If one comes across a person who has been shot by an arrow one does not spend time wondering about where the arrow came from, or the caste of the individual who shot it, or analyzing what type of wood the shaft is made of, or the manner in which the arrowhead was fashioned.
Rather one should focus on immediately pulling out the arrow.”
~ Buddha Shakyamuni
Conflicts between couples are not unlike battles where arrows are fired back and forth. When hurt and distrust have been brewing over time, people are prone to slinging words and making statements that can cause real pain and damage. It can be tempting in these moments to go into an all out attack mode. Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are all behaviors that Gottman has found to be present in even the best of relationships. That said, couples that exhibit them and make minimal repairs are particularly at risk for problems.
When we hurt our partners it can be tempting to justify our actions. We become critical or defensive, worse yet, we escalate into self-righteous indignation and contempt. Instead of pausing to see the wounded person before us, we close ourselves off to them. Knowing how to tend to wounds we have inflicted on those we love is a critical skill that requires us to stop in the most heated of moments and “pull out the arrow” versus inflicting further harm.
Relationship repair is a topic we will delve into further in future Loving Well posts. But for today, my hope is to cover the basics of what you can do to stop these negative downward spirals when they occur.
Prevention. As cliché as it sounds this is definitely one of those topics where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What we know from Gottman’s research about repair attempts is that how a repair is made (it’s sincerity, eloquence, wording, etc.) does not predict the effectiveness of the repair. What predicts the effectiveness of the repair is the quality of the trust and friendship that exists between the couple on a day-to-day basis. This provides a foundation that you can fall back on in times of stress and conflict. Simply put, those little moments add up. Being kind to your partner, expressing appreciation, and showing fondness and admiration routinely, are the behavioral building blocks of repair sticking.
Delivery. When you bring an issue to your partner in a harsh or critical manner you have a 96% chance that the conversation will escalate into an argument. The masters of marriage use softened startup versus harsh startup when raising an issue. Another way to put it is that the first three minutes of a conversation predict the outcome of it. Conversations that start badly, end badly.
Timing. While optimally a conflict begins with preemptive repair (starting a conflict oriented discussion neutrally or positively), Gottman’s data also suggests that even when the conflict escalates (in minutes 4-12), there are still things that you can do to turn around the negativity and even make the climate during the conflict positive. These include the taking on of responsibility for even a portion of the problem, humor, self-disclosure, empathy, reassurance, and understanding.
Time Outs. Knowing how to put on the breaks is critical. When conflicts erupt our bodies go into a state Gottman calls Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA). DPA is our bodies general alarm mechanism that is meant to mobilize us in times of threat. It causes adrenaline to rush through our bloodstream, it speeds up our heart, it compromises our ability to think and remember things clearly. We are truly in fight or flight mode. This can happen instantaneously. The part of our brain that is wired to recognize danger – the amygdala – literally receives the “danger” signals first. When we are in DPA our bodies (and brains) literally cannot make a distinction on a physiological level from our spouse or a Tyrannosaurus Rex. When this happens it is critical for you to be able to recognize the signs, take a step back to regroup, breathe deeply and self-soothe.
Amends. Ultimately all good repair must include the making of amends. This cannot be accomplished by a mere “band aid” approach where one applies a topical apology of sorts and expects the wounds to vanish. True repair must also consist of dialog that leads to greater understanding and change. For this to occur the stage must be set with the above skills we have cited.
In summary, while it may seem that this may be a high bar for a culture of repair and forgiveness, know that it is normal to find these skills challenging in an intimate relationship where trust has eroded over time. Seeking the help of a couples therapist who uses *evidence-based techniques can go a long way towards helping you and your partner not only pull out the arrows that have inflicted pain on your relationship, but also learning how to skillfully and compassionately deal with conflict, a natural and healthy part of all relationships when done mindfully.
*Gottman Method Couples Therapy and Emotionally Focused Therapy