really. He liked to make the bed military-style, and I wanted the sheets free for my continuously cramping "pigeon-toed" feet.
As we argued, several things became really apparent:
- David was not my ex-husband.
- I was not his ex-wife.
- He was not my mother.
- I was not his mother.
- He didn't want to hurt me.
- I didn't want to hurt him.
- He was not any of the people who had hurt me.
Amid a tumultuous argument, you have uninvited visitors in your home, creating chaos, stirring up trouble, telling stories, and being downright rude. If these were real live people invading your home, you'd call the police! Or at least throw them out.
How do you throw them out? You can throw those memory folks out of YOUR communication, but not your partner's. First, you recognize that old memory invaders are interfering with communication. Recognition is at least 50% of the task.
Then, the next answer is in my next true story, which is about my first counseling job.
The title was "relief evening counselor." I later understood that I was the "relief" or substitute because they couldn't keep anyone in this position!
I worked by myself. At night. No one but the residents present. There were no other staff in attendance, no guards, no emergency phone, and no safety arrangements for anyone.
My hours were from 6 p.m. to midnight. In all my interesting jobs, this one in a halfway house for women just out of prison was incredibly stupid and dangerous. Had I been a little older, I would have known better than to take the job!
The only training I had for that job was a community class for para-professional type counseling. There I learned a very profound and essential fact. The greatest need all people have is to be heard and understood.
Regrettably, this does not happen as often as it should. Instead, we act out the "triggering response" from our pasts. Imagine little "hot-spot" buttons all over you. Each button is attached to your stored feelings, thoughts, and past hurts from every painful fight you have ever had with anyone. Actually, those buttons also include all the stored feelings and thoughts from every hurt you ever experienced in your life.
Your partner says something, like David did, about "The RIGHT Way to make the bed." And your buttons get pushed, like mine. His tone of voice, his confidence that he was absolutely right were automatically upsetting to me. His body language pushed my buttons, surprisingly enough, from every doctor's visit I had ever had. And there I was, no longer in present time, but back as a child in the doctor's office being misunderstood and pushed around.
Then, I said something totally unrelated to our current dilemma, but out of my past. And I pushed David's buttons. Oh, boy! We were off and running. What a mess! It is a wonder people ever get to be in love!
That paraprofessional counseling class taught that the cure for this "triggering response" is listening. The course believed in the form of active listening, where you listen carefully to what is being said. You don't argue no matter how outlandish the other person's statements may seem. You tune in thoroughly and let the other person know that you hear them.
It's critical to do this authentically. There are laughable parodies of this on television. It's funny in the media, but brutal in real life. "I hear you." "You said such and such." The person repeats in a robotic and exacting manner that is actually insulting.
Instead, it's essential to try to understand what your loved one is saying. Then you communicate this. People need to know the degree of compassion you have for them. Empathy, because you love them.
This is very hard. Amid a real fight, it takes a sometimes dramatic amount of self-control. In the above-mentioned course, we were encouraged to practice frequently.
Back to the halfway house. I was confronted with an out-of-control, scissors-carrying woman. She wanted to kill another woman in this facility. She was actually walking rapidly from one part of the house to another as I tried to do something. The only weapon I had was from that class: my understanding of compassionate listening.
I followed her, repeating in my own words everything she said. I didn't argue with her. I just repeated as best I could her feelings. What happened next is a very permanent photographic image in my mind! She stopped in the middle of a hallway. Her entire body language changed. Best of all, she told me what was bothering her. And that was the end of the danger.
Much later, it occurred to me that if this would work during a physically dangerous situation, it would probably work amid an emotionally hazardous situation. This could solve an argument!
Only one of us had to stay out of the fight. One of us had to keep those historical people at bay long enough to listen. In the beginning, that person was me.
It always worked when I had the emotional stamina to refrain from acting out my dramas and listen to what David had to say. Just like the woman in the halfway house, he would stop, his entire body language would change, and he would tell me what was bothering him. Then, and only then, could he hear what was bothering me.
This next part is essential. Your partner is utterly incapable of hearing what you have to say until you listen to him first. Fair or unfair, it doesn't matter. This is the way of successful communication. Do what works and listen carefully.
The two of you can have a healthy discussion. And solve the problems that caused that particular fight. Eventually, you will learn how to solve the next fight. And the one after that as you communicate better and better with someone you love.